“Stories are like mental flight simulators; they allow us to rehearse problems and become better at dealing with them.”
—Heath, Chip and Dan Heath (2007). Made to Stick.
Context, problem, solution
All storytelling is about problem-solving.
All stories are context; problem; solution. That’s it. And they occur in that order.
This is true for anecdotes told in seconds and grand narrative multi-series TV dramas. Context, problem, solution. Repeat.
But there is more! Storytelling is not just about problem-solving, it is also our primary mental tool for solving problems.
In 1716, Christopher Bullock wrote, “‘Tis impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes.” That is true, but we can make a broader, more powerful statement. It’s impossible to be sure of anything except problems (of which death and taxes are just two of the many we face).
Problems are inevitable. And problems are solvable.1
Facing and solving problems is a pretty good description of life and business.
When you understand the problem-solving nature of stories, it becomes obvious why we love them so much. And when you see how to use stories for problem-solving, you will have a secret code to solve any problem before you.
Problem-solving with story is an all-purpose, money-making, timesaving, status-building, enjoyment tool. It is a meta-skill!
When I graduated with an electrical and mechanical engineering degree back in the 1980s, my first job was running electrical survey instruments in oilwells, so the oil company could know whether they had discovered oil.
It’s a basic fact of the oil industry that oil is not found in touristic, pleasant locations. And so, I was stuck on rigs in the jungles of Sumatra, offshore East Malaysia, and on the frozen seas of Northern China.
If my survey instruments failed, as they often did, an oil rig and an impatient company man were waiting for me to fix them—at a waiting cost of one million dollars per day.
My job was continuous problem-solving. If you asked me what an engineer does, I would say, “An engineer solves problems.” But I did not think about or understand storytelling at that time.
With the perspective of hindsight, I now appreciate how I learned that complex, high-pressure job. I learnt from the stories of my colleagues.
Each time we returned to base from a rig, the engineers would get together and share stories of problems encountered and overcome. Each story was a mental simulation of how to overcome future problems. A simulation with mental playback—or play forward to other possible solutions.
They were not just technical stories, but stories of how to behave, how to manage people, how to succeed, and how to avoid failure. We loved those stories.
You might be thinking, ‘It’s not that simple…’; storytelling is not really about problem-solving, it’s about entertainment, human connection and emotions, or something else. Let me provide some examples.
A tornado rips through Kansas, and Dorothy and her dog, Toto, are whisked away in their house to the magical land of Oz [context]. Dorothy must find her way home [problem]. She meets three friends, has lots of adventures, and eventually finds her way home [solution]. The three friends have problems too (no brain; no heart; no courage), which they solve along the way—stories within a story.
Nelson Mandela grew up in South Africa while the country was racially divided by the system of apartheid [context]. He became an activist, seeking equal opportunities and rights for black South Africans [problem]. He was jailed for 27 years but inspired change through his writing and communication. In 1994, he became the first black prime minister of a united South Africa [solution].
In 1937, Benjamin Franklin was proposed to become Clerk of the General Assembly for Philadelphia [context]. An influential rival spoke out against his nomination [problem]. Franklin knew it would be beneficial for him to become closer to this rival, so he sent him a note asking to borrow a rare book. The rival was surprised but agreed to send him the book. Franklin thanked him, and over time kept asking for other books, and the two built a comradeship [solution].
In contradiction to the title, I tell fifty stories in my book Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. Last night, I went through the story index in the book and found context, problem, and solution in each one. Every story in the book is a problem-solving story.
Sequence is crucial
Note that the sequence is crucial! If you miss the sequence, it is not a story, and you lose all the benefits.
In 1996, when I started as a salesman in Norway, I made the mistake of just telling my clients the solution. Solutions on their own, out of context, are merely claims that are difficult to process. Put the solution in a story, and magic happens.
With context, the listener can imagine themselves in the story. As a problem is described, they can guess at possible solutions and then delight in the final solution, as if they were the one that solved it.
When you understand and appreciate that stories are about problem-solving, and you notice story’s problem-solving power, you can seek out examples for all types of business problems, such as:
- How to build trust with another person;
- How to inspire a team;
- How to help a client change;
- How to close a deal;
- How to get the right behaviour from a team;
- How to get new ideas;
- How to grow a company;
- How to implement a new strategy…
It goes on and on. Endless, solvable problems. Solvable with stories. Context, problem, solution.
It takes (enjoyable) practice to master storytelling, but the more you learn, the more you will realise how fundamental story is to business and life.
You will not only learn to tell stories, but also to seek out the stories of your clients, partners, and colleagues. Storytelling and story listening go together as a matched set.
1 David Deutsch (2011). The Beginning of Infinity.
About Mike Adams
Mike is an expert facilitator and story consultant who has helped numerous national and international companies, across many industries, to tap into story-powered sales. He is also the author of the international bestseller Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. Connect with Mike on: