When people think of stories, they tend to think in terms of novels or short stories. But, stories are everywhere. From mile-high billboards to bubble gum wrappers. Even cave paintings, our earliest forms of written communication, tell stories about our ancestors.

Unfortunately, storytelling is usually only studied by fiction writers—whereas marketers are taught a different type of writing in their business and non-fiction classes. Universities in particular separate out fiction (or creative) writers from non-fiction students which means that those writers in the business world are commonly skilled in writing non-fiction—but they are rarely skillful storytellers.

Now that companies realize storytelling is the best way to get the message of who they are and what they do across to multiple audiences, they realize the need for storytellers. Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult to find them.

Which is why this and subsequent posts are dedicated to helping everyone understand how to tell better stories by understanding plot and emotional story structure. Both of these elements have lessons that are easily be transferrable to corporate storytelling.

Understanding Plot

Many writers think story is an exploration of actions—dragging a reader through a succession of increasingly difficult events which happen around the character.

But events aren’t story. They’re plot.

Plot involves events that surround a character (or group of characters). They are unchangeable moments which happen to reflect the unpredictability of life and to test a character’s mettle.

But in stories, the events themselves are minor. No matter how large and overwhelming the event is, it should only be a small portion of the story. Story is so much more than the events. It’s how the character reacts to those events, the choices the character makes, that reveals who that person is. The interaction between a character’s choices and the plot is known as emotional structure (to be covered in a subsequent post). Together, these two contribute to powerful storytelling.

As threshing separates the wheat from the chaff, so does affliction purify virtue. –Christian Nestell Bovee

A Current Corporate Example: Mary Barra, GM CEO

So, how does plot relate to corporate storytelling? A current example of how events revolve around a character is the GM recall and its recently-appointed CEO, Mary Barra.

In December 2013, Barra was named as GM’s new CEO. Shortly after stepping into her new role, Barra had to confront a nationwide recall which is blamed for at least 13 deaths. Although that would have been difficult enough for any CEO, much less a new one, Barra had an even greater challenge in dealing with what has been perceived as a decade-long cover-up by General Motors (even though recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled out deliberate management cover-up in favor of poor judgment and misunderstanding). Some of the key events that have surrounded GM and Mary Barra are:

These are the events (or plot) surrounding GM to date. But how Barra chooses to deal with these events sets the stage for what will become GM’s story. The choices that she and others at GM make reveal the character of the company. And it’s that story that will either make GM a stronger company, or it will cause the company to lose consistent buyer faith and shareholder value.

The choices that a character makes when faced with events outside his or her control is known as the emotional structure of the story. Some of the choices Barra has made communicate GM’s desire for transparency in a difficult time.

These choices are reflected by:

These are just a few examples of how the plot surrounding a company should change the story a company tells. But, in addition to plot, all great stories have emotional structure. Learn how to tell yours in the next post.