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The Key to Compelling Content Marketing? The Hero’s Journey.

By Sara Donnelly. Craft of Writing
Image Credit: fotokostic/Depositphotos

We all know a good story when we see one, but when it comes to sitting down to tell your own brand’s story the craft of it all can seem overwhelming.

Luckily, while there may not be tricks to producing art, there are a few proven techniques. In storytelling, one of the most influential is what’s known as the Hero’s Journey—a plot progression describing the evolution from regular Joe to transcendent leader that the mythologist Joseph Campbell described in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here’s how Campbell described it:

“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.”

Some of culture’s greatest heroes follow the Campbell plot—from Luke Skywalker to Superman to the Biblical Christ. The Journey works so well on readers it’s been used unconsciously for generations. So how can your brand make use of the proven effectiveness of the Hero’s Journey?

Break the Journey into pieces

There are 12 stages to the Hero’s Journey, covering the hero’s origins in the ordinary world, through his mentoring and eventual triumph over adversity, and ending with his rebirth as a better person with a wise elixir he will share with everyone. Writers of novels and screenplays often use these 12 stages as a plot playbook, but you might find that your brand doesn’t have to be quite so thorough. Communications consultant Maggie Patterson says as much in her blog post titled, ominously, “The Big Problem with the Hero’s Journey for Business Storytelling”: “There are so many ways to tell stories in your business, but if you’re going to use the Hero’s Journey, deconstruct it so you’re not telling an epic story, but a much more bite-sized one.”

Patterson picks out five of the 12 total steps and highlights how each can be transformed into useful content for your brand. I’ve listed them below, and added my own notes in brackets.

Ordinary World: What was life like before your business? [Use this to show how your brand changed things for the better.]

Call to Adventure: What motivated you to launch your business? Or, if your business was stagnating, what prompted you to change tack for the better? [Shows your depth of purpose.]

Meeting with the Mentor: There is often a person or an event that motivates us to greater things -- what was your business’s motivator? Who taught you how to excel? [Provides an opportunity to link your authority with another’s, and to offer useful tips from your mentor.]

Tests, Allies, Enemies: What roadblocks have you faced? What roadblocks do you help your customers overcome? [The benefit to this piece of the story is obvious—present a conflict and an example of your brand overcoming it and you engage the curiosity of the audience while making your brand look good. Just make sure you let it get messy—more on that later.]

Return with Elixir: What have you learned? How does that help your clients? [This is the ending of the story where you get to show how your brand has changed because of its experience, what this means to your customers, and how your Hero’s Journey will inform your future.]

Each of the above Hero’s Journey highlights can be its own piece of content, perhaps organized as a series so that the final triumph really resonates after the down-in-the-dumps challenges you’ve described. Or you could distill the Journey down even further and ask yourself, every single time you tell a story about your brand, one of your customers, or a key employee: What is the problem here and how did we overcome it?

Important caveat: Keep the dirt

There’s a tension inherent to the Hero’s Journey that just captivates us humans. It’s the tension of a character wanting something and not being able to get it. It’s the tension of taking on real, tough obstacles and not being certain of how or whether you will prevail. This tension is a part of life in all of its facets, but it takes a storyteller’s eye to see it.

A case study about a heat pump system that needed an efficiency upgrade? That’s a problem of lost energy and money overcome by a savvy consultant’s discerning solution. Still sounds kind of blah though, right? Not if you’re honest about the consequences of the problem.

If you describe how the problem has human and palpable impact—maybe the heat pump inefficiency was costing buckets of money and threatening the solvency of the company, or the pumps bled so much heat people in the building were shivering on cold nights—then you have captured the tension readers hunger for. Bring in the solution—and describe in a human and palpable way how it helped—and you’ve given readers the release they crave. It’s this interplay of tension and release that truly makes for a riveting story. (Even one about heat pumps.)

To get at that tension, don’t be afraid to include what Forbes writer Rich Karlgaard calls the “raw material” of a story. In an article about the power of good storytelling, Karlgaard cites movie western director John Ford’s description of story: “The bad guys show up while the hero is still evolving.”

“The mystery,” writes Karlgaard, “is why businesses are so reluctant to tell their stories in this way. Most businesses, in fact, do the opposite. They take perfectly good raw material about their customers and turn it into Barbie doll stories, fake and plastic.” In an attempt to sound good at all times, businesses strip all of the conflict out of their hero story. But conflict, Karlgaard rightly points out, is necessary for any story to work.

So, then, an addendum to the Hero’s Journey. Describe your brand’s evolution, its mentoring and its triumphs, but don’t shy away from including your brand’s rough edges.

Finally, don’t forget the villains, fangs and all. Make us feel the pain points. Then release us from them. After all, every good hero needs a worthy villain.

Learn more about building a content marketing strategy for your brand in our free ebook, or get in touch for a complimentary consultation.

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Sara Donnelly

Sara brings more than 15 years of experience as a writer, reporter, and editor to Eucalypt. She specializes in long-form narrative, in-depth reporting, and crawling inside complex topics so that she can write about them in clear, engaging prose. At Eucalypt, she writes copy of all shapes and sizes as the resident word nerd.

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