Imagine if the bad guys had never turned up in Die Hard. Or if the Empire hadn’t killed Luke’s aunt and uncle. Suppose Roxie Hart hadn’t shot her lover in Chicago.
Sure, John might have rekindled his relationship with his wife. Luke might eventually have got off the farm. Roxie might have become famous.
But would we care?
A catalyst propels us forward
If you look at storytelling or scriptwriting, the catalyst is often called the inciting event or the call to adventure. It’s something that radically upsets the forces in a characters life. It’s usually something that happens to them that’s out of their control.
It is, or has the potential to be, life changing. It often needs urgent action.
And setting up a business can have the same elements. Even if it’s not fighting off Alan Rickman (best panto baddie of all time).
Your catalyst is not the first thing people need to know about you
Imagine if those scenes were the start of the movies.
The next ten minutes or so would probably be, at the very least, a bit confusing. You’d not be sure who the characters are, what’s going on with them or why you should care about them.
We need some context, and we need to have some empathy for the character and their situation. We need to know a bit about where the character’s from, what they want, or don’t want. And then a bit about where their current path is leading them.
Then radically upset all of that and tell people about the catalyst that set you off.
Innocent and the dustbins of empty bottles
I can’t think many of us don’t know the story of Innocent starting because people voted with their empties. It’s a founders story that we remember. But what we’re actually remembering is the inciting moment, the call to adventure.
We probably don’t remember much of the context, but we would have had that before we got to that part of their story. The catalyst stays with us, though, as it’s the start of the real adventure.
The catalyst doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story
We can’t necessarily imagine at the moment that Luke finds his dead aunt and uncle that the movie will end with the explosion of the Death Star, meeting a Rebel princess and a Wookie, or any of the things that happen in between.
We just needed the catalyst to shake things up and get us interested enough to stick with it to the next bit of the story.
Not just a list of facts
Most timelines of a business’ history are incredibly dull. It’s just a list of who did what and when.
Waste of screen space if the plan is to get people excited and engaged in what you do. It’s why telling stories has proved to be more effective time and again at getting people to buy into brands. If you’re going to make a true fan, you’ve got to make them care.
And we tend not to care about facts. We care about stories and the emotions they generate in us.
So, what’s your catalyst?
Don’t get in a flap about this. It can, but doesn’t have to be, a major event. For example, the Gandy brothers losing their parents in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 definitely have a catalyst that counts as a major event.
Plastic bottles in a bin at a festival doesn’t really feel in the same league, but it’s still a catalyst.
When I work with people on their brand stories, I often ask them what the moment was when they knew they absolutely had to stop talking or thinking about an idea and actually get on and do it. That’s where we can often find the catalyst. It’s the spark that sets the wheels properly in motion.
It doesn’t matter what you call it
You don’t have to tell people that something was your catalyst, only the story of it. That said, catalyst is a great word to attract interest, to set up anticipation. But I don’t think there’s a movie around that tells you that this is the catalyst, and the stories are no less exciting for that.
That said, there are some movies and books that don’t have a clear catalyst, and we probably never need to see or read those again.
The important thing to follow up the call to adventure with
The reason our stories need catalysts are that you hope that folk will lean forward and ask “and then what?” Or maybe “tell me more”.
Either is a fantastic response. That’s what we’re aiming for.
So tell me, what was your catalyst?