Finding the Essential Story

“Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story!” —Delbert Trew, Texan Historian

Today marks the release of the comic book epic, 300, about the Battle of Thermopylae. While critics may end up panning the movie for its loving depiction of muscular, nearly-naked caucasian warriors decapitating a faceless army of swarthy foes, the story behind the movie is certainly worth of note.

At Thermopylae, 300 Spartan warriors fought to the last man against a Persian army of over a million soldiers, delaying the advance of the army long enough to allow the Greeks to regroup and ultimately defeat the Persians. In doing so, the Spartans, led by King Leonidas, won everlasting fame and glory.

Well, at least the last sentence is correct.

You see, nearly everything about the story we all remember and believe is wrong.

The 300 Spartan warriors did fight to the last man, but they were joined by 700 Thesbians who chose to stay and fight. (I guess “1,000” didn’t seem quite as cool a title)

The Persian army probably numbered around 250,000.

A Greek army of several thousand, led by the Spartans managed to delay the Persians for three days, before the Persians managed to outflank them (a covering force of Phocian troops inexplicably abandoned their post, sealing the defeat). Leonidas and his men chose to stay and die, possibly in order to fulfill a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi who had stated that Sparta would burn unless a Spartan king died. At any rate, the sacrifice of the 1,000 bought the Greeks exactly one additional day, as they were quickly overwhelmed by fighting superior armies on two fronts.

While Thermopylae was a tactical victory (the Greeks inflicted perhaps 100 times the casualties that they suffered), it was a strategic defeat, and the Persian army continued to advance. Ultimately, the Greeks won the second Persian war because of the Athenian general Themistocles, who correctly reasoned that the Persian army was dependent on the sea for resupply, and managed to inflict enough damage on the Persian fleet during the battle of Salamis to force the Persians to end their campaign.

Yet in the end, few people remember that the Greeks won because of their understanding of Persian logistics. They remember, even 2,500 years later, that 300 Spartans gave their lives to defeat the Persians.

That, my friends, is the essential story. Storytelling isn’t about conveying a sequence of events. It’s about making an impression and being memorable. It’s about stripping out the extraneous information and focusing on a simple core message that has the power to compel. Freedom. Honor. Glory.

As you attempt to persuade, simply using the weight of facts isn’t enough. You need to tell a story that taps into our universal emotions, that takes us on a journey. Don’t just talk about the benefits of your product–help the prospect paint a picture in their mind, both of their struggle, and (with the help of your product) their eventual triumph.

In this larger sense, Thermopylae was a strategic triumph. The sacrifice of the Spartans, while of negligible military value, served as the core of an extremely persuasive story, a story which the Greeks told to themselves to boost their morale and hearten them for the struggle, a story which still resonates with us today.

5 thoughts on “Finding the Essential Story

  1. Justin K

    “Storytelling isn’t about conveying a sequence of events. It’s about making an impression and being memorable. “

    Even if the implied cause and effect are erroneous? I guess this is true.

    Example: Google. The story goes… “Google is succesful because they make simple apps that work”.


    Google is successful because they decided to embrace an advertising approach that the founders derided as being “evil” a few years prior.

  2. Many of the most memorable stories are false.

    George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree.

    Pierre Omidyar did not start eBay to trade Pez dispensers.

    The truth, like life, is usually messy and complicated, and that doesn’t make for a memorable story!

  3. One must not forget that Themistocles also played a major role at Thermopylae. If it wasn’t for Themistocles holding off the Persian fleet at Artemesium the Persians would have flanked Leonidas on the first day.

  4. Themistocles was actually the real hero in all this; it was his long-standing lobbying on the part of the Athenian navy that built up that force, and his inspired leadership that allowed the Greeks to win tactical and strategic victories at Artemesium and Salamis.

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