2009-11-30_1352Never forget: you practice a queer trade, making you an odd duck by default.

If you’ve ever had someone totally miss-read a blog post and walk away thinking the opposite of your intended message, chances are you forgot what an odd duck you are.

As a writer, chances are that you’re more at ease with the idea of creating meaning through interpretation of events, and of critically examining a narrative for multiple meanings, contradictions, open endings, shades of grey, nuances, etc.  And you likely bring those same skills to bear on everything you read.

Most People Don’t Read The Same Way You Read

That level of analysis may be second nature for you, but it’s a lot of unpleasant work for most people, who generally don’t think to put that effort into 99% of what they read.  When you forget that, you write something that’s bound to be misunderstood.

So here’s what to do about it…

The Straightforward Grammar of Business Stories

In order to tailor your writing to a general audience and to avoid miscommunication, you’ll want to intentionally structure your story the way most readers think about and remember stories.  The message can be unexpected, but the narrative structure used to deliver it shouldn’t be.

And when it comes to business stories or parables, most non-writers think in terms of three nodes:

  1. Hero,
  2. Villain/Obstacle, and
  3. Turning Point/Triumph.

Complex, rich, satisfying stories may contain more moving parts, but business parables shouldn’t. If you’re telling an anecdote or fable to make a point, you’ll want to keep the narrative structure simple.  Who’s the hero?  What’s he want?  And who the hell is getting in his way?

If your main point or general story structure doesn’t fit neatly within this structure, people will misremember or warp your story in order to fit the framework, often to the point of changing your intended meaning.

The Unwritten Expectations For Each Storytelling Node

In addition to simplifying your story to those three nodes, make sure you tell the story in such a way as to meet audience expectations for each of the nodes:

  • Regardless of what writing instructors and English teachers may have taught you, in a business story the hero should always be the guy you talk about the most in the telling of the story.  If you talk too much about someone other than the hero, you’ll likely confuse your audience.
  • The villain should be, well, villainous, even if the villain is just an obstacle.  Make sure your audience can see the dastardly pain and gnashing of teeth your villain/obstacle causes.
  • Dramatize the turning point for the hero.  Don’t be subtle about it; novelist can paper over a momentous decision or a-ha moment for literary effect, but a business parable can’t afford that kind of subtlety.  And make sure the victory follows immediately after the decision point.  Most importantly, whatever point you’re trying to convey had better be made and “proved” during the turning point and victory.
  • Remember that everything in the story will either get lumped in with the hero or the villain – they (or it) will inevitably be remembered as either helping the hero achieve victory or working against the hero, with no room for neutral or conflicted parties, characters, or elements.

If you complicate the structure, or bury your point outside of that framework, or confuse people by talking too long about someone other than the hero, the reader will likely walk away thinking something totally different than your intended point.

Here’s a textbook example of what can go wrong:

What Happens When You Violate the Structure

Roy Williams used a Monday Morning Memo as a sort of character sketch, contrasting the difference between faith in, well, providence, in the largest sense of that word, and a blind slavery to “the sure thing.”

Specifically, he wrote about how Joe Weppner’s underdog bout against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title inspired Stallone to write the script for Rocky.  And, more importantly, he wrote about the incredible faith it took for Stallone to turn down a Studio’s offer of $400,000 for the script alone in favor of $25,000 and the chance to play the part of Rocky.

But Roy spent most of the Memo setting the stage by talking about Weppner and his singular chance at beating the odds.  Not until the last few paragraphs does Roy introduce Sylvester Stallone and his gutsy move to turn down the “sure bet” of $400K for the chance to play the part of Rocky.

So when Roy closes his Memo by contrasting Weppner’s short-sighted slavery to “the sure thing” – about how Weppner took a $70,000 flat fee instead of a 1% cut of the movie’s gross that turned out to be worth $8 million – to Stallone’s faith, well, most readers missed the point of the memo.

How do I know?  Because Roy’s MMM from two weeks after that opens with:

I recently wrote a Monday Morning Memo… about how Chuck Wepner’s fight against Muhammad Ali provided the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone to peck out the screenplay of Rocky, a low-budget film that, against all odds, won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture in 1976. As expected, I was flooded with emails from people sharing stories of friends and family who “like Wepner” valiantly did their best in the face of insurmountable odds.

Funny thing is, that wasn’t the point of the memo

Roy’s Story Structure Violated the Grammar of Business Parables

Weppner was the main character in the story, and yet Weppner was neither the hero nor the villain.  Sylvester/Rocky was the hero.  Daunting odds and the temptation of the “sure thing” was the obstacle.

So where does that leave Weppner?  That leaves Weppner to either be confused with or associated with the Hero, or to be lumped in with the Obstacle/villain.  Business parables leave no room for a complicated and conflicted third character.

So even though Weppner was both the inspiration for Rocky AND the guy who gave into the temptation of the sure thing, his image as the real-life inspiration for Rocky was what people took away from the Memo – even though that was the opposite of the intended point.

Fix Your Stories by Sticking to The 3-Node Structure

Do this by ensuring that:

  1. The Hero is clearly the hero.  Make sure he gets the most description and “time in front of the camera.”  If Roy had set-up with the image of Stallone refusing to sell-out his dream rather than presenting the image of Weppner as a gutsy and dogged fighter, they’d likely have been a lot less confusion.
  2. The Villain or Obstacle is presented “onscreen.” If your villain isn’t tangible, the reader will likely substitute a tangible villain for the one you intended.  In Roy’s MMM the villain/obstacle was the temptation to sell-out to the sure thing.  But selling out isn’t easily visualized and there was no Mephistophelean villain to embody selling out.  So most reader’s likely substituted “the system” as the villain, with the system acting as the embodiment of conventional wisdom and “the odds.” The system may not be visual, but everyone’s been beaten down by it at one point or another, and everyone knows what it’s like to long for a magical moment of beating the odds.  So readers paired Wepner the boxer and Stallone the actor in their battles to beat the system/odds.
  3. Turning Point & Victory: While the victory for Stallone immediately followed on his turning down the $400K, there really isn’t as much of an emotional turning point for Weppner.  He lost out on $8 Million, but we have no idea how badly he did or didn’t need the money.  Or how much he did or did not like being a liquor wholesaler in Bayonne, LA.

I’m not suggesting that you “talk down” to your audience or that you only tell simplistic stories.  I am suggesting that you become aware of this framework so that the business or copywriting stories you tell end up making the point you hope them to make.


  1. Tom Wanek on 12.02.2009

    I had forgotten about that memo and the intended point being lost on the reader. I went back and re-read both memos, thanks for bringing up this topic Jeff.

    Your 3-node structure also reminds me to have just one ‘hero’ per ad.
    .-= Tom Wanek´s last blog ..Could Customer Hoop-Jumping Be Robbing You Blind? =-.

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