Can't find your story? Here are 5 questions to help you pinpoint it

ROTYS - Can we take part in your story?

At the heart of every strategy, every project and each mission lies a strong narrative. 

Storytelling helps your target audience to envision and understand. When used right, your story can even bring people to action. You know this much, and you have heard about how everybody is a storyteller by nature. But still, you can't seem to find the narrative that you need. In this article we will help you to find it.

The first four questions will help you to pinpoint the bigger picture. To apply this bigger picture (the actual story) you might need a derivative of it (a narrative), which we help you explore in the end. If you need an understanding of the difference between a story and a narrative, read this article.

No matter the purpose and no matter how diverse narratives can be: all narratives and great stories share the same characteristics. So keep this guide close, it could be useful again soon enough!

Why are you telling this story?

Let us start by ruining the surprise you had in mind: you are going to tell a story in order to trigger change in your world.

We know so because all stories are always about change. Keep an eye on it when you're watching a movie: the movie will start with the main character (or his environment) in an everyday situation. And it will end with a resemblance of that same situation, showing what has changed. Whether subtle (romantic) or big (epic), change is necessary for a story to become interesting.

So, start with asking yourself what change you are looking for.

1. What is going on in the world today that should be different? And why?
Be sure to be concrete and tangible. If the change you're asking for is happening in spreadsheets, articulate what the numbers represent. If only your closest colleagues understand the jargon, find out how an average person would explain this. If you feel the change is too small to be interesting, make it bigger by placing it further into the future ('Imagine if this goes on for 10 more years!') or isolating the problem ('What if we didn't have any sales people?').
Bonus Exercise to help you explore
Write or improvise a short talk (100 words/1 minute per chapter) in which you discuss 'Past, Present and Future'. Start way back ('In our business, we used to...' or 'When our founder first started this company many years ago...') in the first chapter. Then, in the second chapter, share your observations in the Present ('What we do nowadays...' or 'Today, things go well. But our heritage...'). The third chapter holds the juice: this tells about your initiative. Elaborate about how you see the future, if your initiative would come through. ('Imagine our business 5 years from now...' or 'Let us make sure our founder's heritage...')
ROTYS - Ordinary becomes meaningful

Use the right main character

In western society, we are trained to make ourselves the centre of the universe. However... within the narrative that you are looking for, chances are (huge!) that neither you nor your company plays the lead role. People and brands who tell great stories gain from their status as a storyteller, not from being a celebrated hero in those stories. (Only personal branding can ask for a personal hero story, but there's a lot more to the dramaturgy for these stories to work.)

Most often the lead role will be (or represent) your target audience, your clients, or even your clients' clients. 

1. What is going on in the world today that should be different? And why?
2. Who is needed to bring change? And what should he do?
In story, you reduce characters to one person ('the miner') or an entity ('7 dwarves'). Sir Lancelot represents all knights of the round table. Three Musketeers embody a full army. By choosing a representing character you enable your audience to wrap their minds around the story and identify with the character. We need to understand it from a human perspective!

Place your audience in the story

You are asking your audience for action. No matter how small, if you don't have any action to ask for, you don't really have a reason to tell a story. Even just 'informing' or 'inspiring' your audience should lead to changing behavior. From endorsing your initiative to playing an active role in making it happen to funding your dream: the action you ask for should be meaningful in light of your story.

1. What is going on in the world today that should be different? And why?
2. Who is needed to bring change? And what should he do?
3. Who is your audience in relation to the main character? What can they enable?
What does your main char need to overcome his adventure? As goes for all representing characters, it helps to choose just one. It doesn't hurt to conceptually dress this up a little bit. Consultants might be the Wise Old Man needed for heartfelt advice. Innovators might be the inventor of magical tools. What movie character (not the main char) do you think of?
Note: if your target audience is the main char, replace this question with: "What or who does your main char need in order to succeed? How can he acquire that kind of help?"
ROTYS - Are you aware of the story you act in?

Induce the behavior you are asking for

How the (supporting) character (your target audience) will go about his task in the story will be an example to your audience. Their actions, their behavior, what they should focus on: make sure it (or its metaphor) is in there. And make sure you show how indispensable it is for the story to end well.

Identification is a process in the brain when listening to or watching a story. When characters are built up well and the story is good, the brain will start to perceive the story from the character's perspective(s). Interesting fact: when identification takes place, the brain literally experiences a story as if you experience it yourself. That is why story is so great for learning and sharing experiences.

1. What is going on in the world today that should be different? And why?
2. Who is needed to bring change? And what should he do?
3. Who is your audience in relation to the main character? What can they enable?
4. How does it end? Tell us about the showdown!
Explore possible endings. Constantly relate everything that happens to the main character. He's the one slaying the dragon and saving humanity. Show how he does that, show how he handles the tools he needs, show the help he gets. Also emphasize the behavior of the character that represents your target audience, if not your main char.

Make it conceptual

With these 4 questions explored, you now have an understanding of the story behind the reality that you wanted to talk about. Now comes the hard part, which can't be learned from paper: telling it. There's a big difference between understanding a story and narrating it in order to pass it on to your audience. To get you started with this, here's your last question and a bonus to find some extra context.

1. What is going on in the world today that should be different? And why?
2. Who is needed to bring change? And what should he do?
3. Who is your audience in relation to the main character? What can they enable?
4. How does it end? Tell us about the showdown!
5. What is the title of your story?
Reflect on what you want your audience to take from this narrative in a soundbite of 2 to 10 words (One word always sounds great, but says little. For example: 'Faith' vs. 'Challenged Faith'). The title provides direction for the way you narrate this story. You don't necessarily need to use this title explicitly, simply having one in place will help you to craft a congruent narrative.
Note: The title as well as your narrative will most probably change from situation to situation, if your target audience changes. The story itself, the bigger picture, always stays the same.
ROTYS - Where did your story start?

Bonus: quick ways to explore possible narratives

The answers you have so far don't necessarily make (the content of) your narrative. For one, there are numerous ways to tell this story. In every movie or novel you'll only see the actions and conversations which matter to the story line. You'll have to choose which actions, symbols and conversations you 'show' in your narrative. Judge every sentence, every image and even meaningful silences on what they contribute to the story line.

Next, you could need a metaphorical narrative of your story. For instance, if your story is too abstract by nature, or if your narrative is too confronting to your target audience (if your audience senses criticism, they'll cease being an audience and become your debating partner, opposing you by default). However, the further removed you are from the real story, the harder it becomes to get your message across. The best metaphors are simply real life examples of your story taking place. Think of any experience you had or have heard about that tells the story or a parallel of it. This could be anything, from your kid learning a life lesson, to a detailed report of a well-known success story in your company. 

In order to explore the numerous narratives that can be found in your story (and to deepen your understanding of the story itself) we like to think through a story from the perspective of every character in your story. Think of Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the Wolf or Grandma. Every character 'sees' and 'needs' different things in the story. List the characters that add to the development of your story and take some time to daydream actively. You'll run into scenes and symbols that can contribute to both the meaning and the impact of your narrative.

We hope this guide is useful for you. Please let us know in comments if it works for you, and do tell us about the narrative you have found! Keep in mind: finding and telling a story is just the beginning. Have your next steps ready in case your story becomes successful.