1: In the early 1980s, Harley-Davidson, the once-iconic motorcycle company, had hit rock bottom. It was “an operation that looked like it was sinking into the sunset,” wrote an industry analyst at the time.
“The legendary but antiquated bike had become the laughingstock of the industry,” reporter Scott Bieber noted.
In 1987, Richard Teerlink became CEO. He initiated a substantial cultural shift and helped rebuild and rebrand Harley. “He understood that the core appeal of a Harley was not the machine itself,” writes Esther Choi in Let the Story do the Work. Instead, it was a “lifestyle, an emotional attachment. That’s what we have to keep marketing to,” Richard notes.
Harley’s resurgence is an example of what Esther calls a “Rebirth” story, one of five types of business stories. “When it comes to business stories, I have found that there are really only Five Basic Plots,” she writes.
As an audience, what keeps us interested in a story can be reduced to one word: plot. “Plot is the sequence of events—and ideally twists, turns, and mysteries—in your story,” Esther writes. “It is up to us, as the storytellers, to organize these chaotic experiences into themes and a logical (but not predictable) order—the spine of story—which makes it easier for readers to follow, retain, and be influenced by the story.”
At the heart of Rebirth stories are the concept of redemption. “A rebirth story is about having a second chance. In business, this often takes the form of a turnaround,” she notes.
2: The “Origin Story” is the second type of business story. As humans, we want to know how things started. “In business, an origin story might be a founder’s story, or how a person, business, idea, product, service, platform, movement, or opportunity came to be,” writes Esther.
3: “Rags to Riches” is the third and most common type of business story. “Think about how many stories there are of self-made millionaires who came from humble backgrounds,” she notes. “The odds in such stories are never in favor of the main characters. . . They overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, surviving many bumps and bruises along the way to arrive at an inspiring place.”
As audience members, we tell ourselves: if they can do it, I can, too!
A variation of the rags-to-riches narrative is the David-versus-Goliath story, otherwise known as the underdog story. “This plot is about someone who starts from a very low station in life, without much hope for improvement but surprises everyone with a dramatic turnaround,” Esther writes.
Oprah is a powerful example of rags to riches or the triumph of the underdog; Esther observes: “After a childhood of poverty and abuse, she moved to Nashville in her teens to live with her father, who provided direction and encouraged academic rigor, qualities that helped her find her way, set visionary goals, and become a business/media icon and philanthropist with a $3 billion fortune.”
4: The fourth type of business plot is “Overcoming the Monster.” Esther notes: “The monster in this kind of story can be any overt or covert entity or situation that can threaten survival of some sort or thwart someone from reaching an important goal.”
Many times, an unsuspecting or reluctant character is pushed into action. “In the Bible, Moses ran away initially from God’s call for him to lead his people out of Egypt. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker did not want to be bothered with taking on the evil empire until his family was murdered by Storm Troopers.
“Fighting to survive or thrive is elemental to human nature,” Esther notes. “So audiences of any type will root for defeat of the monster, whether at the hands of an individual, group, or organization, making this kind of story compelling in business and leadership stories.”
5: The fifth and final type of plot is called “The Quest.”
“Unlike stories of rags to riches, rebirth, and overcoming the monster, which typically start from a point at which the main character’s life is in bad shape, protagonists in quest stories tend to be enjoying a good life at the outset,” Esther writes.” But they are not content to sit at home. . . Instead, they know that somewhere, in a remote and possibly dangerous place, lies a prize of immeasurable value. Against their better judgment and his friends and family’s advice, the hero in this kind of story ventures out on a quest to claim this prize.”
Examples of Quest stories abound, including the Indiana Jones movie franchise. Our “intrepid archaeologist-adventurer played by Harrison Ford risks it all repeatedly to go after the lost Ark of the Covenant, a mystical stone, and the Holy Grail,” writes Esther.
Actual, real-life heroes on quests are often even more inspiring than their fictional counterparts. At the age of sixty-one, former astronaut and NASA climate scientist Piers Sellers was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Doctors told him he would have about a year and a half left to live. Having received this terrible news, “instead of lamenting this turn of events or hanging out on a beach, Sellers chose to spend his last days finding ways to slow down climate change,” Esther writes.
Reflection: Think about an upcoming presentation, meeting, or event. What type of story would most move my audience toward my goal?
Action: Re-frame the story I will tell into one of Esther’s five types of business stories.