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Your story needs the equivalent of a jack-booted sadist.

All great stories have a villain.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones’ villain was the Nazis. If there is anything worth fighting and defeating, it’s a group of jack-booted sadists who want to take over the world. Such a vivid villain made for a great struggle and an excellent story.

I gave this example recently and I had a friend nod in agreement and then pause. She said, “But Sleepless In Seattle was a great story. There was no villain in it.”

Villains aren’t always as overt as our Nazi example. Sometimes they take the form of a subtler challenge. For Meg Ryan’s character Annie Reed, it was overcoming that practical part of herself that wouldn’t let her embrace the idea that love should be magical. Once she did, she was able to meet her true love.

This ain’t no fantasy. This is business.

“We don’t want to talk about problems. Show me happy customers. Talk about how great things are going to be.”

I run into this objection every once in awhile when we suggest that we should illustrate the challenge our prospects face.

I like showing happiness. Hope and happiness are awesome. But without the contrast of a challenge (the villain), these portrayals can quickly become incredibly forgettable. Worse yet, they can come off as manipulative since we have no sense that the organization understands anything about what we’re going through as a prospect.

Addressing the villain demonstrates our empathy as well as the kind of keen understanding of what our prospects are facing.

How to find our prospect’s villain

Villains take on all kinds of forms. They’re sneaky that way. If you’re a bank, maybe it’s the chaos in your prospect’s personal finances that is causing them to constantly feel stressed. If you’re a car dealer, maybe it’s their fear of being taken advantage of when buying a car.

Think about your prospects’ needs and wants. Their hopes and aspirations. Imagine what questions they might have. Put yourself in their shoes and then ask, “What is keeping me from that thing that I truly desire?” That thing standing in our way is the villain.

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Add the villain to the story

Now ask, “What can we do as an organization that can help our prospect defeat that villain?” Maybe it’s sharing some knowledge. Maybe it’s changing the way we engage with them to demonstrate empathy and build trust.

Once you have a few ideas, make it part of the stories you tell. Too often I have seen organizations lead with some message like, “We’re the #1 choice for quality service.” That’s akin to meeting someone at a party and having them immediately launch into telling you how great they are. How long would you stick around?

Leading with your quality service claim totally ignores the need to put your prospect at the center of everything you do. It glosses right over their villain, making them feel like they are on their own to figure out how to fight the good fight. Imagine how they’d feel if they believed they had someone on their side that wanted to help them crush that villain.

It doesn’t matter what kind of organization we are part of. Our prospects have a villain. And they are looking for someone to help them discover how to vanquish this ne’er-do-well that stands between them and their dream. If we understand this powerful idea, we can begin to see how to help our prospects win. And when they win, they help us defeat our own villain.

Dan is an expert brand strategist and author of the forthcoming book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story. He is a founder at Will & Grail — a brand innovation company, helping organizations find their unique, undeniable and unshakable sense of purpose and create innovative experiences that bring it to life. He regularly shares his insight here, on Linkedin, and at

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Dan is an expert brand strategist and author of the book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story. He is a founder at Will & Grail.

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