Stories help us communicate in a way that’s memorable and persuasive. If you want to use stories more intentionally, where do you start? Good stories begin with good structure!
CHAPTERTM is the structure taught in the Seven Story Learning Workshop and in individual executive coaching I do. Each of the letters stands for an element present in effective stories. CHAPTERTM works surprisingly well because it balances the brain’s logical and emotional needs. As we consume information, our minds begin searching for ways to process, organize, and connect all that data and feeling into the innately recognizable form of a story arc. For example, consider how quickly your mind begins filling in the gaps and connecting dots in daily conversations. Sometimes we think we have the whole story figured out before we’ve even heard all the facts!
Once clients have learned the simple pattern, they often remark that they’ve begun noticing CHAPTERTM structures everywhere. One doesn’t need to a master raconteur, old timey story-teller, charming politician or a Hollywood director to be an effective story communicator. Most of us already use stories casually in our personal lives. Simply recognize the story pattern that naturally exists and devote some time to practice. (And to become a better listener, it helps if you know the structure of stories so that you can ask meaningful questions and encourage another person’s story, too.)
Conflict: Stories start with conflict. The desire to overcome that conflict triggers our human emotions and engages our attention. No conflict = boring. There are seven types of potential conflicts. In fact, that’s how I named Seven Story Learning. In professional communication coaching, I’ve found that identifying the exact conflict is usually the most difficult, errrr…conflict in story learning. (Insert ironic references here). Once the conflict is has been specifically named, the rest of the story flows.
Hero: Who is going to overcome this conflict? Some heroes wear capes. Others are surprising or reluctant heroes. There may even be a supporting cast of allies, mentors, and antagonists. However a (potentially flawed but ultimately likeable) hero must eventually be identified. Often, it might be you!
Anticipation: Don’t solve the conflict quickly and easily. Let the tension build by increasing conflict and opposition to the hero. Narrate the hero’s internal and external struggles. Opening up a little about your fears or hesitations demonstrates vulnerability and humanity. You don’t need to be an actor or a theater major; in fact that approach can be counterproductive to authentic Story Learning!
Peak: Signpost a clear climactic turning point as the Hero faces personal flaws or taps hidden strengths and overcomes the conflict.
Transformation: How is the hero different as a result of battling the conflict? Is the listener transformed by this story?
Explanation: What did hero learn about themselves and the world?
Relate: First, is this a story the listener can relate to? (A single working mom from a small town might have trouble relating to a wealthy investment banker’s “sacrifice” story.)
Second, does my story inspire others to tell me their stories? This is the single best test to distinguish one-way broadcast storytelling from more meaningful two-way conversational Story Learning.
You’re probably already using many of the elements of CHAPTERTM in your daily personal and professional communication. One of the best ways to become an even better user of stories is to consciously look for structures and see what works and what doesn’t. Try “story-spotting” for a day and you’ll start seeing the pattern again and again in books, movies, and the conversations you have. Very quickly, you’ll notice which elements are present and which need improvement.
*Photo courtesy of Alexandra Cavoulacos