Universal storytelling

How to write a story for any audience using the hero's journey.

When it comes to modern day storytelling there is one idea that has inspired authors, film makers and speechwriters unlike any other. It's an idea that to many of us is instinctive, but one that has remained controversial since its publication in 1949 by an equally controversial Joseph Campbell. A voracious reader of mythology and psychology, Campbell's seminal work The hero with a thousand faces proposes that every hero's journey, from ancient Greece to imperial China, ultimately follows the same pattern.

The hero's journey

Revered by some and lamented by others for everything from "romantic fascism" to cultural insensitivity, Joseph Campbell has never been a fashionable figure among intellectuals. Yet his idea that the story of every hero can be condensed into one irresistible formula has, in the decades since it was published, provided the basis for new mythology in media and film - from Disney's Aladdin to George Lucas' Star Wars.

The hero's journey, as put forward by Joseph Campbell, goes a bit like this:

1. The hero leaves his everyday life for a supernatural adventure

2. The hero encounters forces of good and evil on his journey

3. After some hesitation, the hero prevails with the help of a mentor

4. The hero returns to the everyday world with wisdom to benefit humanity

The familiar sequence

Writers of all kinds use sequences like the hero's journey in their storytelling because it's easier than starting from scratch; it saves you time when you have a deadline and because mass audiences respond to familiar patterns. I challenge you to find a film, for example, which does not in some way reflect the following sequence:

1. The audience is introduced to the protagonist and his or her situation

2. Something happens to change that situation

3. Something goes wrong

4. After a series of hardships, the situation is resolved

When it comes to speech writing in particular, it's often the simplest, most universal methods that prove to be the most effective. From the rule of three to the use of repetition, there are certain things the human brain is just hardwired to find satisfying and the hero's journey appears to be one of them.

Storytelling and oxytocin

Writing a speech without a story sequence is a lot like having a Nando's without the piri piri sauce. Why would you do that? That's just wrong. But not any old story will do. No one is interested in an anecdote about your latest round of golf. Authentic, character driven stories lead to the production of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone, plays an important role in human empathy. So by writing a hero's journey into your speech, not only do you have a formula to make the process easier, you're actually helping the audience bond with you as well.