Powerful Storytelling: Lessons from Joseph Campbell and the Hero's Journey
Luke Skywalker is hurtling toward the nuclear reactor of the dreaded Death Star in Star Wars. Empire fighters are in hot pursuit. At the last moment, Luke hears Obi-Wan Kenobi say, “Trust the Force,” and turns off his guidance computer. He evades his pursuers and blows up the Death Star.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is held prisoner in the castle of the Wicked Witch. An hourglass measures the minutes she has to live. All hope is gone. Suddenly the image of Auntie Em appears in the crystal ball. Dorothy sobs, “Oh Auntie Em, I’m scared.” Back in Kansas, she tells everyone of her adventure and the lesson she learned, “There’s no place like home.”
Both Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz follow story lines often seen in the best Hollywood films: that of the “ordinary” hero. Mythologist Joseph Campbell described the appeal of such stories in Hero with a Thousand Faces. Stories of mythic proportions involve life’s basic lessons. Typically, the story’s main character starts out as an ordinary person. He or she then gets a “call to adventure”—either by choice or by circumstance.
The protagonist leaves the comforts of home and family to begin the journey. Along the way there are life-threatening challenges. Things get worse. Finally, it looks like the end— there’s no hope. Then, at the point of greatest despair, the hero finds some inner strength to triumph over the odds. This inner strength is usually the message, or moral, of the story: “Trust the Force,” “There’s no place like home.”
The hero prevails over evil. He or she returns to ordinary life, but with new wisdom. This wisdom is then communicated to the rest of society for everyone’s benefit.
Campbell’s model helps us understand the value of heroic stories like those of Luke Skywalker and Dorothy. Stories such as these tap into universal human themes. They are used to communicate the basic truths and values we hold dear.
Of what value is this to speakers in business or public life?
As you craft stories to use in your speeches, consider the theme of the hero’s journey. Topics as wide-ranging in content as altruism for the United Way to quality improvement in industry can fit this pattern. For example:
- tell how the main character took a risk,
- struggled against opposition,
- got in touch with fundamental values (e.g., long-term customer relationships over short-term profits) and helped the company prevail.
By using this storytelling approach, you will tap into a powerful, unconscious reservoir in your audience: the shared experience of overcoming life’s hurdles, of striving to excel. And when your stories touch this, your audience will not only hear your message, they will remember it—as with the lessons we learn from the best-loved stories.
“Trust the force, Luke. Trust the force.”