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What is a story?

July 29, 2010

We did some work for a company once, to convert their case studies into stories.  On sharing this with a friend, she asked ‘Isn’t a case study a story?’.   A case study is definitely not a story and we realised we were looking into an abyss.

People often think they are telling a story when in fact they have just pulled together a statement of facts in sequential order.  This is in a way a form of narrative but in its most basic form and unsurprisingly not very engaging.

Trying to define what a story is, is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.  But we are bravely and boldly going to narrow down the definition to what is important for business.  If you want more information about ‘what is a story’ we highly recommend ‘Story’ by Robert McKee.

For business purposes here are three key features that make a story a story.

1.  A logical sequence (beginning, middle and end)

Aristotle, the famous Greek Philosopher, way back in circa 350AD stated that story should have a beginning, middle and end.  So any story would have a sequence but don’t be seduced by sequence.  Just because something has a beginning, middle and end does not make it a story.  This is where people fall into the trap of thinking a case study is a story because it has a sequence.  Just a sequence is not enough….and unless you are Quentin Tarantino, don’t mess with the ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure.

2.  Is a specific example with specific reference to time / place and context.

Have we said specific enough?  You have to talk about a specific time or place or incident, for your story to be a story.  Generalities lots of ‘I’ statements do not make a story.

3.  Has emotional and sensory data

So, stories can still be statements of fact, set in a context, however this is just the basics.  Having these two things doesn’t mean your story will be effective, let alone compelling.  An effective story also has another critical component, emotional and sensory data.  A good story makes you feel something (the emotion) and a good story makes you see something, it paints a picture. (sensory data).  Interestingly it is quite often the specific incident that generate this.

This last feature is probably the acid test for a good, effective story:  Does it make me feel something and can I visualise it?

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