Many executives start presentations about products or initiatives with a vague theme statement, often expressed with as much pith as a puff of smoke: “We have a new focus on customer satisfaction,” or “Our current strategic goals are execution and innovation.” But this approach is not only lacking but lackluster. Did Shakespeare begin Hamlet by saying “This is a play about indecision”? Of course not.
Instead of starting with theme, you can make your story more compelling by focusing on its three main actors: the villain, the victim, and the hero.
Villains in business often aren’t animate. In the mind of the consumer, even mere frustration is a recognizable evil. Or the villain could be a transaction that is incomplete or unsatisfying (anything from a faulty product to cold coffee or warm ice cream). The victim is the customer or the person whose problem you’re trying to solve. And doing so will make your company or team the hero.
This villain-victim-hero framework can be applied across many industries:
In software, the villain might be slow or unreliable programs, the victims are frustrated users, and the hero is new or updated technology that works correctly and efficiently. In health care, the villain could be disease or poor outcomes, the victims are patients and their families, and the hero is effective, compassionate care. In manufacturing, the villain might be expensive or defective products, the victims are the consumers paying for them, and the hero is safe merchandise that performs as promised.
When you’re telling a story, paint a colorful picture of your customers’ difficulties while displaying ample sympathy for their plight. Don’t tell the tale from your own point of view, as in “We are excited to announce that our new organic fertilizer is the safest on the market.” Instead, cast the customer in the starring role: “Parents will be happy knowing that their children can safely roll around in the grass in the backyard.”
Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, has used this framework quite skillfully to explain the origins of his career. As a young economics professor in the 1970s in Bangladesh, he took his students on a field trip to an impoverished village, where they encountered a woman who made bamboo stools. A local moneylender extended credit for the raw materials but retained the exclusive right to the merchandise at prices he would establish. Worse, the interest rate was downright usurious, ranging up to 10% a day.
All told, 42 victims had together borrowed less than $27. “I offer $27 to get these victims out of the ‘banker’s’ clutches,” Yunus said. “If I could make so many people so happy with such a tiny amount of money, why not do more? That has been my mission ever since.”
This tale simply works, doesn’t it? It has all the elements: a classic villain, powerless victims, and a hero in the form of humane microbanking. Note that the theme comes at the end, as a natural outgrowth of the facts.
The villain-victim-hero paradigm is effective in personal stories as well. Look at the way Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos describes a “villain” he faced in college:
I went to Princeton primarily because I wanted to study physics…Things went fairly well until I got to quantum mechanics [and] I realized “I’m never going to be a great physicist”…At the same time I had been studying computer science and was…drawn to that more and more…One of the great things Princeton taught me is that I’m not smart enough to be a physicist.
We can recognize ourselves in this anecdote because Bezos casts himself as the not-smart-enough victim of a villain called quantum mechanics, and the university becomes the “hero” for showing him a different way forward. Again, the overarching theme comes at the end.
Try to emulate Bezos’s personal touch and Yunus’s eloquence when you describe your brand’s “heroism,” especially the way your product or service vanquishes villainy. If you depict the consumer’s predicament in gritty, sympathetic terms, then the “virtue” of your company should resonate with customers, colleagues, and media alike. And that will be your story.