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Have you ever gotten a sense of déjà vu while reading a book or watching a movie that’s otherwise totally new to you? Obviously you have— so many stories are built on the same foundations of archetypes and tropes. Stripped of complexities, all stories are basically the same: an individual ventures into the unknown to acquire something they desire.
That’s not a new idea— Joseph Campbell broke the door down in 1949 with his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Odysseus, Christ, Captain Ahab, Gautama Buddha, Jane Eyre, Luke Skywalker… different names and faces, different times and places, but all the same story. Not only that, the same effective story. What Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey” has resonated with humanity for millennia, and is the root for so many stories that we cherish.
So why wouldn’t this apply to public speaking? Any muttonhead can tell you that good speeches tell a story. This infographic will show you exactly how Campbell’s 17 Steps can lead to storytelling success. It doesn’t matter if you want to discuss Martin Luther King’s march to Selma, why you deserve a raise, or Walking Dead plot summaries. The Hero’s Journey can apply to almost any presentation.
To illustrate this, I’ll use a popular TED Talk: the magician David Blaine explaining how he came to break the world record for holding his breath.
It’s not exactly Milton, but it’s a good speech that illustrates what I’m about to talk about well.
Also, you can check out this interactive infographic we created with Visme. Click on the image below to view the full-screen version and an explanation of each step and how you can apply it to your presentations:
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The hero is living their life, nothing extraordinary occurring. All is well— until it isn’t. Something strange and wondrous happens, and the unknown beckons the hero.
After an introduction to establish his character (a magician who seeks to do the impossible,) Blaine tells us of his lifelong fascination with trying to hold his breath. He then brings up a story he heard about a boy surviving 45 minutes with no air (click on the play button above; the video automatically takes you to this section) and how this inspired him to see if he could do something similar.
Why are you speaking? Because you want something: to inform or to persuade someone of something. What makes the story you’re telling worth telling? It all stems from an inciting incident, a piece of powerful imagery that will establish your subject’s identity immediately.
The hero rejects the unknown before them for one reason or another— too difficult, too frightening. They prefer to maintain their own circumstances.
Blaine tells an amusing anecdote of meeting with a doctor friend who discourages him to even try to hold his breath for an extended period of time, as it can cause brain damage. Blaine tries to have an internal rebreather put inside of him, which fails immediately.
Everyone would like to be decisive— but nobody wants to be brash or impatient. So when your subject experienced the inciting incident, it probably didn’t immediately alter the course of their life. That resistance humanizes them, since nobody drops their routine for an unknown alternative. Connect to your audience’s weaknesses through those of your subject.
A helper or guide appears before the hero, and typically offers them aid in the form of a talisman.
After his failed attempts to use a rebreather and other means, Blaine discovers the world of free-diving and the techniques they use to hold their breath for minutes at a time. He discovers a breathing technique he calls “purging.”
Did your subject receive help at any point? While we prize stories of individual heroism, heroics require helping others in some way. As you’re still early in your speech, it’s important to connect to the audience by explaining the fallibility of your subject.
The hero leaves their known world and enters the unknown. They are now actively trying to acquire what they desire, and failure is now possible.
Through the use of purging, Blaine spends an hour every morning training himself to be able to hold his breath for longer. He realizes that he needs to radically change his lifestyle and diet to gain the physique needed for the feat he’s going to attempt. His life is now completely different.
Now that the audience is connected, it’s time to begin your story. They know what your subject wants and why. Now tell the vivid details of your first steps.
The hero is “reborn” by leaving the known, where their old self resides. They will now gradually transform into a new self, tempered by the unknown.
Blaine emphasizes his transformation with a picture of his chiseled physique, contrasted with the paunchy figure on stage. He tells us of a massive drop to his heart rate, too— his body is entirely different. He mentions how he wants to hold his breath “everywhere.” His pursuit of this record is now his full-time job.
Did your subject leave something behind when they undertook their own journey? Did they notice a change in themselves or the world around them? Show your audience what’s different, let them see what sort of leap was taken.
The hero runs into an obstacle of some kind. This is their first test or tests, and they run into difficulty as they attempt to handle the unknown.
Blaine makes his first attempt to break the record on national television— but the producers decide to make him escape from a set of handcuffs as well. The energy this wastes causes him to fail utterly.
Change is difficult and painful. We all know this. Even if your subject didn’t fail as Blaine did, they were tested. How did they fare?
The hero discovers a powerful love, and a reason for them to stay in the unknown after the pain of their previous trials.
This one is almost literal: Blaine appears on Oprah and announces his intention to not just break the world record for breath holding, but to break the medical record as well— nearly twice as long.
The audience understands the material reason for your subject’s actions, but perhaps not the spiritual reasons. What are they trying to prove? What is the “moral” of this story?
The hero strays from the path of their quest in the face of temptation, often (but not always) represented as a seductive woman.
Again, this one is literal. Blaine makes a humorous aside of seeing his now ex-girlfriend flipping through his texts after he surfaces from his first controlled attempt.
Unless your subject is a machine, they strayed from their goals at some point. How did it happen, and why? This can be used for drama or humor.
The hero discovers a great and terrifying power, one that holds sway over them. Their experience with this power forever changes them.
Blaine’s intention is to do things thought previously impossible by the human body, but only eight minutes into his Oprah attempt he becomes certain that he cannot hope to beat the record.
More abstract than other steps: what fundamental truth was your subject challenging? In what way did they rebel against their reality?
The hero suffers a death of some kind and receives great knowledge of self. This is what makes it possible for them to finish their quest.
Blaine resolves to go for as long as he possibly can, and details the numerous physical effects that overtake him. He feels death creeping close in the form of a stroke or heart attack underwater.
The apotheosis is simultaneously the greatest and lowest moment for the hero. They suffer their greatest and most painful setback just as their goal comes into reach— what held your subject back, and what did they have to do to achieve their goal?
The hero achieves the goal they set out for themselves at the beginning of their journey.
Blaine avoids permanent damage and breaks the world record, clocking in at 17 minutes and 4 seconds without air.
This is the climactic moment of catharsis in your speech, the end of your story. Everything from here is just clean-up. It’s the reason the story is worth telling at all.
Now enlightened, the hero resists a return to the known world of the story’s beginning. Eventually, they agree to do so.
Blaine actually addresses this step earlier: he mentioned the prime physical shape he had to get in to attempt the record in contrast with how he looks now, showing the return he’s made to a (relatively) ordinary life.
This might be a minor step in the story, or it could be huge. What is your subject’s follow-through? How do they cope with their success or failure? How is what they did relevant to the audience? This is where that question is answered.
The hero must protect what they have won from those who would take it from them as they attempt to return with their prize.
Although nobody does this to Blaine, he is worried about it. Immediately after the record, he gives his body over to doctors so they can use his physiology for research. As he puts it, “I also didn't want anybody to question it. I had the world record and I wanted to make sure it was legitimate.”
This speaks to the desire to be genuine and original, rather than a pretender or a leech. What last-minute challenges did your subject face, and how did they overcome them? Success on their quest doesn’t mean success for the rest of their days, after all.
An outsider aids the hero in transitioning back to daily life.
Blaine tells us of a humorous encounter with a boy in New York who casts doubt on his record, showing that although he has changed the world around him remains the same.
Again, this step could be quite minor, but it’s important to reaffirm that the subject is not an island. They need the help of others to succeed, even after achieving their end.
The hero returns to the known, but must find a way to retain the qualities they have retained in the unknown.
Blaine echoes what he said at the beginning of the speech: the reason he attempted this feat was to prove the impossible is possible. He wryly comments “that’s my life” in regards to what the boy said— that he has to reconcile that many people prefer to see him as a fraud rather than accept his challenges of their reality.
Your subject has changed themselves, and perhaps the world around them— but not fundamentally. They still have problems and fight demons, they haven’t ascended past these things.
The hero finds a balance between the known and unknown.
Blaine describes doing the impossible as “practice, training, and experimenting”. Even if others do not think what he has done is incredible, he does and it clearly means a lot to him (as evidenced by the emotion he shows, nearly breaking into tears.)
Closure for the story is an emotional end to the journey of the subject. What have they learned? How does this knowledge help them, and how does it help the audience?
The hero is freed from any fear of death and lives out the rest of their life without regret.
Blaine repeatedly risked death in pursuit of this record. He clearly values magic more than his own life, and this passion is why he is giving this speech.
At a point, one must ask themselves what they’re trying to say when they tell a story. A great deal of stories are about an accomplishment of some kind, and that is the Hero’s Journey. What makes them a hero is their dedication to their difficult goal, and that dedication must come from some deep truth about the human condition. If that sounds preachy, that’s because it is— but that’s what storytelling is for.