The Hero’s Journey CONDENSED: Storytelling For Entrepreneurs In Today’s Attention Atmosphere

Will Greenblatt

February 21, 2022

I’m sure you’ve either heard or said some version of the following statement recently:

“People today have no attention span!”

Turns out that’s not just an older generation’s gripe about ‘kids today’, it’s factually correct, consistent across generations with not much variance. According to a Microsoft study, the average human attention span was 12 seconds in 2000; in 2013 that number had gone down to 8 (for reference, a goldfish’s is 9).

So, as an entrepreneur competing for attention on LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, or wherever, how can you make sure your story is heard?

First of all, make sure it IS a story. According to The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall (one of my must-reads for any entrepreneur), human beings are completely addicted to story due to its importance to our ancestors’ survival. The book opens with a story of its own: There are 2 tribes of humans, many millennia ago, living near each other on the savannahs of Africa. One tribe goes right to bed after a long day of hunting and gathering; the other stays up and tells stories. Which do you think survived?

The answer is of course The Storytelling Tribe of which we are all descendants, given that they were able to share life-saving information, such as where food and predators may be, in an emotionally charged, therefore entertaining, and therefore memorable way.

All of this led to humans’ addiction to fiction, art and various forms of storytelling like theatre and song, which in turn makes every generation of people that much more receptive to information that follows a story format. As a business owner, or marketer, this has major implications for how you should structure your online content. Research shows that character-driven story ads have a predictable measure of success, and neuroscientist Paul J Zak has shown that character-driven stories consistently cause the brain to make oxytocin, a hormone that encourages us to engage in cooperative behaviour (such as continuing to watch an ad, donating money or following a Call To Action at the end of the video).

The research is clear: story works to get and keep attention. But what is a story, exactly, and how to structure it for your various online pieces of content like videos, blogs, IG captions and also for pitches and sales presentations?

The most famous story structure in the world is arguably Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, which he found to exist across cultures and time, and which is still the basis for many successful films, novels and television shows today, because the format works so well. Through both nature and nurture we are highly receptive to narratives told in this structure. The monomyth, known as the Hero’s Journey, follows 12 predictable plot points, and it involves the hero leaving their “ordinary world”, entering a “special world”, and coming back home again, with some the “elixir”, some kind of valuable treasure, what my mentor Mike Reid, co-founder of Dent Canada, would call “the prize”.

12 plot points seems like too much for an 8 second attention span, doesn’t it? However, 12 steps are not necessary to emulate the highly successful structure of the Hero’s Journey for your purposes; YOU only need THREE, which align with another classic dramatic story formula: the 3-Act Structure.

Here’s how you combine the two formulae to make a workable template for any piece of content you wish to create in story form:

Act 1: Ordinary World + Call To Adventure

This is where you set the scene for the audience. In Lord of The Rings, it’s the beautiful green rolling hills of the Shire; in the Matrix, it’s Neo’s lifeless, gray corporate world and his lonely dark hacker nighttime existence; wherever it is, it must be either strikingly different, emotionally charged, mysterious, or super relatable to catch the audience’s attention and keep it till the next bit, which is the Call to Adventure, or ‘inciting incident’; the event that shakes the main character (whether it’s you, a customer or client, more on that in another post!) out of their daily life and into action. This could be meeting someone cute, or losing a treasured object, hitting a low point or even the death of a loved one; for your purposes, try to imagine the emotional lives of your audience, given the problems that you as a business solve for them, and tell stories that deal with those themes they care about.

Notice though that several themes are universal, and most interesting stories deal with what I call the Big Five Pain Points:

  1. Time,
  2. Money,
  3. Health,
  4. Tribe (family and/or community), and
  5. Emotional Wellbeing.

If any of these are threatened, people have a serious problem to solve, and that’s where you as an entrepreneur (and storyteller) come in. If your Ordinary World and Call to Adventure are compelling, you’ll have their attention through Act 1 until:

Act 2: Special World + Tests, Allies and Enemies

Once the Call to Adventure is answered, the hero ventures forth and encounters a series of mini-adventures along the way to the big goal: fights, chases, experiments, making new friends, the betrayal of old ones, learning and struggling all the while. This is the meat ‘n’ potatoes of most stories: in Lord of the Rings, all the orc fights and horse chases fall under Tests, Allies and Enemies; for Neo, it’s the kung fu training with Morpheus, and his first venture into The Matrix after being unplugged, with all the shootouts and rooftop parkour.

All of this takes place outside of the characters home, or comfort zone, which leads to great conflict, the backbone of both good drama and comedy. Again, think of the kinds of problems your customers would relate to, based on knowledge of your market, and try to represent versions of these here. If your character meets someone cute, they must at first embarrass themselves or dislike the person (romantic comedy 101). If they lose something, they can’t just reach into a storm drain and find it immediately. Make sure the main character has something go wrong at least once or twice in this second part, otherwise the payoff is not as satisfying! Which leads us to:

Act 3: Return Home with The Elixir + Call To Action

Here is where the story resolves, either in a satisfyingly predictable way (rom com) or a satisfyingly unpredictable way (the thingy they lost is gone forever, but their 2-year-old daughter makes them a homemade new thingy, and they realize that family is the real treasure blah blah blah). This should end up with the character having something to show for their experience, either something tangible like a lover, material like a new car or intangible, like a new perspective (for Frodo, he’s been hardened and matured by his adventure and realizes he must go with Gandalf and the elves, and Neo becomes “the one”).

Then, after your story is resolved, don’t waste all this beautiful oxytocin swirling in the brains of your audience: present them with a Call To Action that researchers show they are more likely to follow! Like, subscribe, share, click here, sign up, reach out… whatever it is, make it short and clear.

(Big brands don’t do this last part because they just want you to remember their logo and have some sort of positive feeling attached to them; you as a SME business owner need to direct your audience to where you want them to go.)

Here’s a very basic bare bones example, that you can follow to make a talking head video (just you in front of your phone) to use story to hook your audience:

“Let me tell you about Denise (main character, real or hypothetical client of yours). Every day she works from home, (ORDINARY WORLD) and spends way too much time on menial tasks and not nearly enough with her 2-year-old daughter (emotional, relatable problem). One day, she spent the entire afternoon inside organizing her desktop and realized, “enough is enough” (CALL TO ADVENTURE). She looked online and found our “Robo-VA”, and started teaching it to complete her tedious, repetitive tasks (SPECIAL WORLD). She freed up her time, finished a draft of her book (TESTS, ALLIES, and ENEMIES) and best of all, she has up to 2 hours more a day to spend with her daughter (PRIZE). Click here to find out how you can free yourself too (CALL TO ACTION).”

Let me know which part of this you found helpful, and what else you’d like to read about! Please share it with anyone you think would find it interesting.

P.S. If you want to improve your pitch fast, check out my Powerful Pitch Bootcamp here!