Why Your “B” Story Should Make the “A” List


One of the primary tasks we have as change agents in our industry is to make business-case presentations to executive leadership.

It can be a nerve-wracking experience for many. For example, a colleague and client of mine (along with 20 of his peers), was invited to his organization’s yearly executive retreat, where practitioner leads were given an opportunity to pitch their teams’ newest initiatives. My client presented an idea for a new, focused content strategy team approach.

It didn’t go very well.

Now, it didn’t go horribly. There was polite applause and a few questions. But after reviewing his presentation, we discovered a possible reason for the tepid response he had received: He buried the “B” story.

In storytelling – especially with screenplays – there is typically an “A” story (the main plot) and the “B” story (sometimes called the subplot).

However, calling it the “B” story is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s anything but secondary or peripheral. Every script, from great action adventures to romantic comedies to dramas, should include a very powerful “B” story. Blake Snyder, one of my favorite consultants on story structure, says that “B” stories are what “carries the theme” of the story. I call them the “emotional engine of ‘why now?’

For example, in the movie Die Hard, the “A” story is, of course, the takeover of Nakatomi Plaza by terrorists and how Bruce Willis’ character, John McClane, defeats it. But, the “B” story is the reason that John McClane is in Los Angeles to begin with: to see if he can reconcile with his estranged wife. When he finds out that his wife is, indeed, one of the hostages, his involvement becomes immediately (as they say in action movies) personal.

Another great example is The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s “A” story is to simply get back to Kansas from Oz. But the (arguably more compelling) “B” story revolves around the new friends she makes, and how she helps them achieve what their hearts desire most. The “B” story is actually what delivers the ultimate emotional conflict of whether or not Dorothy actually wants to go back home at the end.      

When we present a typical business case to executives, we often bury, or forget to include, a great “B” story. The standard structure of these presentations starts with a statement of a problem. Next, we illustrate the proof points for this challenge. Then, we talk about the range of options to solve this challenge. We pose our preferred recommendation (aka, the “big ask”), and then detail, to the extent we can, what the outcome (ROI) of our solution to this challenge will be.

So, through the lens of storytelling structure, my colleague basically outlined his “A” story, but minimized (or really never brought in) the emotional or powerful engine that would “carry the theme” of the story. In short, he never introduced John McClane’s wife (or The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion) to the story, which left the executives wondering, “why now?” Why does John McClane feel so compelled to get those bad guys? Why doesn’t he just stay in his limo from the airport and see his wife when he gets home? 

This is why many executives are skeptical and have questions at the end of what we believe to be singularly powerful business case presentations. If executives need to ask if this initiative is “solving the right problem,” or if “there are alternatives that would meet the same goals,” or if “this is really a burning priority,” we know we haven’t established a strong “B” story.

In his presentation, my colleague was missing the emotional engine that would compel his executive team to care.

So, early on in his new, revised, business case, we introduced the “B” story of the executives: “knowing what we’re creating.”

“Yes”, my colleague introduced, “the company will be more competitive with content; but we’ll also know what we’re creating.” 

“Yes”, he continued, “we will create more effective marketing and sales; but we’ll also know what we’re creating.”

Then, just before his big ask, my colleague showed the statistic that, globally, the company had wasted $3 million over the last year on duplicated, unnecessary content creation efforts.

His last slide was just one number: $11,538. As my colleague explained, this was the number that made him so anxious. It represented the cost of not knowing what was being created, and why everything else he was proposing was such a priority. The $11,538 figure was the total amount of money wasted on content during the 8 hours the executive team was sitting in their retreat.

Don’t bury the “B” story. It’s what powers your “A” story and brings the urgency, and the emotional “why now,” to the whole thing.

It’s your story. Tell it well. 


Do you need help on this topic

Schedule a free consult to discuss your needs.

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Scroll to Top