The lives of two friends are threatened by a strange new force in the world. Leaving their old lives behind, they set out on a journey to an unfamiliar new world, where they make new friends, confront many challenges, learn a great deal about themselves and what they are capable of, and ultimately triumph.
If you’ve seen the Internship you may recognize this as the story of Billy (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Owen Wilson) whose previously contented careers as watch salesmen are destroyed by the rising power of digital commerce. They set out on a journey through the strange world of Google, where with the help of new friends, they do battle with a host of tech-savvy geniuses. They learn, they adapt, they put new ideas to the test, and ultimately they succeed in overcoming the force that had previously appeared such an insurmountable threat.
Or if you’re a ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan, you may recognize the story of Frodo and Sam whose quiet lives in Hobbiton are brought to an end by the rising power of Mordor. They set out on a journey through strange new worlds, finding fellowship along the way, and doing battle with goblins, trolls and orcs. They learn, they adapt, they put new ideas to the test, and ultimately they succeed in overcoming the force that had previously appeared such an insurmountable threat.
I’m not suggesting that the Internship was modelled on Lord of the Rings. The reason these two stories share so much in common is that the underlying narrative structure of most stories share a lot in common. With a single hero / protagonist, in place of two, the story structure above could equally be describing James Cameron’s film Avatar, Spielberg’s blockbuster shark movie Jaws, or the eighth century epic poem Beowulf. This consistency has deep roots. The American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, argued that within all the traditional myths and legends of ancient cultures there is a common underlying pattern he called the ‘monomyth’:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
In his monumental 2004 study, and book of the same title, Christopher Booker, claimed there are “Seven Basic Plots”. More recently, in his book “into the Woods”, the dramatist John Yorke presented a convincing argument that a striking number of elements are in fact shared by almost all successful stories.
Most stories involve a central hero or protagonist, whose eyes you see through and whose progress you most focus on as the story unfolds. For a story to engage people, there must be a sense of purpose, a challenge undertaken, a desire pursued which requires movement and direction. On this journey, it’s important for the central character to develop and grow, to make progress mentally and emotionally. We’re naturally interested in their ability to learn from the decisions they make and the actions they take in response to the many tests they encounter along the way. We’re also highly interested in how they relate to the different people they meet, what they learn from their peers and their mentors, and how they develop strong feelings of friendship and belonging. Ultimately, we want our heroes to win, to overcome their challenge, achieve their goal and receive their just reward, whether it’s untold riches, marriage to the love of their lives, or a full time job at Google.
I believe the same consistent global ingredients that make stories engaging are the same ingredients that make work engaging:
- A strong sense of purpose;
- Tough but achievable challenges;
- Freedom to act;
- Learning and growth;
- Teamwork, mutual care and respect;
- Reward and recognition for your efforts.
The protagonist in most stories is the hero we want to be, and what we experience through them in stories are the same kinds of experience that make work feel more like a desirable and fulfilling adventure than a tiresome but necessary bore.
I suggest that you take these key ingredients into consideration if you’re trying to define your organization’s Employee Value Proposition or figuring out the most compelling way to tell your employer brand story. It helps to makes sense of the mountains of research that have been produced on employee engagement drivers over the last 20 years from Gallup’s Q12 to Daniel Pink’s recent business blockbuster ‘Drive’. Very often the most powerful insights are also the very oldest.
This blog contains extracts from Richard Mosley’s latest book ‘Employer Brand Management: Lessons from the World’s Leading Employers’ (Wiley) which is available to order on Amazon.
@rimosley / uk.linkedin.com/in/richardmosley/