Man in a Hole: Narrative Arcs to Craft Compelling Decks

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Welcome back to the ongoing voyage through our Narrative Arc Series. This time, we’re diving into a captivating narrative framework often seen in the business world: Man in a Hole. (Disclaimer: we’re not advocating for literally burying your competition, but that does sound like a surefire way to knock them out of the race…)

What is the Man in a Hole arc?

an image showing the Man in a Hole narrative arc

Man in a Hole gets its name from the shape the arc makes on a three-act graph, as shown above. What sets Man in a Hole apart from similar arcs where a protagonist comes perilously close to failure and then recovers to triumph (like The Hero’s Journey) is that, at the beginning of Act One our protagonist thinks they’re at a point of triumph, but in reality they’re only at a point of mediocrity.

Over the course of the first act, the Hero falls victim to the Villain and sinks all the way down to near-complete failure. Act Two introduces the Guide, who helps the Hero to wage war against their Villain.

In Act Three, Hero and Guide work together dig their way out of the hole their Villain pushed them into and end up in a position that’s even better than where they began in Act One, i.e., at a real point of triumph.

This arc reflects a pattern of stasis, setback and recovery that will feel all too familiar to most of us, which is what makes Man in a Hole instantly relatable.

Applying Man in a Hole to your presentations

In presentations, Man in a Hole can effectively illustrate the journey your Hero will take as they overcome their challenges and problems. The first third of the deck should showcase the status quo, demonstrating how, even though it may seem stable and positive, it’s perilously close to collapse.

Then, you’ll introduce the Villain – a challenge or problem that your solution solves. This could look like predicted market disruption, the impact of missing targets, the repercussions of a fresh set of competitors or any setback your Hero may face. In other words, it’s time for the Hero to fall into the Hole.

Then you, the Guide, show your Hero the way back to the light. By explaining the struggle, you can detail the strategies you’ll use to overcome these challenges. In short, you’ll show your Hero the best way to climb out of the Hole.

By the end of the presentation, the audience will feel suitably triumphant, inspired by how effectively you expect to overcome this adversity, resilient and ready to face future challenges.

Real-world examples of Man in a Hole

Man in a Hole is used widely across fiction and business storytelling. Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. is a good example of this, with the protagonist beginning the story at what he believes is a point of triumph, but the journey of the film demonstrating just how incorrect he was. In business, the same arc played out across the history of LEGO.

LEGO started strong, but by the early 2000s found themselves in a hole dug by increased competition and lack of market share. Climbing out involved a company restructure, a renewed focus on the product at their core and a series of innovative partnerships. Their end position as a global toy powerhouse is stronger than their previous point of triumph.

Balancing rigid structure with creative flexibility

As we’ve covered already, narrative arcs like Man in a Hole can provide a powerfully persuasive structure for your presentations. But it’s essential to remember that storytelling is as much an art as it is a science. These arcs should serve as creative guidelines, not strict rules.

So while it’s helpful to have a narrative framework to guide the creation of your presentation story, the most impactful decks always involve a level of creativity and flexibility. Sometimes, your story might not fit neatly into an arc. It might borrow elements from several, or it might even nest many arcs within one another.

The key to creating the best possible presentation is to stay true to your message and authentic to your audience. Do that first, and then use a narrative arc like this one to craft a clarified structure that engages, informs and inspires your audience.

Ready to climb out of your proverbial Hole?

So if you’re ready to ascend our from your own personal Hole, give this narrative arc a go. If you’re still confused, or just beginning to see how massive a task this might end up, we’re here to toss you a rope and help pull you up. Our Storytelling team can help you to create a narrative that rises above the rest. Get in touch now to find out more!

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