How to choose the proper storytelling framework for your presentation

A story comprises four essential elements: the characters, plot, conflict, and resolution. If you remove any of these four pieces, the story falls apart. 

Compelling characters maintain our interest in a story. Additionally, a resolution is necessary to avoid leaving unsolved problems and creating an unsatisfying end to the narrative. This is true not only for TV shows, movies, and novels but also for the stories we tell in work contexts and presentations.

A storytelling framework is the method you choose for arranging, creating, and implementing the crucial parts of these four narrative elements.

Your storytelling framework is the strategic outline or template you use whenever you need to craft a story. 

Depending on your familiarity with telling stories, you might have a single framework that is your go-to in every situation or multiple frameworks for different contexts. If you're new to incorporating stories into your work, you might not have any storytelling framework.

When you finish reading this guide, you'll understand how the proper story framework can fill the gaps in your process and acquire ideas for your next story framework. 

We'll take a close look at:

  • the benefits a framework provides,
  • common storytelling frameworks and structures you'll encounter as both a storyteller and a listener, and
  • continuing to improve your storytelling skills so you can tell compelling stories of all types, from personal to business stories.

Why do you need a storytelling framework?

Imagine it's the day before your major presentation, and your mind is blank. You know you need to provide a meaningful recap, project update, or training module, but you're entirely out of ideas for delivering the information compellingly and memorably. 

But because the work needs to happen and you already have the information, you default to summaries, bullet points of facts and figures, and a Q&A afterward. Pretty dull and boring, right? That’s how many ‘could-have-been-great’ presentations go. 

Most of us are familiar with the information we must present; you may even be a subject matter expert. You likely have a very clear understanding of what your audience cares about. But translating all that insight into a meaningful story is the sticking point, and when the clock is running down, it's easier to just stick to the facts. The problem is that it's not the most effective—we know stories are better for engagement and retention.

So, think of your storytelling framework as the template stopping you from staring at a blank paper or presentation slide. When you have a framework and understand how it works, creating a story is more like filling in the blanks, and that's much simpler. 

Advantages of working with a storytelling framework

Some of the top benefits of applying a time-tested storytelling framework include:

  • eliminating nerves associated with venturing into story-based presentations (especially if it’s a new tactic for you),
  • keeping your story focused, organized, and coherent,
  • helping the audience retain what you share (people remember stories better than plain facts),
  • generating instant recognition and understanding through familiar plot structures,
  • crafting a narrative quickly and aligning it with the right emotions, intentions, and actionable endings, and
  • being perceived as a great storyteller. 

The three-act structure 

The three-act play is a structure most of us are familiar with (even if you never had much patience for Shakespeare). It's one of the most universal and straightforward plot structures used to tell stories today, and it has three distinct sections:

  1. Set up: This part of the story is all about introducing your characters. In literature, this “act” does a lot of world-building. In a business context, you might keep it pretty short. Essentially, you are setting the scene.
  2. Conflict: A lot of the action happens here. The first plot point develops into tension, the characters take action (often with a mix of successes and failures), and the problem deepens as the main climax approaches.
  3. Resolution: This part of the story finds the resolution—how the main problem is solved and how that solution shapes the characters and world left behind.

Many well-established storytelling frameworks build off or modify the three-act structure. The simplest way to look at it is that every story has a beginning (the world and the problem), a middle (how people react to the problem), and an end (how people solve the problem and move on). 

3 highly successful storytelling frameworks

Numerous storytelling frameworks offer different approaches to the task, each with strengths. Some frameworks follow an overarching idea, like breaking the message down into three acts, while others provide an even more specific structure and pre-determined ‘problems.’ 

These frameworks help stories take shape and are best suited for specific contexts or handling particular messages and conclusions. By exploring these three popular storytelling frameworks, you can identify which one best fits your presentation and messaging needs:

1. The Pixar framework

Think back to your favorite Pixar movie. It might be Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, or UP. 

No matter which one you choose, it follows an archetypal framework that makes the characters, plot, conflict, and resolution predictable (but still enjoyable) as all the pieces fall into place. 

The framework goes as follows:

  1. Setting and characters ("once upon a time")
  2. Displaying the routine or reality ("every day")
  3. Something changes, and the conflict begins ("one day")
  4. The conflict creates a plot point ("because of that")
  5. The characters have to respond to the evolving plot ("so then this happened")
  6. Things resolve and change ("until")

It's a straightforward structure, but it creates a handy way for storytellers to build out their message. 

You can even help your presentation take shape by using these exact words and filling in the blanks with your specifics:

"Once upon a time____________________. Every day____________________.
One day____________________. Because of that____________________.
So then this happened____________________. Until____________________."

Here’s how you might present a refined version of this framework for a business context:

“Once, our company struggled with customer retention, seeing daily declines in engagement and sales. One day, we discovered competitors using advanced data analytics. We invested in a CRM system, revamped marketing, and personalized interactions. Initially, there was resistance, but a major client's praise for our new approach led to increased trust and satisfaction. This success spread, everyone adapted, and our retention rates improved. Ultimately, we solved our problem and became a market leader in customer-centric innovation.”

2. The Rags-to-Riches framework

Think Cinderella. Or Aladdin. Something is compelling about the simplicity of the 'someone starts poor, succeeds on their own merits, and now they’re rich' storyline.

But you have to do it carefully for it to sound right. This framework has four parts:

  1. Introduce the characters and their hardships: emphasize the characteristics that help the main character succeed and highlight the setbacks or obstacles that have stopped them from succeeding.
  2. Lay out the opportunity: show how an accidental encounter or surprise opportunity is a chance to thrive—this can be an opportunity based purely on luck, such as Cinderella's ball, or it can be a mix of luck and deserved attention, such as getting a career break or being in the right place at the right time. 
  3. The struggle: a good story isn't just about having the opportunity; it's about how the character uses their intelligence, work ethic, or other qualities to ensure they succeed and get rewarded. For example, it wouldn't be a compelling story if Cinderella hadn't had to run away and could have married the prince right after the ball.
  4. The payoff: finally, the story reaches a resolution when the character gets positive results from all their hard work.

If this is about your business rather than a personal story, you need to highlight the origins of your business, the dream of starting it, and the hurdles you overcame.

Continuing the example of a company struggling to retain customers, here’s how you might tell the story through the lens of the Rags to Riches framework:

“Once, our startup struggled with limited resources and low growth. Every day, we faced tough competition. One day, we implemented a CRM system to understand customer needs better. Because of that, we personalized marketing and improved services. Despite initial setbacks, we persevered. Until one day, a major client's praise attracted more business and boosted our reputation. In the end, our startup rapidly grew into a market leader known for customer-centric innovation.” 

3. The Hero's Journey framework

Many hero-based stories follow this well-loved pattern:

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call of Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
  8. The Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return With the Elixir

For example, Star Wars follows this structure very closely. But you'll also see it in television shows, Disney movies, and even one of the oldest works of literature, The Odyssey (although it doesn’t align sequentially with a typical Hero’s Journey—it opens at The Road Back).

The Hero’s Journey is the most complex of the three frameworks, so let’s map it carefully to a business presentation:

  1. Set the scene: describe the current industry or market situation and existing challenges (Ordinary World).
  2. Identify the challenge: present the specific problem or opportunity driving the need for change (Call to Adventure).
  3. Acknowledge concerns: address initial reluctance or obstacles, validating audience concerns (Refusal of the Call).
  4. Offer solutions: introduce insights, tools, or mentors that guide the way forward (Meeting the Mentor).
  5. Take action: detail the decision to act and the initial steps taken (Crossing the First Threshold).
  6. Navigate obstacles: highlight trials faced, alliances formed, and opposition encountered (Tests, Allies, Enemies).
  7. Highlight critical moments: emphasize key challenges leading to the story's climax (Approach to the Inmost Cave).
  8. Showcase significant challenges: present pivotal moments like project milestones or market launches (The Ordeal).
  9. Celebrate success: describe successes such as increased sales or improved efficiency (Reward).
  10. Address continued efforts: discuss ongoing challenges and the need to sustain efforts (The Road Back).
  11. Highlight transformation: illustrate how the journey has transformed the team or company (Resurrection).
  12. Demonstrate benefits: detail how outcomes benefit stakeholders and the organization's future (Return with the Elixir).

Now, recalling our fictitious struggling startup one last time, here’s how their story goes with the Hero’s Journey framework:

“Our small startup struggled to gain traction in a competitive market. Every day, we faced challenges like limited resources and slow growth. One day, we realized that understanding our customers' needs was crucial. Initially, we hesitated and worried about the investment in a CRM system. After consulting an industry expert, we decided to proceed.

Implementing the CRM system marked the start of our transformative journey. We faced setbacks and skepticism but found allies in early adopters. We refined our strategies, using data to personalize marketing and improve services. The turning point came when a major client praised our approach, attracting more business and boosting our reputation.

We optimized our processes as we continued to grow, solidifying our gains. We transformed from a struggling startup into a confident, innovative company. In the end, we emerged as a market leader and were celebrated for our customer-centric innovation and exceptional growth. Our journey equipped us to face future challenges with confidence.”

Borrow inspiration from the best (but don’t steal)

Famous painter Salvador Dali once said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing.”

To this point, identify elements you like in other people's stories and rework them to make them true to you. This tip doesn't mean plagiarizing—don’t take someone's research, specific wording, or fresh ideas. Instead, experiment with adopting their storytelling techniques, turns of phrase, and elements you admire, and see how you can integrate them with your own content.

If the Pixar method clicks with you, give it a shot. If a memorable story about buying or selling a house resonates with you, distill your favorite parts and put them to work in your narrative. 

You might already dabble with emulating others in various aspects of your professional life, such as productivity hacks or leadership communication, so why not apply the same approach to presenting? 

Over time, your stories become more cohesive and uniquely yours. After crafting your story, compare it to the originals that inspired you. See if your version is missing something or whether an element from another story might make more sense in your context. 

Storytelling frameworks to use in B2B content

Now, you have at least three frameworks to use, including the Pixar structure, the Rags-to-Riches structure, and the Hero's Journey. 

But even if your knowledge of storytelling frameworks has doubled since you started reading this article, you might still be staring down a blank presentation slide with a degree of dread.

When you need a more structured approach to picking your framework and building your story, use Pip Decks’ Storytelling Tactics so you never have to start from scratch. 

The 54-card deck is a clear recipe to upgrade any presentation with a suitable story, featuring story arcs, persuasion techniques, sales pitches, research methods, story frameworks, copywriting tips, and ways to hook people into your story. Learn more.

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