Rags to Riches

Or, what the heck does Cinderella have to do with writing better emails?

Welcome to Issue 010 of The Story is the Strategy, a weekly newsletter about becoming a world-class business communicator. My mission is to help you significantly increase your professional impact by telling better stories. Learn more about this project and my credentials here.

This Week’s Big Idea

Rags to Riches

Last week, we reviewed the granddaddy of all story arcs - Aristotle’s 2350 year-old Dramatic Structure. We saw how it can pack a little verve and excitement into your business presentations - because humans are wired to respond to stories, even if we only follow their structure subconsciously. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” (See the links in the section below for more on this critical point.)

Now that we understand the importance of story structure, we can look at other ones that work. One of my favorites is Rags to Riches. Some of the most famous stories in Western culture - think Aladdin and Cinderella - follow this structure.

The basic arc is as follows: at the start, the main character’s life is pretty lousy. But then, something happens (remember, change is the lifeblood of stories), and they experience a burst of happiness, their wishes fulfilled. But then, they suffer a setback (or series of setbacks) that challenges their new position. Finally, they overcome their setbacks to achieve lasting happiness. 

Here’s a visual representation of the plot of Cinderella so you can see it graphed out:

Putting It to Work

So now you’re thinking, okay great - but what the heck does Cinderella have to do with writing better work emails? It turns out, the Rags to Riches structure is perfect for business updates about successful projects or launches.

You start by describing a problem that you or your team needed to solve. This is the initial state of misery, and the hero of the story is the team working on the problem. 

Then, you talk about the insight or idea you had about how to tackle the problem. The insight is the moment of change that drives the story forward. You have optimism, a way forward. You move up the Y axis, from misery toward happiness.

Next, you talk about your struggles turning the insight into action. These are the setbacks in the Cinderella graph above. Maybe your initial insight didn’t prove robust, Maybe there were unforeseen challenges. Each little episode of grappling that you describe raises the tension and the stakes and the perceived difficulty of the challenge in your audience’s eyes.

At last, success! You describe the final push which solved the problem. You’ve moved all the way from misery to happiness, and the team lives happily ever after (until they start working on the next problem, of course.)

This structure is pretty easy to use, and it’s way more exciting than your typical project wrap up: “after experimenting with new ad bidding strategies, we lowered our customer acquisition costs by 3.6% last quarter.” 😴😴😴

People will remember the story, and your accomplishments will shine brighter in their minds as a result.

How are you going to use Rags to Riches at work? Reply to this email or hit me up on Twitter.

We’re Wired for Story

Here are a couple links which help explain what I mean when I say humans are wired for story. After all, why learn to tell stories at work if it’s not useful?

🔗 It is in our Nature to Need Stories. “Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children.”

🔗 How Telling Stories Makes Us Human. “Storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.”

The Story is the Strategy will take a break next week, as my wife and I are visiting the States with our two small children - our first trip back since moving to London. Enjoy the summer, wherever you are!

Feedback is a gift. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this newsletter. Do you feel like you’re learning how to be a better storyteller? I reply to every message I receive. And if you’re enjoying it, please share it with your friends and colleagues. Thank you!