The Business Storytelling Insight That Ignited My Career
I used to be afraid. I’d wake up in panic attacks. I’d fall asleep in unrest, wondering where I was going in life.
What was my calling? What was my career? These I didn’t know. But I did know that all the greats had started young.
Beethoven. Walt Whitman. Michael Jordan.
You look at all the great athletes and writers and musicians and they all started young. But here I was, 23 years old, and I still didn’t have a clue.
And so I agonized as I had for years. I fled from a future I didn’t want. I wrestled with the possibility of the unremarkable life of a white collar salaryman, and it filled me with dread.
If I could just find the path, then everything would be better. If I could just find my purpose, then I’d be happy. I’d be confident and secure in the knowing that I’d one day be great, and that all the agony and sacrifice would be worth it.
It was a terribly unhealthy mindset. I cringe when I look back on it. But after 8 years of soul searching, and unrelenting hard work, and pushing myself to innovate and take the road less traveled, I regret none of it.
And so reflecting now on storytelling—the North Star I found for not just my career, but also my entire life (in non-obvious ways, some of which I will allude to in this post)—I realize that so much of the successes it’s afforded me came down to answering a single question. Whether it was tripling my first consulting client’s revenue in just 2 quarters, or landing my first VP of Marketing role at age 30, or receiving company-wide accolades for my all-hands presentation just 3 days after starting that role, I can trace it all back to the insight I gained wrestling with a question we all intuitively know the answer to, but can’t quite put our fingers on…
Just What the Hell is a Story, Anyways?
I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t have at least one correct answer to this question. The problem is how many of those correct answers would be different.
There are many ways to define a story. All of them are correct. All of them are related. All of them are unique.
In fact, Merriam-Webster has 10 unique definitions of the word “Story”, not counting some of the more archaic uses.
And while all of these definitions are true, not a single one provides any real insight into what exactly stories are, and how they work. How is it that a concept could be so widely used, and widely applicable, without any single definition tying them all together?
I wanted to answer this question. I wanted to find that one definition, so I set out in search of it.
I read 9 books on story structure. I also read 7 books on design, and psychology, and neuroscience. I watched over 120 hours of philosophical discourse on Youtube, and participated in a range of discussions with thinkers and artists alike.
And of course, I wrote. I tested the limits and use cases of story in every area of my life and career. And after some hundreds of storybreaking exercises, and some tens of thousands of story-words written, I finally came to the realization that…
Stories are Like Computer Programs Inside Our Brains.
They’re like these little protocols that make meaning from our experiences. They encode patterns of behavior into our brains, and can be shared from one person to the next. That means it’s possible for another person’s experiences to shape our behavior as if those experiences were our own.
Which is crazy. No other animal can do this. Story is a uniquely human capacity.
Story brings us together. It allows us to coordinate at scale. It’s given rise to tribes, and then to nation-states, and then empires, and then to whole transnational systems of commerce and belief, before finally giving rise to the global civilization we live in today. It brings families and communities together. It allows us to experience deep and beautiful profundities far beyond the scope of our lives, enriching us and helping us grow into better, more compassionate, and more loving human beings.
Story also tears us apart. It’s at the root of all human-caused suffering. Competition. Egoism. The willingness to put the desires of the self over the needs of others. It’s story that enables these behaviors. It’s story that allows us to shut off our empathy, and close ourselves to—even justify—the suffering of our fellow man.
So it goes without saying that story is extremely powerful. It’s at the root of so much of human behavior. And so to understand it—to know how it can be used for good (and evil)—became a passion of mine. An obsession, even.
And so with every book I read, and with every sentence I wrote, my prowess grew. And so did my career. But it wasn’t until I learned and truly internalized the pattern at the heart of every single story that things really started to take off.
The 5 Act Story Structure That Transformed My Business Career.
There is one structure at the heart of every compelling story. It's a psychosomatic structure—one that connects the abstract constructs of the mind with the concrete sensations of the body. We call it the 5 act Shakespearean structure.
It's as near to a universal story structure as we have. Virtually every story I know—even those that pre-date Shakespeare—can be understood in terms of this structure.
Classical mythology like Beowulf or The Odyssey. Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars or Spiderman. Even TV series (and each of their episodes…) like Breaking Bad or Rick and Morty can be best understood through the 5 act Shakespearean structure.
So how exactly does it work? Well, doing that question justice will take its own blog post, but I'll try my best to summarize the structure as simply and quickly as I can:
- Act I: the protagonist's status quo or ordinary life is disrupted by a paradigm shift (also called an Inciting Incident or Call to Adventure).
- Act II: this paradigm shift sets in motion a sequence of increasingly tense events until the protagonist is finally forced to leave their ordinary life behind in pursuit of some goal or object of desire.
- Act III: after crossing a threshold into a world of adventure, the protagonist faces a series of obstacles which test their resolve and introduce them to new skills or a new way of being. Usually at about the midpoint or the story, the protagonist will experience their greatest victory before things start to unravel.
- Act IV: a catastrophic event puts the protagonist's entire journey into question, sinking them to their lowest emotional point of the whole story. It is here in a "Dark Night of the Soul" that they find the answer to their quandary, and then use that answer to propel them in a sequence of rising action towards the final climax of the story.
- Act V: the protagonist succeeds over the force of antagonism, and then returns to their ordinary life forever changed by the journey.
Now, it's probably not obvious why this structure is so damn useful outside of writing novels and screenplays, so let me focus you on one key thing to know about all story…
Story (as Told in 5 Acts) is a Tool for Behavior Change.
Behavior change is an extremely valuable capacity—both in business and in life. And whether you're trying to change the behavior of prospects, employees, coworkers, bosses, family, or romantic partners, the 5 act structure is one of the most powerful ways to do it.
Let me demonstrate how with a few examples.
13 Types of Business Stories I’ve Used to Create Behavior Change.
Story is like that Georgian Ajika spice blend from Trader Joe’s—I put that shit on everything.
In all seriousness, there are so many use cases—everything from marketing to sales to mental health. I’m going to share 13 of the ones I’ve discovered, but I encourage you to discover more for yourself (and please report back)!
#1—Strategic Narrative (Mission, Vision & Values)
This is the highest impact, and honestly most rewarding use case of them all. I spent the past 3 years helping CEOs craft and align their leadership teams behind stories of who the companies are and why they matter. These stories guide messaging everywhere—sales, marketing, fundraising, recruiting, etc. My most recent one even elucidated the product vision & North Star for an EdTech SaaS platform. Pretty cool stuff.
I’ve done 4 of these so far, making a big impact but so far not hitting the hyperscale home run I’m hoping for. It’ll happen eventually.
#2—The Greatest Sales Decks You’ve Ever Seen
For those of you who know Andy Raskin, you can probably see his influence in my work. A tip of the cap and wink in his direction (check out his 2016 article which first inspired me to apply my story skills to business).
I landed my first strategic narrative client in 2021—a sales consultancy that helps early-stage startups plan, launch, and optimize their sales teams.
After helping them craft the narrative, we partnered with a former SquareEnix illustrator to design the slides like a children’s story. This made for an extremely fun end product. We saw the impact immediately after rolling it out.
Within just two quarters, my client was able to 3x their revenue and 2x their headcount, and today now has 14 employees and a lot more clients. They put out some great content, and just released a free sales analytics tool for startup founders and SDR managers. Highly recommend checking them out if you’re looking to fire up your GTM.
#3—Product Messaging & Positioning
Product launches can be an absolute cluster. You have to get so many different stakeholders understanding and speaking about your product in the same way at the same time. I’ve found a 5 act narrative deck to be the best way to do this. I use it as a vehicle to include product and sales in the messaging creation process too, so that by the time we’re ready to go live, everyone feels heard and is bought into the messaging.
The same structure can also be used to get stakeholders bought into your product launch process and procedures. More to come on that.
#4—Education & Internal Marketing
During my days at a FinTech startup, we made a massive pivot. Within this new direction, we quickly discovered a massive pain point our product solved. Our CEO tasked me with educating the company on this at our all-hands. I pulled some angry quotes about this pain point from Reddit, combined them with memes, and soon had the crowd laughing at my educational 5 act deck. That was a nice moment.
#5—Pitching Strategies & Initiatives
I later had a FinTech client in the same space that wanted to go from $10M to $50M ARR. I pitched a big moonshot marketing strategy using a 5 act deck. By the end of the pitch, they were aligned. They were inspired. They were ready to take the market by storm. And then nothing happened. I’m still a little sad about that.
I was tasked with presenting at the company all-hands 3 days after being hired for my first VP of Marketing job. I evangelized the company’s product-led GTM in a meme-filled 5 act story. Everyone loved it. My Slack was blowing up with accolades from every corner of the company for the rest of the day. I believe this presentation helped pave the way to a lot of enthusiasm and a collaborative spirit towards the marketing team.
#7—Customer Success Stories
I so far haven’t gotten a ton of mileage out of this one, surprisingly. An inspiring customer story should help prospects immediately relate to the scenario, better understand the value of your product, and have the confidence they need to take action. These should have a strong correlation to increased web conversion, and also late stage opportunity conversion in the sales process. More to come as I develop these.
#8—B2B Sales Prospecting
What would you do if you got a product pitch in the form of a fun 5 act children’s story in the mail with an MP3 narration and a handwritten note? Would you take the sales rep’s call when they followed up hours after you received the box? Would you express your delight, and even proactively reach out to them before they could call? About 33% of the car dealer GMs I sent these to did.
I used the 5 act structure to create a narrative sales deck for my consultancy—a deck which I am extremely proud of. Along with Apollo.io and a little cold email magic, I used this deck to land my first VP of Marketing job at the tender age of 30 (Oooo, you fancy 🍸). The recent epidemic of tech layoffs have since humbled me, but I can say with high confidence that story was the reason I landed that job.
The world is complex. There’s a lot of noise, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. So when I sit down to do my goal planning, I use a Hollywood technique called Storybreaking to do it. I always walk away from these sessions with a ton of clarity around what I’m trying to accomplish, and how I can connect those goals with my deepest sources of motivation.
#11—Writing My Origin Story
A day will come when I’ll work up the bravery to share it. They say vulnerability is a powerful marketing strategy, so maybe I’ll make a campaign of it. ;)
#12—This Blog Post
Yep. Pay close attention and you’ll see me using the same structure in a lot of the <H2> & <H3> sections of my blog posts too. Stories within stories. Like those Russian babushka dolls.
#13—Getting Fired Up with Music
I’m ending the list on a fun one.
If you listen closely to some of modern music’s greatest hits (thinking of Lose It by Eminem and Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin right now), you can hear a 5 act story progression! It helps to understand a bit of music theory, but even just by examining the popular verse-chorus-verse-chorus-refrain-chorus chord progression, and how the lyrics overtop relate to this progression, you can hear the artist building and resolving tension with the same pattern you might see in a movie or TV show.
Everything is story. Once you internalize the pattern, you start to see it everywhere. It’s a little crazy. Sometimes I feel a bit like this guy.
Story Ignited my Business Career. It Can Ignite Yours, Too.
I’m no longer afraid. I no longer wake up in panic attacks, and no longer wonder where my life and career are going. That change is honestly a thousand stories in itself, but one of the most powerful elixirs I gained from the journey was realizing just how transformational storytelling can be.
It doesn’t matter what you do. Marketer, CEO, salesperson, recruiter, accountant, whatever! If you’re a human being, mastering story can accelerate your career like nothing else. You’ll gain influence. You’ll inspire behavior change. You’ll position yourself as a trusted colleague and a capable leader, and the internalized 5 act story structure will be your favorite tool.
As always, I’m an open book. If you want someone to bounce ideas off or need any help learning story, reach out to me! I love talking to people.
Alright folks, see you on the flip side… 🤘