Inside the Storytelling Matrix, Part 1: Problem and Paradox

This article is the first in a groundbreaking series on The Storytelling Matrix: a subtle field of energy at the heart of all business matters. 

You’d think that a problem makes for an interesting story.

And often it does…If George Clooney and Mark Walhberg didn’t get caught in “The Perfect Storm” who’d care about watching the movie? In the world of drama and entertainment, all storytelling requires a problem.

But when it comes to telling the story of game-changing innovation, the “problem/solution” model is broken. This is why so many brands and causes have a hard time telling their story.

When it comes to business, you want to introduce a paradox, not just a problem. 

Lets take SuperheroYou, an exciting global initiative led by my friends Jim and Alexis Kwik. We were talking through the SuperheroYou story the other day, and I noticed Jim and Alexis were telling the typical story we’re all used to hearing. It went something like this…

There are so many problems in the world…and most of them can be solved by becoming better, faster, more empowered learners. In fact, we need to discover the superhero powers within each of us, because the world needs us now more than ever before.

While this might all be true, it’s not the most effective frame. In a matter of minutes, we reframed the story like this:

Brain science and technology has led to many breakthroughs about learning, productivity, and living better lives. We can now live up to the potential of who we’re really meant to be. It’s an exciting time to be alive. Yet despite all the possibilities, most of us are struggling with information overload, attention-deficit, and just managing the overwhelms of life. How do we reconcile the promise/potential with the reality?

By turning the problem into a paradox, you turn your story into a mystery that people want to help solve.

People will feel excited about exploring and finding the answers with you, versus the subtle self-righteous pressure in the first story structure that often leaves people uneasy. Unfortunately, most of us have been taught the first model — which is the perfect set-up for a disengaged audience.

Traditional Model: Problem/Solution Story

The “problem/solution” story is what we’re taught to do in case studies, marketing campaigns, and fundraising pitches.

We’re taught to appeal to reason, fear, and the logical mind. The challenge is this makes for a poor story.

By declaring your problem in full, scary and vividly complex detail, you just remind us that things can kind of suck. If you lead with doom, chances are you’ve already lost.

For example:

  • 13 million hungry children in America are suffering right now
  • Our CRM system is broken and is costing us $20MM in lost sales
  • The environment is approaching a tipping point and we’re going to destroy the earth

We already know the world is full of problems. So many that we often go through our day trying to tune them out as best as possible.

“Don’t pile one more problem on my plate of overwhelm,” says a friend.

If you start with the problem (and all its negative emotion), you’re far less likely to inspire your audience to care about the story.

Negative emotions and topics cause us to feel smaller — to collapse and pull inward in self-protection. By the time you introduce the solution (part 2 of the story), your audience is totally beat up or just plain numb — and less willing to trust you. At an energetic level, you’re causing your audience to disconnect and disassociate before you’re even off to the races.

They also know you’re trying to convince them of something: “Look, I know the problem sucks, BUT I’ve got the answer. Trust me…no really…”

You’re now fighting an uphill battle in telling your story. Because you made them feel like crap to begin with.

That’s never a winning way to tell a story, is it?

New Model: Possibility/Obstacle Story

When it comes to the Storytelling Matrix, you want to flip the script. We’re a species that dreams with fascination about the world of possibilities and potential. We want to know something is possible. Odds are you’ve already glimpsed or experienced an example of the vision in action. So tell that story. Start by describing the positive truths about what already exists and what you know is possible.

“The future already exists, it’s just not widely distributed.” — William Gibson

For example:

  • Social media is transformating the flow of information and power
  • Brain science teaches us how to optimize the body and our lives for peak potential
  • The internet has democratized the process of learning and entrepreneurship

Speak to the truth of what you already know is possible. You’ve seen it, you’ve experienced it, you know that it already exists. Speak from a place of conviction. Describe what you know is possible and how that aligns with a life-affirming message.

Then, and only then, introduce some obstacles that stand in the way. 

Lets look at some corresponding examples:

  • …most people still don’t know how to use social media mindfully and purposefully (it’s the new digital divide)
  • …despite all the latest science, most of us struggle to stay focused, get things done, and live fulfilled lives
  • …yet this free flow of knowledge (e.g. Wikipedia, Google, etc) means we don’t know who to trust and what to believe anymore

Overcoming the obstacles is what then makes your story interesting. Hopefully you even have a solution to propose in this regard. Or a call to arms to come together to figure out the solution. That’s ok too, as long as the promise of what’s possible and the obstacles that stand in the way are enough of a positive emotionally motivating narrative. It all starts in framing the possibility story first (that’s the carrot).

The Power of Paradox

In the rush to state the problem and sell the solution in the first model, you’ve lost the opportunity to build up creative tension (what fuels any good story). You’re simply trying to sell people the cold hard sober facts and the confident assertion that you have the answers for solving this problem.

But if you start with the dream of what’s possible — and invite people along on the journey, suddenly your story comes alive with potential and excitement. And you’ve started a collaborative movement towards the solution.

Can you see how when you look at it this way — why so many business proposals, innovation initiatives, or change campaigns fall flat on their face?

Add Your Voice to The Conversation

This article is the first in a groundbreaking series about The Storytelling Matrix: a subtle field of energy at the heart of all business matters. 

The humanization of business is about telling more expansive life-affirming stories.

  • What’s the mindset or frame you’re trying to shift?
  • Where do you get stuck in old patterns of communications and storytelling?
  • What additional topics would you like to see covered in this article series?

Please add a comment or question below.

70 thoughts on “Inside the Storytelling Matrix, Part 1: Problem and Paradox”

  1. Fascinating, Michael! As a resume writers we are taught the problem/solution model of storytelling. I can see how this makes for a much bigger impact. Thank you!

  2. I like it!  I’m on the board of a non-profit and worry that too often, our communications focus on the negative, the problem, or can feel like a harangue.   By flipping the story to paradox/solution, I think we can avoid a lot of that.

  3. Great, Michael! I’m just completing my third book, read this post, and am rewriting my intro chapter!
    Love what you have to say and I have your Manifesto saved on my desktop.

    Thanks, again, and keep telling your story!

  4. Tamara G. Suttle

    OK, Michael, I’ll ask . . . .  Why is this NOT for solopreneurs?  I realized as I was reading this post that I, too, focus on the possibilities before the problems.  It wasn’t strategic; it’s just how I work. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I realize I need some polishing AND want to use this strategically.  So  . . .  why won’t your workshop “fit” for us solopreneurs, too?

    1. Hi Tamara – of course you can use ALL of this in your work as a solopreneur!

      The 2-day intensive is designed with a corporate and organizational audience in mind. A few solopreneurs may choose to attend, but need to know the format does not cater to that context. We’re going to be focusing on issues of game-changing innovation, creating story alignment within a business and overcoming internal resistance to change. 

      Which is why you need to have an established brand and be growing in order to take full advantage this 2-day intensive. That said, some solopreneurs can still be good fit. Feel free to email me about this at 
      If there’s enough interest, we can also organize a similar 2-day intensive in the fall that is designed to specifically cater to the needs of a solopreneur/small business owner. What do you think?

      1. You’re right – big corporate is a different dynamic and the way they achieve change is different to a one ‘person’ band who can change their whole business model in an afternoon (if they choose) 🙂

  5. Hi Michael. I think you have hit the nail on the head. Integrate your story with your dream. Make the dream of an enhanced future (and the path to it) real, palpable and joinable. I’m enjoying your clarity on  keeping the dream alive by sharing it through your story.

  6. This is great Mike! Really love the way you explain how to frame the story in a new way around the potential future state instead of the problem. Excellent!

    1. Thanks Jeff! And remember the key is to show people how the future already exists. And how the job is to get that future more widely distributed and accessible. 

  7. Thanks, Michael, and you never cease to amaze me with your timely insights. Yesterday I unsubscribed from a website for the reasons you cover in your article. Although the site had good information, I was tired of the presentation of negative information first, then solution. The final straw  — I watched a 2 minute video where 1:55 seconds showed vivid images about the ills of the world. Her solution was delivered in the last 5 seconds. As you so eloquently put, “If you lead with doom, chances are you’ve already lost.” Even though the final five seconds were encouraging, I felt overwhelmed, not hopeful. So, thanks for the timely explanation of my reaction and the confirmation of my inner knowing that leading with the negative isn’t the most effective way to tell a good story.

    1. thanks for sharing this example. We’re unconsciously primed to tune out the noise, which is why so many nonprofits have a terrible time with fundraising. I only hear from most organizations when they want to ask me for money, and the picture they paint is usually a Debbie Downer. Even just got a fundraising appeal from my alma mater, and even that was a sob story about the struggles of financial aid. Sorry to say, add it to the garbage heap. 

  8. RecruitingANIMAL

    “Our CRM system is broken and is costing us $20MM in lost sales” — That sounds interesting to me. Short, dramatic, hard-hitting.

    Your wordy blather (sorry, sincerely) didn’t.
    Brain science and technology has led
    to many breakthroughs about learning, productivity, and living better
    lives. We can now live up to the potential of who we’re really meant to
    be. It’s an exciting time to be alive. Yet despite all the
    possibilities, most of us are struggling with information overload,
    attention-deficit, and just managing the overwhelms of life. How do we reconcile the promise/potential with the reality?


  9. Michael–Love the positive approach! How would this approach be different than casting a vision, starting from what we know can be possible and overcoming the obstacles to reach new heights?

    1. Great question Diane. A vision, implies something yet to be achieved…something in the far distant future (that maybe will or won’t ever come to fruition). That’s a huge gamble. 

      What I suggest is that you point to proof that this vision already exists (in some small pockets, locations, or examples). This is no longer the land of make believe. It then becomes a story of possibility! Look, it’s real and it’s happening. Now…how do we socialize this truth into reality. 

  10. Yo Brother Michael ~ this was so rich I’m still shaking my head.  I’m sitting here contemplating a complete paradigm shift in how I present things.  I really appreciate Your insight, it makes total sense and I like the new possibilities this storytelling mindset presents.  Thanks again.  Warm regard, Millicent A. 

  11. Love this post Michael! Fabulous insights and suggestions. I like it so much I’ve added it to the Just Story It curated content, then pushed it out to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, and Tumblr. You can see it here, along with my review at Keep writing such great material!

    1. Thanks Rikka. Appreciate your receptivity. It’s hard stuff to unpack and explain, which is why I’ve been hesitant to share as openly about it before. 

  12. Great post Michael! It reminds me of the journalist’s advice: don’t bury the lead. It definitely makes sense for entrepreneurs to lead with possibility and potential during this transitional time. But it’s interesting to think about how this approach applies to documentary filmmaking – a different storytelling medium, granted…in some cases, there can be real dramatic and emotional value in allowing the doc audience to feel the hopelessness of a situation before offering the possible solution. I wonder if the distinction here lies in the storytelling medium itself, or the desired outcome, or the KIND of engagement (commercial v. narrative). Interesting food for thought. Thanks for your provocative brilliance, as always!

    1. Hey Mandy! I’d argue the same principles apply to doc film-making, and in fact explain why so few documentary films hit a nerve in pop culture. While they might have a message of truth, nobody likes to be made to feel like sh*t. Of course, life is full of unsavory topics and issues that must be talked about. I guess the key is to get your audience emotionally invested in the story and it’s characters (even in the midst of drama or adversity). 

  13. Karen Robertson

    This post is dark chocolate worthy! Terrific insights here and your example at the top is perfect. Can’t wait for part 2. Sharing this one now. 

  14. Michael – Great post!  I studied the Kony2102 video closely to understand what lessons can be learned for marketers – and it marries up exactly with what you say here.  Start with the possibilities and inspire people, then challenge them to rise to the occasion by presenting the obstacles to overcome.

    1. You’re right KONY12 does a great job of setting that up. Unfortunately, other aspects of the KONY2012 story didn’t hold up under scrutiny. And the audience felt something didn’t add up. It’s why the campaign became such a flash in the pan and for its GAZILLION hits, disappeared overnight. I’ll be writing more about that sometime soon. 

  15. My mission is to help organizations to attain with more joy better results.
    The two most important ‘tools’ I use are storytelling and Appreciative Inquiry.
    Appreciative Inquiry works exactly the way you describe in this article: starting with discovery ‘what gives life to your organization?’, dreaming about ‘what might be’, designing ‘how can it be?’ and continuing with destiny ‘what will be’.
    This is a very powerful philosophy/methodology in combination with storytelling. I’m very grateful that I can offer my clients (I prefer the word ‘professional friends’) this experiences and results.
    Ronald van Domburg

  16. Hey Michael,

    Love the thinking and the articulation of this powerful concept!People tend to gravitate to those who provide them with a sense of hope. Making the outer layer of the story a reflection of hope draws people in to remain actively engaged in the peeling!I also think that a big part of how a person frames a their story / solution is a reflection of their personal outlook to life. As naive as it may sound, the cup-half-empty person is not going to naturally see the potential in a situation and as a result will lead with the grim / amplify the grit up front! But that can change 🙂

    Besides Apple & Google, do you have examples (that you can share) of brands and/or individuals who have mastered the application of the Possibility/Obstacle Store in specific campaign or projects?Thanks for the great contribution – as always!


  17. Hi Michael – thanks for putting this to us.  You’re right, it’s all about how we engage with people in a human way.  The story is a leveller, it places us eye to eye with the audience – and that’s a great place to be.  I’m thinking that your idea is to (more or less) paint the vision of what can be, very vividly – with all its depth and textures – and then engage the audience with the vision.  You introduce that piece of art to them and then via the story itself, encourage them to see it in the way you do, giving them the blueprint to travel to the vision and remember the way. It works!

    1. Such a great way to put it Leanne. It’s also key to root the vision in some form of reality, show people that the vision is not some outlandish dream, it already exists, in some small shape or form. 

  18. I love the paradox model you describe here and I too have written in my blog about choosing to see possibilities instead of obstacles so I’m with you on that notion too. I think where we sometimes get confused in the practice of storytelling (or maybe it’s just me that’s confused) is that we feel we must avoid spin at all costs (what could be described as the dream of what’s possible) so we purposefully inject into our stories all the not so pretty negative stuff in an effort to be transparent and ‘authentic’. Our challenge is going to be to include enough grit in the story to make it feel authentic but frame it so we don’t turn our audience off.

    Hey, I wish I could magically transport myself from the west coast to NYC for your StoryBlueprint. Might you have something online as a follow up to us less fortunate fans? Thanks Michael.

    1. There’s definitely a real balance to strike as you point out Marylou.

      Thanks for asking about the Story Blueprint 2-day intensive. It’s the beginning of a new set of emerging curriculum, both in live format and eventually online. Also hope to bring it to the west coast, sooner than later. 

  19. Agree. I think it’s about showing the ‘audience’ why they should care. Whether that’s through highlighting a need/problem or that a goal is achievable but they need some help to get there.

    Otherwise they won’t pay attention in the first place.

    1. yes, thought it’s a tricky one Blair. You can’t force other people to care. Such effort quickly turns into guilt, shame, blame, self-righteousness, or pity. The 5 deadly sins of nonprofit storytelling, I can them. That’s why you want to tell a story that people are drawn into and self-identify with. Do that, and they will choose to care, by their own choosing. 

  20. (and while I’m here) – storytelling tip for Disqus users: Add a tag line (that appears next to your name, like Michael does) to help tell your story.

  21. Wow, I really like the re-frame. I agree with everything you said and most importantly the idea of what a problem frame does for audience energy vs. what a paradox frame does, really resonated with me. 
    Be it through stories, brands, networks etc, at the end of the day we are all trying to connect and raise our collective energy toward a cause we care about and the paradox framework seems to be the way to do it !

  22. Great article, bro.  Speaking from the truth that we already know and that is possible with conviction seems to be the key for me.  I love to see you stepping forward so powerfully making the difference you are here to make.  Thanks for shining the light so brightly.

  23. I am intrigued and challenged – will hold this before me – by the idea of ‘telling more expansive life-affirming stories.’ Wow, that is such a great mission for ‘being’ within the business world. I agree with your focus on story-telling and love the example for nonprofits.
    I was totally captured by the your sub-head on the ‘subtle field of energy’ and can’t wait to see where you are headed with this, a topic I have done some research and creative writing around.

  24. Hiya Michael!

    As the saying goes, “when the student is ready the teacher appears”. Somehow I found you just as I was ‘re-branding” myself with a story. A deeply personal and candid story that I believed would attract the people I would want to do business with. We shall see, as I just “launched” the story via a national blog that had invited me to be a guest writer 2 months ago. From what I have read in your book and on this site I do believe I am on the right trajectory but not 100% certain that I have completely captured my story. Again, we shall see since the story will be out there  next week.

    I am most interested in attending one of your presentations at some point and would really love to hire you for some one on one coaching. But, right now I’m afraid finances are the obstacle. I do however gain great insight and inspiration from the articles and examples you provide. I thank you so much!

    Albert Van Kleeck

  25. Like it, Michael.  This gives some shape to how I’ll put together a presentation for an idea I’m noodling.  Reminds me of a quote from my wall: “A mystery is the most stunning force in unleashing the imagination.” Zuzana Licko & Rudy VanderLans

  26. Bryan Alexander

    Excellent point.  I’ve found creating a paradox to be a useful charge for storytellers who struggle with conflict.

  27. Take note, my environmentalist brethren: “If you lead with doom, chances are you’ve already lost.”

  28. Micheal – Great materials as always. The emote end of story telling has been validated recently.

    Strong emotions are infectious, causing other people to share similar feelings to the ones you have. Next time you are feeling incredibly happy, you may be thanking the person sitting next to you.
    Strong positive or negative emotions can trigger a similar response across individuals. Seeing someone smile or frown can trigger similar responses in the observer. This is more than an outward gesture, as the brain’s activity is altered by emotional responses. Photo: Aalto University
    How the brain is affected by strong emotions.
    Share This Story0inShare

  29. Thanks for this, Michael. I avoided the “what are your problems” approach for many years and talked generally about the importance of “vision” and “desired results”. When I broke down and asked questions about problems first, and then “would you like…” after, my results improved greatly. 

    Now I see I can combine those two approaches. Start with an “Imagine… (these kinds results)”, then “do you face these kinds of obstacles?” and finishing with “Would you like help to…?” and specify changes and results. 

    I’m experimenting with it and it seems to be working. Too soon to call. But I’m excited. So, again, thanks very much for sharing this approach.


  30. Ante Živković

    Hi, thanks for the inspiration and insight. I wrote a post immediately. Then I realized I used old problem solution structure for the post, so I guess I’ll do a rewrite as my next assignment 🙂 Thank you very much!

  31. I appreciate the mindset and context you’ve created here.  I think all too often – especially with nonprofits – the storytellers who are frequently the grantwriters / developers get caught up in the problem-solving model.  Consequently, their writing can be uninspired and leaving a funder feeling less than enthusiastic about the group’s approach.

  32. Michael, this is groundbreaking stuff. The possibilities/obstacles reframing has helped me get unstuck, helped me reinvent how I present myself and my stuff. I can sense there’s lots more – a dynamic living balance between possibilities and obstacles, a unique mix and rhythm, that conveys authenticity. That you’ve managed to not only grok the underlying framework but also sharing so generously is very much appreciated. Thanks much!

  33. Keith Edmeades

    Michael, this is awesome – I am speechless – so much to learn anew – Thank you!

  34. Great post Michael! Love reading your content because I’m always learning something new from you!

    Like Tamara I agree this content would be great for solopreneurs as well as brand managers, after all aren’t we all trying to tell a story?!


  35. Wow, not only a great article, but an incredible timing when I stand in front of exactly this sort of a challenge – how to pass on a message to top management that there is a “problem” and until a change happens (risky and costly), the default scenario is kind of a dooms day – kind of dying slowly of cancer of inefficiency, declining time 2 market and growing cost of change.
    My original story I intended to use was very straightforward. Demystify the root cause, put the facts on the table and show two paths. The path of change (which might be attractive, but is very costly and with high risk of failure), or path of no change (comfortable, but with dead end and inevitable higher pain later on). At least I expected management discomfort with accepting the fact that no decision is still in fact a decision for no change and thus no reason to complain about it.
    Now your suggestions shed completely different light on my line of thought. While I started to look for opportunities to “sell” those first, I do have a question: isn’t there a good reason/situation when problem/solution pattern is more efficient means of communication? So that the negative emotion can actually lead to an action but positive would not? Here I remember the story of cooking a frog: when you put a frog to hot water, it jumps out. but when you put it in a cold water and keep increasing temperature slowly, it would cook. I feel we are such a frog and I have also an impression that management knows the opportunities themselves and is already allergic to promises and bright futures cause in fact they live in a shabby daily business.

    On the other hand, I do have a story fully confirming your approach – I made my parents to move to another country so they live close to us and to grandchildren. Which after decades of living behind the iron curtain wasn’t all that easy. What helped was an image of a concrete future (“Say you would celebrate your next birthday in a new house closer to us”) and then building a road map of what needs to be done, how and when, so the goal can be achieved, tackling obstacles as they were coming up. Well, all in all, they have bought a property and are already building the house, so the story became real.

    Thanks a lot for the article!

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