Let’s picture the scene. You are sitting in an audience waiting for the next presentation to begin. For the past hour your time has been consumed by data, bullets and lots of technical information. Now imagine the next speaker takes to the stage and launches into a PowerPoint presentation full of complex text and cluttered graphs.
How do you feel? Probably a little uninspired? The theory of cognitive load explains that people’s minds become overloaded if required to process too much complex information. Because of this it’s almost certain that you won’t remember a single thing from the experience. There has to be a better way!
Enter storytelling. Stories are easier to recall because they activate lots of different parts of the human brain – in a sense, listeners experience, or become part of, the story. And not only is your audience more likely to remember a story more easily than facts and figures, a story also stands a greater chance of inspiring action when you walk off the stage.
Introducing the Hero’s Journey
Introduced by Joseph Campbell in 1949, the Hero’s Journey is a narrative structure involving a protagonist who goes on an adventure, wins a decisive victory after a crisis, and then returns transformed. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell describes the Hero’s Journey as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
If you are a movie buff, you’re probably already familiar with the Hero’s Journey. From the Matrix to Star Wars, from the Lion King to Lord of the Rings, the Hero’s Journey is used time and time again. And it’s not just used in the movie business! You will find elements of the Hero’s Journey in about every type of storytelling media imaginable, including books, stage productions and more. In fact, with a majority of the most-viewed TED talks relying on the Hero’s Journey, it is in a presenter’s best interests to understand the benefits of this useful storytelling structure too.
Structuring the Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is typically split into 12 distinct phases, with each phase moving the story forward and connecting the audience not just with the Hero, but also with the overarching themes or key messages of your speech or presentation. Let’s discuss each phase in turn.
- Ordinary World: Setting the scene. This is where you reveal the Hero’s background to the audience. What are the kinds of problems he/she faces? What are the Hero’s goals?
- Call to Adventure: Something happens to the Hero and the adventure starts. This is a crucial moment in the story, where an alarm goes off for both the Hero and audience
- Refusal: This is a temporary stage in the Hero’s Journey that invokes fear and reluctance in the Hero. The audience also shares in these emotions
- Meeting a Mentor: We are introduced to a mentor figure who is living evidence that the problem can be solved
- Crossing the Threshold: The Hero sets out for the adventure and crosses the threshold. This point marks an important turning point in the Hero’s psychology
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: Throughout his/her adventure the Hero encounters both positive and negative forces, such as allies and enemies to meet
- Approach: The Hero faces a setback and is forced into trying a new approach or idea
- Ordeal: The Hero is challenged with an obstacle. This marks another crucial moment in the story, where a transformation takes place
- Reward: After overcoming the obstacle, the Hero achieves their goal
- Road Back: In this phase the Hero sets out on the road back to their regular life
- Resurrection: The Hero faces a final challenge before returning to their everyday life. This creates an opportunity to test and apply what he/she has learned
- Return: The Hero returns to the ordinary world. This allows the audience to understand the meaning of the journey, and brings a sense of completion to the story
BONUS: In her must-read book ‘Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences’, Nancy Duarte examines a number of different models used in storytelling that help create better presentations, including the Hero’s Journey. Catchup on my interview with Nancy Duarte here.
Take Your Next Audience on a Hero’s Journey
Story structures on their own aren’t particularly powerful. For instance, just coming up with a plot has little inherent value at the best of times.
Where stories become incredibly powerful, however, is when they allow your audience to share an adventure with the Hero. Luckily, the Hero’s Journey has built-in mechanisms for creating exactly that type of connection.
The Hero’s Journey is the most powerful pattern out there for telling stories. So here’s my final words of advice: the next time you are asked to give a speech or presentation, use the structure of the Hero’s Journey to shape your message. Both you and your next audience will be grateful!
About the Author
Dave Linehan created ‘Communicate You’ blog as a free resource to help individuals to become clear, concise and compelling communicators. His website places a particular focus on public speaking and presentations. Check out davelinehan.com for more, including a free E-book about how to prepare a speech from scratch. Follow Dave on Twitter @dave_linehan for his latest articles.