The story of James Barry, 7 plot devices and how you can improve your communications
Storytelling is a powerful tool for communication. It allows us to engage and connect with our audience, convey complex ideas in a simple and relatable way, and inspire action.
About a year ago, I was at a client away day and one of the few presentations I can remember months later was by our Head of Procurement. I'll be honest, I'd expected to not be terribly interested in procurement as it didn't affect my work directly and isn't the most riveting subject normally. But the presentation - about 'hidden heroes' (and how effective procurement can be one) came alive with a story about Dr James Barry. Barry was a pioneering surgeon who achieved remarkable success as a military doctor treating wounded soldiers, and improving the conditions of the local inhabitants in the British Empire, performing the first recorded successful caesarean section by a European in Africa. What cemented Barry's place in history though is that he* was a man in both public and private life, a post-mortem examination revealed he was born as a woman, Margaret Anne. His sex had been a secret his entire life, in order to be able to get to university and follow his dream of being a doctor in a society that wouldn't accept women in such roles.
In his book "The Seven Basic Plots," Christopher Booker identifies seven common plot structures that appear in stories throughout history and across cultures. These plots are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.
Each of these plot structures can be applied to communication approaches in different ways. James Barry's story fits into some of these, not least 'Overcoming the Monster' and 'Rebirth'.
Here are some practical examples of how you could use them in your own communications.
Overcoming the Monster: This plot involves a hero who must overcome a formidable opponent or obstacle. In communication, you can use this plot structure to engage your audience and convey a sense of conflict or challenge. For example, if you are giving a presentation on a problem facing your community, you can use the Overcoming the Monster plot to show how your solution will help the hero (the community) triumph over the obstacle (the problem).
Rags to Riches: This plot follows the journey of a character who starts in a humble or disadvantaged position and rises to wealth or success. In communication, you can use this plot structure to inspire and motivate your audience by showing them what is possible with hard work and determination. For example, if you are giving a career advice seminar, you can use the Rags to Riches plot to illustrate how someone can go from being a struggling intern to a successful executive.
The Quest: This plot involves a hero who embarks on a journey to find a specific object or achieve a certain goal. In communication, you can use this plot structure to convey a sense of purpose and drive. For example, if you are giving a speech about the importance of education, you can use the Quest plot to show how obtaining an education is a journey that requires dedication and determination.
Voyage and Return: This plot involves a character who leaves their familiar surroundings and embarks on a journey, only to return home changed or transformed in some way. In communication, you can use this plot structure to illustrate the power of new experiences and how they can shape and transform us. For example, if you are giving a travelogue about your trip to a foreign country, you can use the Voyage and Return plot to show how the trip changed your perspective and made you a different person.
Comedy: This plot involves characters who face humorous or absurd situations, often resulting in a happy ending. In communication, you can use this plot structure to lighten the mood and bring a sense of levity to your message. For example, if you are giving a presentation on a serious topic, you can use comedic elements to make your message more palatable and engaging.
Tragedy: This plot involves the suffering and downfall of a character, often resulting in a tragic ending. In communication, you can use this plot structure to evoke emotion and make a powerful impact. For example, if you are giving a speech about a social issue, you can use the Tragedy plot to highlight the devastating consequences of inaction and inspire your audience to take action.
Rebirth: This plot involves a character who experiences a major transformation or awakening, often leading to a new beginning. In communication, you can use this plot structure to show how change is possible and encourage your audience to embrace it. For example, if you are giving a motivational speech, you can use the Rebirth plot to illustrate how someone can overcome their struggles and emerge as a stronger and better person.
The seven basic plots identified by Christopher Booker can be applied to communication approaches in a variety of ways. By understanding these plot structures and how they can be used to engage and connect with your audience, you can ensure your communications are remembered in months and years to come.
*I use the male pronoun as Barry did throughout his life.