“I thought it would be easy.”
When Jill and I use this prompt as a warm-up exercise in our Story Mode workshops, the result is always a fascinating variety of struggle stories. After just three minutes of writing, participants share vivid scenes that range from heart-wrenching to hilarious.
The loss of an aged pet.
A first day of work that serves up one crisis after another.
An “easy” patio project that exhausts the homeowner—and his bank account.
Stories need struggles.
As the storytellers reveal these challenging moments, we lean in, eager to discover what happens next.
That’s what struggle does for a story. Each twist in the plot builds tension. The knot of conflict tightens, holding our attention. We long for resolution, maybe even a happy ending … but not too fast. First, we want to “enjoy” the problems. (Schadenfreude much?)
It’s easy to accept conflict as an essential ingredient in the stories we consume for pleasure. Imagine a superhero with no villain to vanquish. B O R I N G.
But does conflict belong in a business story?
Yes, even business messages need an element of struggle. Especially in persuasive communication, friction can be fruitful. You don’t have to invent an all-out war, just build a little tension.
Here are just a few ways to put conflict to use when you’re communicating at work:
- Contrast (then versus now, ours versus theirs, good versus better) can create a case for change and compel your audience to try something different.
- Omission—withholding a discount code, downloadable resource, or the rest of your top 10 list—can motivate people to subscribe, follow, or join your community. Rather than miss out, your audience will clamor to get in.
- Cliffhangers can stir a sense of curiosity that makes your audience opt in, read on, and stick around. “But wait, there’s more!”
- Honest details about a problem can reinforce your credibility as the problem solver. In your efforts to be positive, have you glossed over the undesirable truth that is the reason for your product or service? Take a lesson from paper towel ads. They don’t shy away from catastrophic spills; first they dramatize them, then show how to erase the mess in a single swipe.
See? Struggles make good stories—even at work.
And yet, storytellers can’t ride the struggle bus.
Just as we’re building useful conflict into our business stories, we want to strip useless friction out of the creative process. Crafting and telling stories should be fun, or at least professionally invigorating. While necessity may be the mother of invention, misery is a death knoll for innovation.
When creative work feels too hard, what happens? You:
- Make excuses.
- Avoid the work, wasting time on other things.
- Half-ass projects just to get them over with.
- Bitch and moan.
- Lose confidence, pride, and enthusiasm.
- Give up.
None of this results in excellent work. At best, you’ll turn out a lackluster message and move on to what’s next. At worst, your negativity will fester and infect other projects, other people, and other parts of your life.
The struggle bus is a pessimistic mindset, where every stop dumps you at the intersection of “this sucks” and “I can’t.”
Creativity requires optimism. You have to believe the work is worthy—and that you’re worthy for the work.
But, boy, when you’re strapped into that struggle bus, hope is hard to find.
Here are 3 ways to get off the struggle bus.
- Carpool. Find an ally or two and ask them to join you for the ride. Tell them about the end you have in mind and the roadblocks you’ve encountered. Take advantage of their fresh perspectives and see what you can create together. (Not sure where to find this kind of ride share? Reach out to me!)
- Find alternate routes. There’s more than one way to get across town. In fact, there might be 39. Maybe the path you’ve chosen simply doesn’t work. Brainstorm all the other ways you could express your message. Pick a promising alternative and see where it takes you.
- Pound pavement. Seriously, get on your own two feet. Put the screens to sleep, step away from your desk, and get moving. As my brilliant business partner says, “Physical activity is necessary for creativity, clear thinking, and for making enough space in my head for a new thought, or for an old thought to reform itself into something new.”
Ready? Pry open the emergency exit at the back of your struggle bus, hop out, and get yourself on a more positive path. You’ve got this.