THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THREE AND FIVE-ACT STRUCTURE IN BUSINESS STORIES
The classic three-act story structure can be boiled down to a very simple formula: protagonist has problem – protagonist overcomes problem – problem is solved leaving protagonist even better off than they were to begin with.
Before the 1990s, this formula was used as the premise of the vast majority of advertising and brand communications. For example, almost all cleaning products ran, housewife has dirty room – housewife discovers Product X and uses it to clean room – room is cleaner than it ever has been.
This simple structure worked because it put all the emphasis on the power of the product. In those days, brands sold goods on the basis of what they did. Believing customers bought products only because of what they could do, manufacturers simply showed those powers in a clear and simple way, and that was that.
However, from the 1990s onwards, Western businesses faced a problem. Countries with very cheap production costs could increasingly match the functionality of expensive Western products, and customers were tempted by their cheaper goods.
With their old advertising model now less effective, Western brands tried to keep their customers loyal by building emotional relationships with them. Because stories build emotional empathy between audiences and protagonists, brands gradually realised that they needed to use story to communicate. Which is why we find ourselves in this golden age of business storytelling.
Things are just more complicated than they used to be – which means we yearn for simplicity, which in turn creates another challenge for brands.
– Richard Benson
However, many brands still rely on the old three-act structure, which does not build enough empathy between audience and protagonist.
Five acts create a story because it shows not just an obstacle overcome, but the learning that then allows the hero to overcome further obstacles.
This method works for business because most challenges are more complex to solve than they were twenty years ago – usually because there are ethical/environmental/health/social considerations to factor in too.
For example, the homemaker cleaning dirty room is now also juggling a career. They may worry about products’ impacts on the environment or their family’s health. And they’re probably less inclined to trust corporations. Things are just more complicated than they used to be – which means we yearn for simplicity, which in turn creates another challenge for brands.
So the old problem-solution model doesn’t reflect real life any more, and it certainly doesn’t build emotional relationships with brands. Businesses need to feel sympathetic, understanding and trusted. They need to tell the right stories.
HOW TO TELL THE BEST STORY FOR YOUR BUSINESS
Most businesses now know the mechanics of good story structure, but they don’t know how and why that structure creates an emotional connection with the audience. We don’t just teach you the steps in the hero’s journey – we explain how each of those steps creates psychological bonds with people.
To take a musical analogy, other courses tell you how to read music – our online Story for Business course tells you how to write it.
Or, in food terms, others give you an all-purpose recipe – ours tells you how to create your own recipes to make the most of the ingredients you have.
By learning how stories really work, you’ll be able to find stories in your business even if you think you don’t have any.
– Richard Benson
That’s really important, because just knowing what the hero’s journey is will only help you if you already have a really strong, heroic brand.
In reality, 99 per cent of us have tricky briefs and brands, and find shaping stories out of them a bit difficult. If you work at Apple, it’s relatively easy. If you work at a small financial services company, it’s often less so.
By learning how stories really work, you’ll be able to find stories in your business even if you think you don’t have any. If your company involves people in some way, then it has a story somewhere waiting to be told. We’ll show you how to tell them in ways that leave your audience interested, and hungry for more.
Richard Benson is ‘one of Britain’s leading cultural commentators’ (The Guardian), a prizewinning writer and bestselling author.
He works with businesses from General Motors to Unilever on strategy and creative projects – reports, books, exhibitions – using narrative to bring brand and campaign values to life, and stories to build engagement with people.