This Often Misused and Overused Storytelling Tactic May Just Kill Your Credibility!

Two weeks ago, I was conducting a small group communication skills coaching for a Venture Capital Firm. I was sharing about the power of storytelling to inspire, when the director, who’s been seated quietly with his arms folded spoke up.

"I've heard this done by so many speakers and trainers, the Zero to Hero, the Rags to Riches story. It's cliché and not relevant to business."

I totally agree!

Background - The Hero’s Journey

American scholar Joseph Campbell studied dramas, storytelling, myths, religious rituals and movies and identified this pattern of narrative as "The Hero's Journey". This narrative generally follows the following flow:

  1. The hero or protagonist lives in the ordinary world and receives a call to go on an adventure. The hero is reluctant to follow the call but is helped by a mentor figure. The mentor gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. 

  2. The initiation section begins with the hero then traversing the threshold to the unknown or "special world", where he faces tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers.

  3. The hero eventually reaches the climax of his adventure, where he must undergo an ordeal and overcome the main obstacle or enemy in order to earn his reward.

  4. The hero must then return to the ordinary world with his reward. Here, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of the home. He may be reluctant to return and may be rescued or forced to return by intervention from the outside.

  5. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

This storyline is compelling because the challenges of the hero triggers the audience's empathy. The audience’s attention is brought back to the obstacles they’re facing themselves. Additionally, every person sees a vision of a better self who overcome all their obstacles to reach their goals. The hero’s journey inspires because it evokes that “Inner Hero” in them.

The Problems with the Hero’s Journey

There is a plethora of training programs where people are taught to earn their right to share their hero’s journey in order to “earn the right” to speak. This has spawned trainers, marketers and business people sharing their hero’s journey stories. Sadly, it’s overdone and often they’re not done well.

Here are three potential problems with overusing "Hero's Journey Stories":

1) Flooding your Audience

It's one thing to be open and share your stories, but your business audience doesn't really need to hear all the details of the pain you've gone through. Psychologists call this term "flooding" your audience with negativity. In a situation where you're looking to persuade or influence your audience, this may work against you.

Firstly, when you've brought your audience to a low point, it will take a lot to raise their spirits again. Your story must be told well enough to illustrate the process you undertook to overcome your painful situation. Secondly, when you're sharing too much too soon, your audience has not known you well enough, and vice versa, for them to be ready to receive your story. They check out.

2) It's Difficult for your Audience to Relate

The second problem is that sometimes the swing from the downs to the ups is too stark it is less believable. Worst still, sometimes people get too invested in their own stories that they overdo it. I once heard a speaker on a webinar going on for 7 minutes about his penthouse unit in Manhattan. I understand that he's trying to inspire his audience who aspires to his lifestyle. However, most people know what a penthouse in Manhattan costs, going into too much detail risked coming across as braggadocious and totally unrelatable.

3) You're Interesting, but the Audience is More Interested in Them

Closely related to point number 2 above. If the hero's journey story is the main story you're telling, then you’re missing the mark because you’re making it all about you. Your audience is thinking "what's in it for me?" Particularly in a business setting, people want to get quickly to the topic, an epic personal journey may take it too far.

The Solution - Bite-sized Stories

Back to the director, he wanted to inspire his team to believe in themselves and reach their full potentials. With his permission, I asked him about a time in his life when he didn’t believe in himself and lost important opportunities as a result. After some probing, the director opened up and regaled his team with tales of the mistakes he’s made earlier in his career. He even found time to share about his first love! This came as much amusement to his team, who shared that they’ve never known so much about their boss in the years they’ve worked together. The director himself lightened up and was all smile after that!

There are so many ways to tell stories in your business, but if you’re going to use the hero’s journey, deconstruct it into bite-sized stories. Epic stories may be the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters and get media attraction. However, if you’re looking to inspire, to persuade your audiences, sharing funny anecdotes and personal mistakes can make them more relatable and real for your audiences.