I’ve been thinking about how stories work most of my life.
When I was a kid, I used to write and draw comics. (It turns out boiling stories down to a dozen panels, and working out what the pictures and speech bubbles should be for ‘Zoom‘ was an excellent apprenticeship in how stories work.)
As a magazine editor, I spent a lot of time looking for unusual stories in unexpected places, interviewing people, and editing pieces by people who often hadn’t written much before, to help their stories shine.
As a short story writer writing really short stories, I’m always trying to work out how to say as much as possible in the shortest space. Trying to find the heart of a story – and cut everything else.
As a ‘public speaker’ (I always cringe a little at that phrase) I’ve learned the difference between telling a story so it makes people sit up and listen and want to talk to you, and telling it so they get bored, fidget, and want to throw things at you.
And, of course, I’ve helped countless brands and businesses tell more interesting, more relevant stories – whether for websites, speeches, strategies or pitches.
So you’d think that over the last few years, as businesses have embraced the idea that ‘those who tell the best stories win’, that I’d have elbowed my way through the leadership and content marketing gurus to sell you my own personal Magic Storytelling Formula (“TM”).
The truth is, I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider among the storytelling crowd. Yes, I have a good instinct for stories. I’m good at spotting them, shaping them and telling them. But I’ve always been struck, as I’ve read countless books and blogs about stories, that most of them just aren’t quite putting their finger on it. Oh sure, I’ve picked up valuable tips and ideas from just about everything I’ve read, but nothing ever really seemed to get to the heart of what stories really were, how and why they worked – what was really going on. And I’ve always been reluctant to add to that noise.
Then, a couple of years ago, I read a book called Into The Woods by John Yorke. John had been head of Continuing Drama (the most watched and most talked about programmes) at the BBC, had worked on film and drama at Channel 4, run Company Pictures and set up the BBC Writer’s Academy. This meant he’d spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what made stories work and why. To top it off, he’d put it all into this book.
But Into the Woods isn’t just another ‘how to write a screenplay’ kind of book. It’s genuine attempt to figure out what’s really going on: why is it that all stories seem to function in extremely similar ways? Why do humans seem to have a need to structure our world in this way? How can we use that knowledge to tell better stories?
Basically, Into the Woods illuminated just about every aspect of storytelling I’d ever thought about, celebrated it as one of humankind’s greatest achievements, and did it in a way that was neither clunky ‘how to’ manual, nor abstract theorising – just a smart, interesting, funny read. He draws on everything from Hamlet to Holby City. There’s Aristotle, Renaissance drama, and sitcom.
For me, Into the Woods was the missing bit of the jigsaw – it made sense of my story instincts. It was the real deal.
And it’s basically been the book I’ve recommended to every client since then. I’ve re-read it several times. If you’ve been out for a drink with me any time since about June 2014, the chances are I’ve bored you senseless about it.
And then – to cut a long story short (yes, I’m aware of the irony) – a few months ago I got a call from the Professional Writing Academy. They host some really excellent online writing courses (including the acclaimed Faber Academy courses). They said they were working with this chap John Yorke to help turn this book called Into The Woods into an online course. They thought it’d be good to have a ‘Story for Business’ version. Would I be interested in working with John and them on ‘Story for Business’?
I said are you kidding?
And so, that’s what we’ve done. John, PWA and I have taken the heart of Into the Woods and turned it into an online course for business communicators.
It covers all the stuff that’s in the book – the essential elements that every story has in common, and about how to use those elements in your own stories. I won’t go on – there’s details here. The online format suits the material perfectly: there’s plenty of time to read, watch films and YouTube clips, and discuss on the forum with other students.
It’s been a total honour – and a load of fun – to work with John on Story for Business. If storytelling is part of your job (spoiler alert: it’s part of all of our jobs) then I honestly think it contains the stuff that’ll change how you see the world, and approach stories – your own and others’ – forever.