experiments, instruments & measurement book

Why the Hero’s Journey?

By Anna Marx

My Ordinary World

I was never very interested in “marketing.” It was a scary word I closely associated with something even worse – sales. The word “sales” still brings up images in my mind of Willy Loman and working tirelessly to convince people they need your product. The introvert in me still shudders thinking about it.

The Call to Adventure

So, I quite surprised myself when I signed up for a webinar on marketing and storytelling. I found myself enraptured by the presenter, Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars. He spoke about a completely different kind of marketing than the stereotype in my head. He talked about “Empowerment Marketing” – inspiring audiences to improve the world through your stories. I immediately ran down the street to my local bookstore and ordered his book. I’ve always loved stories since I was a little girl listening to my grandmother tell me stories of her life and our family for hours.

Crossing the Threshold

A few chapters into Sachs’ book and I felt like a veil had been lifted. He spoke about two kinds of marketing: the broadcast marketing of my childhood, based on audiences’ anxieties, and empowerment marketing, based on audiences’ real values. Suddenly, everywhere I looked, I saw the broadcast advertisements and noticed how they were designed to incite negative feelings deep inside – Lysol commercials to scare me about how dangerous every surface of my house was to my daughter, Cover Girl commercials to make me feel badly about my skin. “Ha! Can’t scare me anymore!” I said. “I see through you!”

And then I started seeing empowerment marketing – that uses the hero’s journey – everywhere, too. Obama won his first campaign with empowerment (Yes We Can), while at the same time the Tea Party empowered conservatives who had had enough and wanted to see change (you can almost hear them saying “Yes We Can” too). Of course, the hero’s journey is everywhere in literature – Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Exodus. And it clicked when I went to see Les Mis that it, too, perfectly follows the Hero’s Journey (Valjean goes on a lifelong and difficult journey of morality and faith. Ultimately, he emerges the perfect hero, always choosing the seemingly impossible right choices).

The Struggle

Even though I saw these stories everywhere, Sachs’ message didn’t fully sink in until one night in synagogue. Following Shabbat evening services, we were invited to listen to guest speakers from Eden House – a two-year program designed to help women escape the sex trade and transition into life. A graduate of the program spoke to us about her experience. She was kidnapped as a 12 year-old girl, forced into prostitution and drug addiction. She spent thirty years as a drug-addicted prostitute. Imprisoned more than 200 times, a nun came to her in jail and invited her to join a house where she would be loved and cared for and could, for the first time, build a life for herself. She refused. “That’s not for me. Look at me. I’m no one. I’m nothing.” The nun was persistent and finally convinced the young woman.  She told us the story of the long, sometimes wonderful, sometimes unbelievably difficult two-year journey. Her life did not begin until she was 45 years old. And there she stood, right in front of me, an articulate, beautiful, strong, intelligent, African-American woman. I could not see a trace of the shell of a human being she once was, and yet, there she was. And today, she works for the program, doing outreach to other prostitutes, convincing them, “I survived and I emerged, and so can you.” I promise you, there was not a dry eye in the house.

The Treasure

So what does this have to do Sachs? This incredible woman told her real story to us and it followed the hero’s journey. Perfectly. The reluctant hero (“what’s so special about me?”), the persistent mentor, the long difficult journey, and the emergence as a real and true hero, one that we can all look to with great awe. Why does this story hit the heart? It’s not familiar to us. Do you know many prostitutes? I don’t. But, because she was the reluctant hero, because she was just a real and regular person to begin with, we can all see just a tiny bit of ourselves in her. And when we hear her unbelievable story, we can say, “She did it; she transformed. Maybe I can, too.”

The Road Back

And that is why we use the hero’s journey format to tell stories. Do all stories perfectly fit the template? Of course not. But in the very best stories, we can find the most important elements (a reluctant hero, a powerful mentor, a transformation that comes from great personal struggle). And if we tell the story with these elements, highlight them, tell the story in this particular order, we can give our audiences the same feeling. “She did it; she transformed. Maybe I can, too.” And that’s what we’re all about: transformation.

Another Call to Adventure

We are on a journey together. It’s not easy, no journey worth taking is. It’s new. It’s different. It’s uncomfortable. How do we find stories that “fit” the hero’s journey? Why should we anyway? Please, let me be the persistent mentor. Let your consultant be your mentor. Follow us. Come on this journey. Take your best stories and see which ones fit the elements of the hero’s journey. Start telling these stories. See which ones make your audience’s goosebumps pop up.  Come with us. The treasure at the end is well worth the dragons we will slay along the way.

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