Business Storytelling Glossary (The BSG)

The BSG lists business story concepts, ideas and definitions. It’s ad-hoc and personal, so your mileage will vary.

Note: I link to recommended books where appropriate. If you buy them I may get a small kick-back, but I promise to spend it wantonly.

A

Adaptive Unconscious
The hidden and unknowable mental processes that mould our attention and decision-making. Yes, your reality is really just your adaptive unconscious telling you a story. Mine too. See Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson.

The adaptive unconscious is thus more than just a gatekeeper, deciding what information to admit to consciousness. It is also a spin doctor that interprets information outside of awareness. One of the most important judgments we make is about the motives, intentions, and dispositions of other people, and it is to our advantage to make these judgments quickly.

If you think that this doesn’t apply to business, you are in the wrong place. Seriously.

A-Plot/B-Plot etc
Workaday dramas mix plotlines to keep things moving, deeper stories use them to expose different sides of a theme. B-Plots are generally of secondary importance … and often used for romance or comic relief.

Act
A major section of a longer story. Dogma abounds on this, but it rarely concerns us in business storytelling. The 3-Act structure is popular in Hollywood, but John Yorke (Into the Woods) argues that the Shakespearean 5-Act structure is a more powerful form. In story structure – as in life – context is everything.

It’s more useful to think about acts as divided by critical turning points. At the end of Back to the Future‘s first act, Marty travels back in time. That’s a critical turning point because it can’t be undone.

Alliteration
The repetition of the beginning sounds of words. E.g. Lois Lane. This is a simple and powerful technique for improving the fluency of your writing/storytelling.

Analogy
Comparing similar aspects of different objects. E.g. my analogy of business to a forest.

Anastora
The invisible network of stories, values and associations through which we experience our ’reality’. This is where the magic happens.

Antonym
The opposite of something. E.g. Hot is the antonym of cold.

Arc
The progression or journey a character makes through the story. E.G. In Groundhog Day, Phil the Weatherman learns to care about others. That’s his arc.

Character arcs are much venerated, but exceptions abound. Bill and Ted – fantastically – never learn anything. Jack Reacher never changes. And we all know about Homer

Archetypes
Common patterns or characters that appear in stories. Jung, for example, identified life events (birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, the union of opposites) and characters (great mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, the hero etc). See Wikipedia.

Arousal
A foundation of emotion, Arousal is measured on a scale of calm to jittery. It is continually and unconsciously monitored through the process of Introception. See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s amazing book, How Emotions Are Made. See also: Arousal.

Attention
Without attention, there can be no communication, BUT attention is far from sufficient. It’s also a trap. See also: Novelty.

Authority
One of Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of Influence. Put simply, we are generally raised to respect and obey authority figures. (I have tried to teach my kids to challenge this, but they never listen to me.)

B

Back Story
The story we tell about ourselves (explicitly AND implicitly) that draws a prospect into our world, and allows them to trust our promise.

Blahketing
A word I coined to describe the fatuousness of most marketing. Blah, bloody blah.

Blind-Spot Test
The simplest way to see that reality is built in the brain. Take the test.

Brain (The story-telling machine)
In his book, The Brain, neuroscientist, David Eagleman says:

“… the brain has no access to the world outside. Sealed within the dark, silent chamber of your skull, your brain has never directly experienced the external world, and it never will… Everything you experience – every sight, sound, smell – rather than being a direct experience, is an electrochemical rendition in a dark theatre.”

And this:

… our reality is ultimately built in the dark, in a foreign language of electrochemical signals. The activity churning across the vast neural networks gets turned into your story of this, your private experience of the world: the feeling of this book in your hands, the light in the room, the smell of roses, the sound of others speaking.

Brand Storytelling
When brands use stories to elicit an emotional connection to their company, product or service (at least, when it’s done well).

But
The second most powerful three letters in storytelling. The word demands focus because something is about to change …

  • You did well in the interview, but …
  • The figures are in, but …
  • I love you, but …

C

Call-backs
My favourite technique – used to add gravitas, meaning and resonance to your story. See also: Call Forwards.

Call-forwards
Layering in the elements that will later trigger callbacks. See also: Callbacks; Foreshadowing.

Change
This is what every story is about. To put it another way, if nothing happens in your story/press release/whatever … nothing happens in the brains of the people unlucky enough to read it.

Chaos (Unknown World)
In his book, Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson illustrates how humans constantly try to move from the What Is (Unbearable Present) through the Chaos/Unknown and towards the What Should Be (Ideal Future). The chaos of the unknown world is analogous to the Magical World in The Hero’s Journey.  See also: Structural Tension.

Character
The first requirement of effective business storytelling. If we want to create emotion and action, our story has to be about someone. (Not a company, business, organisation etc.) Ref. Daniel Kahneman’s explanation of his use of System 1 and 2, in Thinking, Fast and SlowSee also: Conflict and Consequence.

Cliché
A word or phrase that has lost its original power or meaning through excessive repetition. See George Orwell’s, Politics and the English Language for a fantastic evisceration of cliches (or Dying Metaphors).

Climax
The emotional peak of a story.

Comedy
Any story that ends happily (in the classical definition). As opposed to Tragedy.

Commitment/Consistency
One of Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of Influence. Once we’ve made a commitment to something – especially in public – we are more likely to go through with it. Equally, we are more likely to act in accordance with the internal image we hold of ourselves.

Concept
The core idea as expressed in the story. This is munged in with premise, meaning, theme and other words that overlap this area. What’s your story about? What does it need to communicate?

Conflict
The second requirement of effective business storytelling. For a character to engage us, they need to have a problem worth caring about. This can be physical, mental, social or emotional. See also: Character and Consequence.

Consequence
The third requirement of effective (business storytelling). A character with only a conflict is just a hook. In a true story, the conflict resolves (for good or ill). See also: Conflict and Character.

Conversion Copywriting
Copy that’s engineered to sell RIGHT NOW. Occasionally sublime, but often high-pressure, tactic-driven and anxiety inducing. See also: Strategic Copywriting.

Core Messages
The foundational messages about a brand, business or founders that are woven through the Storyverse. Sort these before you start writing.

Core Value Proposition
The strategic summation of the value you deliver for your customers. Note: Value is entirely subjective and can be financial, emotional, social etc.

Countdown/Clock
Your mind may jump to James Bond and the seconds ticking down on the bomb … but clocks can be way more subtle. When Marty travels back in time (Back To The Future), he has a few short days until lightning hits the (actual) clock. This deadline gives the story its urgency.

Couplet
Two lines that end with a pair of rhyming words. For example:

Nick told a story
That did him no glory.

Cut Scenes
The non-interactive exposition scenes in a video games. Often dull. Occasionally sublime.

D

Dénouement
The section of the story that comes after the climax. I always think of this as the part in the A-Team where they clear up any loose ends, and tell a lame joke about what just happened. Roll credits.

Dialogue
Conversation between characters. Rarely used in business, and thus powerful.

Drama
Created through conflict. Without drama, there is no attention. Hint: Most business communication contains no drama. Which is why it sucks.

Draft
The versions of your content that aren’t ready. Note Hemmingway’s legendary advice:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. . . I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. … The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he has read but something that has happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing.”

Note: Hemmingway is revered, but I’ve never managed to finish any of his books.

E

Easy Button
This week’s must use tactic that works for everyone regardless of product, market or context. See also: Hopeless Fraud.

Empathy
In a business, we need our stories to embody the challenges, contexts and feelings of our audience. From a recent conversation with a mate … “No one wants to get fit. They want to look good naked.”

Find the reason behind the reason, and keep going until you hit something real.

Execution
If you want to get anywhere – with your story or your business – you need to execute consistently. That’s it. (Coincidentally, Execution was also the title of my first thriller. I take my own medicine.)

Explode the Moment
My friend Sally – a creative writing lecturer – taught me this wonderfully evocative phrase. It means, simply, slowing down time to focus on one salient moment.

Exposition
Background context that supports or explains the story. In traditional storytelling, exposition is considered a necessary evil … but when we are worldbuilding, it can be another layer of storytelling.

F

Fable
A simplified story that illustrates fundamental truths. My fav business fable is Wink and Grow Rich.

Fairy tale/story
You know what this is and you may have a favourite … mine was Jack the Giant Killer. Specifically, the part where the giant slices his belly open. Perhaps you had to be there.

Flashback
A device used to fill in backstory. Use with caution … flashbacks kick momentum in the crotch.

Fluency
The ease at which the audience can consume your story is hugely important. The average reading age online is 13 years or less. (Note: As Nassim Taleb reminds us, averages can be worse than useless. “Never cross a river that is on average 4 feet deep.”)

Foreshadowing
Hinting at something that’s coming. We see this most commonly in TV detective drama. The ‘twist’ ending only works if you’ve already met the perp in a minor role. My wife and I enjoy playing spot-the-unnecessary-minor-character.

Foreshadowing is typified by the famous Chekhov quote:

“If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire the gun by act three, scene two. If you fire a gun in act three, scene two, you must see the gun on the wall in act one, scene one.” — Anton Chekhov

Functional Fiction
My description for the ‘story’ our brains construct to help us make sense of the world around us. Not real, but real enough most of the time.

G

Genre
The consistent conventions, themes and stereotypes around certain types of stories. Example genres include Thrillers, Detective stories, Sci-fi, Romance, Young Adult, Fantasy, Cozy Mystery, Horror and so on. The Twilight Saga successfully mixed Young Adult with Horror/Fantasy, and created a new sub-genre.

The key thing to understand is that genre’s imply their own rules and conventions. In thrillers, bullets aren’t fatal. In horror stories, it somehow makes sense to confront the axe-wielding maniac. In Romantic comedies, the leads are allowed to be willfully blind. Etc.

Gossip
According to some we evolved speech in order to gossip (tell stories) about our fellow humans. See The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr.

Gravitational Selling
Using the principles of brand and storytelling to gently attract the best prospects toward you. (As opposed to Pressure Selling. E.g. fear, one-time offers, psychological tactics etc.)

H

Hero’s Journey
The influential story arc was first described by Joseph Cambell in his 1949 book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The structure was popularised in the book The Writer’s Journey, which credited it for the success of Star Wars. Naturally, Hollywood sat up and took notice.

Campbell’s original structure had 17 stages – which is rarely what you’ll find on the internet. These are:

1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing Of The First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale
6. The Road Of Trials
7. The Meeting With The Goddess
8. Woman As Temptress
9. Atonement with the Parent
10. Apotheosis
11. The Ultimate Boon
12. Refusal of The Return
13. The Magic Flight
14. Rescue From Without
15. The Crossing of The Return Threshold
16. Master Of Two Worlds
17. Freedom To Live

We use a version of the Hero’s Journey in the Tell Your Story course. Here’s my simple summary:

Our hero lives happily in the ordinary world until something changes that throws her life off balance and calls her to adventure (often against her will).

With the help of a mentor, she crosses the threshold into a magical (unknown) world and contends with the forces of chaos and darkness. The experience challenges and changes her enough to pass a final ordeal and claim the treasure.

Finally, she returns to the ordinary world to share the bounty she has won.

And here’s what Campbell himself said about it:

The Hero’s Journey is fundamentally internal, a journey to depths in which dark resistances are overcome and long-forgotten powers resurrect to be made available to the transfiguration of the world; the perilous journey is not intended to conquer but to reconquer discovery, but rediscovery. The hero is a symbol of that divine and redemptive image that is hidden within each of us and that is just waiting to be found and brought back to life “.

Joseph Campbell

 

Heuristic
A mental shortcut that allows humans to substitute a hard question with an easier one. For example, ‘can I trust this person?’ is often substituted with ‘Do I like this person?’

In general, heuristics serve us well, but as Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated, they are subject to predictable error in certain circumstances.

Hook
The line, conflict or idea that pulls the audience into a story. Here’s an example from SMB’s email onboarding sequence:

In 2003, I sent an email that almost sank my business…

Hopeless Fraud
What do you know. It doesn’t ever deliver (except for the people who sell it). See also: Easy Button.

I

Ideal Future
In his book, Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson illustrates how humans constantly try to move from the What Is (Unbearable Present) through the Chaos/Unknown and towards the What Should Be (Ideal Future). See also: Structural Tension.

Implication
Our brains are storytelling machines, but they’re built that way in the service of survival. We constantly seek to understand the implications of what’s going on around us, so we know what to do.

Influence
Worth a moment to highlight Robert Cialdini‘s seminal book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The six principles are Reciprocation, Commitment/Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity. Get an overview in 12 minutes.

Also worth noting that Cialdini’s follow-up, Pre-Suasion, introduced the seventh principle, the Privileged Moment.

Also worth noting that Cialdini (at the time of writing) appears to share something in common with Paul McCartney. I find this disturbing.

Introception
This process is the continual unconscious checking of our bodies for Valence (Pleasant to Unpleasant scale) and Arousal (calm to jittery scale). See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s amazing book, How Emotions Are Made.

Irony
When the surface appearance is opposite (or at least different) from reality. In dramatic irony, it is common for the audience to know something that the characters in the story do not. For example, our knowledge that Peter Parker is Spider-Man adds a frisson when we watch him interact with oblivious friends, family and enemies.

J

K

Kahneman, Daniel
One of the fathers of Behavioural Economics (with Amos Tversky). The only psychologist to ever win the Nobel Prize for Economics. Author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Brilliant book.

Kaine, Jon
The protagonist in my thriller series.

L

Legend
In business storytelling, this may be the Leader Legend, Origin or Founding Story/Stories. These are the foundation of the Storyverse.

Liking
One of Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of Influence. If we like someone we are more likely to be influenced by them. This could be filed under the heading of Stating the Bleeding Obvious, except that – as with many of our systematic biases – knowing about it is no defence.

Cialdini lists several ways in which liking can be engineered, including similarity (people like us), compliments, contact, and cooperation. It also helps if you’re good looking. Damn.

M

Manifesto
Why your work matters. (Here’s mine.)

Metaphor
A description of one thing by way of another. Often confused with Simile, especially by me. Here’s a fav example from The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Each hug was a small, soft prison.

Mnemonic
A technique or aid for memorisation. In the UK, we memorise the colours of the rainbow with the mnemonic Roy. G. Biv, or the story sentence, ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. These are both easier to remember than the actual order of the colours:

Red > Orange > Yellow > Green > Blue > Indigo > Violet

Mnemonic systems allow the memorisation of huge amounts of information. These include the Peg System (where numbers take the form of interacting images) … or the Loci System, which hijacks our innate recall of three-dimensional space. (The fictional apotheosis of this system may be Hannibal Lecter‘s memory palace, where he wanders through his imagination until he comes across Clarice Starling’s mobile number. Brrrrr 🥩🍷.)

Mythology
In business storytelling, this is an interlinked set of tales and ideas around the business, brand, product or service. The multitude of tales and treatments provide a multitude of entry points for prospects, customers and sharers. See also:  Storyverse and World-Building.

N

Narrative
In business storytelling, the narrative is an overriding arc that may be comprised of many stories, ideas and elements. See also: Arc.

Narrator
The person who narrates the story. (duh)!

Novella
A shortened story of approx 20k to 40k words. My first attempt at fiction was a novella.

Novelty
Humans are instinctively wired to pay attention to new, strange or anomalous information. This is how ALL learning begins, making novelty a powerful (and often abused) attention hack.

O

Order (Known World)
The opposite of chaos. Stable, but dead in terms of growth or drama. See also: The Hero’s Journey, the Unbearable PresentStructural Tension.

Origin Story
The seed story that explains the business, brand, product or service. See my origin story here.

Oxymoron
When one word or phrase contradicts another. Examples include Act NaturalControlled Chaos and (arguably) Free Love. Actually … hold on a minute … can you feel how these particular examples are losing their power. Orwell hated that kind of laziness. See also: Cliche.

P

Parable
Simple lessons that are taught through stories. Having a Methodist Minister as a Dad meant that I grew up with these … and my podcast is not far from that basic format.

Plot
The way the story unfolds, or the way the storyteller plans it out.

Premise
The core idea of a story, arc or mythology. For example, the premise of my Jon Kaine thrillers is brain versus muscle.

Pressure Selling
The use of aggressive/passive aggressive tactics to pressure customers into buying. See also: Gravitational Sales.

Privileged Moment
The seventh of  Robert Cialdini’s influence principles, introduced in his book Pre-Suasion. The privileged moment is a key opportunity for the persuader to frame the message, just before it is delivered.

Optimal persuasion is achieved only through optimal “pre”-suasion. In other words, to change minds a pre-suader must also change states of mind.

Promise/Promise of the Premise
The implicit promise that a storyteller makes to their audience. Commercially speaking, this might be the trailer or the movie poster. My fav example was highlighted in Save the Cat! Strikes Back by Blake Snyder … the poster for Miss Congeniality. The promise of that fantastic movie is right there in that single image.

Protagonist
The character we identify with and root for within the story. Note: These aren’t always traditional heros, but we empathise anyway.

R

Reciprocation
One of Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of Influence. When someone gives us something we feel an obligation to respond. E.G. The free cup of coffee you are getting at the car dealership isn’t free, it has psychological weight.

Rhetoric
The art of persuasion as codified by Aristotle, made (even more) famous by Churchill and beloved of politicians, religious leaders and salespeople everywhere. My fav book on this is Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs.

S

Scarcity
One of Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of Influence. Put simply, we want things more if we believe we might not be able to get them/can’t have them. Put two toddlers in a room with one toy, and you’ll witness this. Adults are more sophisticated, but the emotion is the same.

Seth Godin
A rockstar in the marketing world. Seth’s done more to upgrade my thinking over the past 20 years than anyone else. If you are interested in the business side of telling stories, start with All Marketers Are Liars.

Blatant Plug: Seth will also be the special guest on my 1,000th podcast coming in June 2022. The interview is already recorded and I can tell you that I had zero saliva the whole time.

Setting
The location of a story (in time and space).

Show (Don’t Tell)
A favourite maxim of writing coaches – don’t describe what a character is like, demonstrate it through their actions. (Equally valuable advice in real life).

Significant Objects Project
The 2009 experiment by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn that showed how telling stories about 100 brick-a-brack items increased their perceived value (+2,700%). These stories altered the Anastora around these objects. See the Significant Objects website.

Simile
Describing something by comparing it explicitly with something else. E.g. Her questions felt like razor wire. Often confused with metaphors … especially by me.

Social Proof
Humans are herd animals who seek to be accepted by ‘in-groups’ at whatever level. Plus, we’re designed to be ‘lazy’. Both these things make us susceptible to (and easily influenced by) the opinions of others. For some reason, we assume that other people are smarter and more conscientious than we are. One of Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of Influence.

Note: Knowledge of this effect offers no meaningful protection against its effects.

Stereotype
You know what this is. You have them and are them.

Story
My minimum viable definition … a story is a sequence of linked events that include a character, a conflict and a consequence.

Storyverse
The ‘mythology’ of true, interconnected stories that a brand, business or individual tells about themselves. See also: World-Building.

Strategic Copywriting
Copy that’s written to build attention, connection and trust … to sell over time. See also: Conversion Copywriting.

Strategy
The long-term goal. See the example of my studio. (Strategy is the highest leverage work we do.)

Structural Tension
In Robert Fritz’s insightful work on the Creative Process, he defines Structural Tension as the difference between where we are and where we want to be. This is desirable because as Fritz says, a basic principle of nature is that tension seeks resolution.

Swearing
Sometimes, we need to say what we really think. Plus, it turns out that swearing is good for you. (Didn’t we all secretly know that?)

Systems Thinking
In a nutshell … everything affects everything. Systems thinking explains why the lastest much-hyped marketing tactic didn’t work … and why it never will. A HUGE shout out to my friend, André Chaperone of TinyLittleBusinesses.com for helping me see the light.

T

Tension
The fundamental thing that moves us … the difference between where we are and where we want to be. See also: Structural Tension and Unbearable Present.

Theme
The subtext of a story, arc or sequence. For example, the theme of my onboarding sequence is trust.

Tragedy
Any story that ends unhappily (as opposed to Comedies … which end happily).

Trans-Media Storytelling
The increasingly common practice of telling a story across multiple mediums. If we loosen the definition, branding is trans-media storytelling.

Transporting
The process through which an audience is transported into the world of the story. Note: This is not a touchy-feely thing. A well-constructed story will trigger physical reactions in our brain and body.

Trust
Work hard to get it. Never abuse it. (This is a public service announcement.)

U

Unbearable Present
In his book, Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson illustrates how humans constantly try to move from the What Is (Unbearable Present) through the Chaos/Unknown and towards the What Should Be (Ideal Future). See also: Structural Tension.

V

Valence
A foundation of emotion, Valence is how pleasant or unpleasant our bodies are feeling at any moment. This is continually and unconsciously monitored through the process of Introception. See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s amazing book, How Emotions Are Made. See also: Arousal.

W

Worldbuilding
The wider process of building your interconnected web of stories, ideas, concepts and insights. See also: Storyverse.

X

Y

You
The most powerful word in copywriting and business in general. See also: But and Empathy.

Z

Zero
The number of storytelling concepts that start with the letter Z.


 

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