Imagine this. You’re attending a presentation hoping to be inspired on a particular topic. Instead, all you notice is the presenter spilling fact after fact just like the presenter before him. And the presenter before him. And the presenter before him. It just seems so… mundane. You simply cannot pay attention. Every presentation looks and sounds the same and none of the presenters stood out. In the end, you come out of the room bored and uninspired.
Constantly being bombarded with hard facts and data can be overwhelming, which can explain why we zone out from a presentation, lecture or speech after a while. According to the theory of cognitive load, our minds become overloaded and blank out if we’re required to process too much complex information at once. So what can you do as a speaker to empower and captivate your audience?
The Power of Storytelling
Enter Storytelling. Stories help to connect with your audience which makes it easier for them to remember your speech. They will also walk out of the room feeling inspired, driving them to take action. It has been scientifically proven that stories engage more parts of our brain as compared to data and statistics. Our brains activate all our five senses which allow us to broaden our imagination and be part of the story itself.
However, story structures on their own aren’t enough. Stories only truly become powerful when the audience can experience the adventure and challenges the characters of the story face as well.
This is where the hero’s journey storytelling technique comes in. Almost all films make use of this approach and with good reason. It is the most powerful pattern out there for telling stories. Not only that, it has the exact built-in mechanisms for creating the connection needed for any audience. The result? An impactful speech that can inspire your audience.
Regardless of whether you’re trying to captivate a room of investors with your startup pitch deck or to boost your chances with your ICO deck during a private sale, the hero’s journey can be a powerful structure to utilise.
So what exactly is the hero’s journey?
Described by Joseph Campbell as the ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, the Hero’s Journey is the same exact tale every culture tells – just with different characters. Though the journey’s process can be in various manners, all of them have a few things in common – the call to adventure, a mentor, challenges, victory and the return.
The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey
“[Heroes] are only mortals, ones that try their best to accomplish feats while fighting against external and internal forces. The only difference between them and other people is their response to the call to be heroic” – Julie Harris
There are typically twelve stages that compose of the Hero’s Journey. Not only does
each phase helps the audience to connect with the Hero, it also leads the audience to the key message of your speech.
We’ll use the film, KungFu Panda to reference these 12 stages of the hero’s journey:
1. Ordinary World:
The ordinary world is the hero’s home and a safe haven. Here, we get to understand the Hero’s background before his or her journey begins. We also get to identify the hero’s urges, needs, and problems and what makes the hero uniquely them. The idea is to ensure that the audience is able to relate to the Hero who helps them become emotionally invested in the story.
E.g. Po is a commoner who idolizes the Furious 5 and is unable to achieve his dream of being a Kungfu Master as he helps out with his Dad’s noodle restaurant.
2. Call to Adventure:
The Call to Adventure sets the story rolling by disrupting the ordinary life of the Hero, either making him or her face a challenge. Depending on the situation, the hero may either accept the adventure by choice or due to a circumstance that forces him or her to. This is a crucial moment in the story, where an alarm goes off for both the hero and audience. This issue that the hero faces is what will get your audience’s attention. This ‘Call to Adventure’ can take a multitude of forms such as a message, announcement, a sudden disaster, the arrival of the villain or a death. The idea, however, is to convince the audience why they should care about this issue that has surfaced. Only then can you get them glued to their seats.
E.g. Po is proclaimed the Dragon Warrior – the one kung fu master worthy of receiving the Dragon Scroll and capable of defeating Tai Lung.
Depending on some heroes, they may initially refuse the ‘call to adventure’ due to fear or insecurities. The hero is not receptive to changes preferring the safety of the ordinary world. This sign of weakness makes the hero relatable to the audience as it shows everyone struggles with self-doubt and insecurities.
4. Meeting a Mentor:
The Hero then meets a mentor to gain confidence, insight, advice and training to overcome their initial fear. This is because some heroes may not wish to or are unable to rush into an adventure without gaining some experience and wisdom through his or her mentor. Some examples include: Po when he meets Master Shifu who will train him to be a KungFu Master (KungFu Panda).
Here, the audience gets to be part of the journey the hero takes to improve and strengthen him or herself as an individual.
E.g. Po meets his red panda master, Shifu, who puts Po through a torturous and agonizing training regime.
5. Crossing the Threshold:
Once the hero crosses the threshold, it shows that he or she is finally committed and ready for the Journey. Crossing the threshold will directly affect the Hero, raise the stakes and force some action. External forces may push the Hero ahead, such as an abduction of someone close to the Hero (Taken) or the hero may cross the threshold when the earth’s population is on the brink of being wiped out in half (Avengers: Infinity War).
Internal forces may also push the Hero to accept their ‘call to adventure’. Such examples include Belle sacrificing herself in exchange for her father’s freedom (Beauty and the Beast) or when Rapunzel finally musters the courage to leave her tower with a man she just met (Tangled).
E.g. Shifu decides that Po is ready to receive the Dragon Scroll.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies:
This Stage is the most important for the hero and audiences alike. Throughout his or her adventure, the hero will encounter obstacles and fights with enemies. They may forge allies or may even form a Hero team as well (Avengers Assemble). The Hero must prepare for the greater obstacles that have yet to come. He or she also requires this stage to test his or her skills, power and commitment to the Journey. For the audience, seeing the hero struggle as he or she fights obstacle after obstacle will naturally make them root for the hero. This hooks your audience to stay as they now want to find out whether their hero is able to succeed or not.
E.g. Tai Lung (enemy) escapes from Prison. Po and the others attempt to defeat him.
7. Approaching the Inmost Cave:
The Hero must make the preparations needed to approach the inmost cave after facing a setback or a failure in a mission. He or she is now forced into trying a new approach or idea. This makes the audience empathise with the character, forming a type of connection with him or her as they understand that everyone experiences failure at some point of time in their lives.
However, some confident heroes may bypass these preparations and head straight to the inmost cave. Despite so, a new approach is necessary after they faced their setback – whether it be a teammate dying along the journey or whether the villains have won the fight during that moment. In summary, the approach is nearing the climax of the story.
E.g. As Shifu decides that Po is ready to receive the Dragon Scroll, it reveals nothing but a blank reflective surface. Unable to understand the message of the scroll, Shifu and Po are thrown off balance by it which distracts them from fighting Tai Lung (enemy) to the best of their abilities.
8. The Ordeal:
The Ordeal marks another crucial moment in the story, where a transformation takes place. This stage is where all hope seems lost and the hero is on the brink of losing. Some examples include Mulan when she was cast out after the soldiers found out she was a girl (Mulan) or when powerless Thor loses to Loki in a fight on earth (Thor).
The hero finally faces the ordeal where not only do they confront their greatest fear but also confronts the most difficult challenge and experiences “death”. Only through ‘death’, ‘loss’ or ‘failure’ can the Hero be reborn, experiencing a resurrection that makes them stronger. This is where the hero sees to it that he or she finishes the journey till the end.
E.g. A distraught Po finds his dad who, in an attempt to console him, reveals that the long-withheld secret ingredient to his famous “secret ingredient soup” is ‘nothing’, explaining that ‘to make something special you just have to believe it is’. Po realises that this is the message of the Dragon Scroll, and goes back to confront Tai Lung.
The hero manages to overcome the ordeal successfully and has earned the reward. The reward can come in many forms like greater knowledge, wisdom or recognition. The Hero deserves the right to celebrate. At this point in time, the audience has become part of the story and will rejoice with the hero as they felt a connection with this character.
E.g. Po becomes a formidable challenge for Tai Lung (enemy), eventually defeating him in combat.
10. Road Back:
After the celebration, the hero finally sets out on the road to return to the ordinary world where he or she continues to live in his or her regular life.
E.g. Po returns to the Valley of Peace.
While on the journey back to the ordinary world, the hero encounters his or her final challenge which will test the hero. This will be the toughest challenge the hero will face. Most Heroes will come out of the challenge reborn or transformed as a better version of his or her ordinary self. This is due to the lessons and insights from the experiences gained and characters that he or she has met along the road.
In some cases, this battle may not necessarily be just about the Hero’s life. It may also include other lives or the entire world that may be at stake. Thus, the Hero must prove that he or she is willing to accept his or her sacrifice for the benefit and safety of the ordinary world. Other allies may lend assistance, but at the end of the day, the hero must rise to the occasion.
The hero finally returns to the ordinary world with his or her final reward. In most tales, the return with the elixir not only resolve storylines, it also restores balance to the ordinary world. The hero may also embark on a new life with another adventure stored for them, influenced by the journey traveled. The return also helps the audience understand the meaning and key message of the hero’s journey, bringing a sense of completion to the story.
E.g. Po is praised by the Valley of Peace and earns the respect of the Furious Five, who fully acknowledge him as a true kung fu master.
Incorporating The Hero’s Journey Technique in Your Speech
So now you have a better understanding of the cycle of the Hero’s Journey, you’d know that most of the stories go somewhat like this:
The hero starts out as an ordinary person. He or she then gets a ‘call to adventure’—sometimes by choice or by circumstance. As the hero leaves the comfort of their home and family to begin the journey, he or she faces life-threatening challenges along the way. The hero’s situation looks bleak and it further escalates to the Hero’s defeat. Then, just when all hope seems lost, the hero finds some inner strength to win despite the odds.
Good prevails over evil. The hero then returns to his or her ordinary life, but with a new addition – wisdom. This wisdom is then communicated to the rest of society for everyone’s benefit.
If you noticed, all the tales of heroes have three things in common – the problem, the solution and the reward. You’ll notice that these three elements are always or mostly used in every hero tale and it never fails to attract the audience. Leverage on this three step approach to help make your speech much more engaging which will empower your audience in return.
How Is the Three Step Approach Effective?
a) The Problem
This is what really keeps your audience glued to their seats. There’s no point providing all the hard information and data if you cannot make your audience understand why the problem is a problem. However, once you convince them otherwise, they will be interested and curious as to what will happen next.
Many make the mistake of identifying the solutions first but not the problem when it comes to their speech. Some don’t even mention the problem at all! The problem is crucial as it gives reasons why the audience should care about the issue.
So what? Who cares? What’s in it for me?
This is the reality of the audience’s mindset. The quicker we grasp this, the sooner we’ll craft and deliver presentations that engage our audience.
b) The Solution
“A presentation that doesn’t seek to make change is a waste of time and energy.”
– Seth Godin
Have you ever sat through a presentation and thought, “Interesting but what can I do to help?” Overall, the content was great, stories were compelling, and valid points were brought up about the issue. Everything except one thing is missing – the solution.
Without this, your audience will think, “What do I do with all of this new information?”. As a speaker, informing is not enough – take it a step further and show the audience how they can take action. And to inspire action, solutions must be provided. Although problems hook your audience, solutions are what activates the action.
Start adopting the “How will my audience change as a result of hearing my speech?” mindset. Is there a way you can make their lives easier, help them grow, or do something better, faster, or more efficient than ever before? Your speech can empower the audience if they can take at least one action during your speech.
c) The Reward
All great stories have one thing in common and it’s the key takeaway of the story. After addressing the problem and providing the solutions, this is where the audience will learn the message that you are trying to convey.
The message is the core of your speech as it helps you to create a narrative that provides information, inspire action and solidify the public opinion. Not only that, it ensures your whole story is consistent which is crucial as it ensures your speech does not get out of point. For instance, the moral of “Mulan” is that we shouldn’t let limitations stop us from doing what we want.
Here’s a tip: To ensure your whole speech remains consistent, develop your key message first to get the ball rolling. Distill it into one or two very specific yet concise lines that you can easily repeat for your speech or presentation.
This key message will be a reminder of why you are making your speech or presentation in the first place.
Here’s a video of an inspiring talk by chef José Andrés who made use of the three elements in his storytelling to empower his audience:
And there you have it! An in-depth understanding of the step-by-step phase of the Hero’s Journey. Use the three core elements found in this storytelling technique to personalise, connect, engage and inspire action amongst your audience. Let us know if this approach worked for you in the comments down below!