Robert McKee is a teacher of Story and author of the classic book Story. Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting. Past students of Mr. McKee’s include people like Peter Jackson, Russell Brand, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Roberts, Geoffrey Rush, Kirk Douglas, David Bowie, Meg Ryan, John Cleese, and many more. McKee is hosting an event on how to use story in business called Storynomics on March 19 in LA. I’ll be there. So should you.
Click below to watch our Q&A:
What follows is a highly edited transcript of our conversation.
Ramsey: For those of us in business, what makes story so powerful to move and persuade people? In one of your videos, you talked about how tools like PowerPoint are fundamentally flawed, but storytelling is much more powerful and much more compelling. Can you talk about why and how that is?
McKee: I wouldn’t say that PowerPoint is fundamentally flawed. I mean, if you can build an argument within that logic: Point, point, point, data, data, therefore think this, do this, and get people to act, then I say more power to you.
PowerPoint really is a logical appeal to the mind. The trouble is that people resist logic and data. They don’t want to have to memorize facts often when they are sitting there listening to your PowerPoint. They have their own facts and they’re silently arguing with you in your head. So there are problems often trying to just appeal to the rational side of people.
Story takes all that data and dramatizes or “storifies” it, so instead of making a list of facts, you tell a story that moves dynamically, positive, negative, and arouses great curiosity: How will this turn out?
It draws the audience and listeners into empathy with your core character – it hooks them intellectually and involves them emotionally so that when you reach the climax, the message at the climax moves them to act.
What I teach, Mark, at that seminar on March 19 is what I call the “Purpose Told Story.” It’s not fiction as entertainment. It’s using the story form to communicate a lot of information but dramatize and “storify” it so that at the end of the story, people are moved to take an action: To buy your product, to hire your service. That is the “Purpose Told Story.”
So story in business is very different than the story in Hollywood. It is designed to hook interest, to move people, emotionally involve them, and then trigger them to act. That last step is the most important of all.
It works because story is the natural form of thought.
When you remember the past, how do you remember it? As data? No. You remember it as a series of events that brought about a change in your life. When you’re thinking toward the future, how do you anticipate life? Again, as data? No. You see it as a series of hypothetical possible events that will bring you to a certain desired point in your life. So the natural way in which the mind takes in reality, sorts it out, and makes sense out of it, is in story form. So when a businessperson communicates to their market or to their employees in story from, it fits the mind.
I can hear people saying, “Well, PowerPoint is easy. I know how to build PowerPoint. PowerPoint even comes with templates. Story-making seems to be harder.” What are the rules of thumb in creating a great, compelling story?
PowerPoint is just an essay with illustrations. Story is more difficult because you have to be able to pull back from life to tell story. You’ve got to be able to pull back from the world around you and look at it in terms of all of the levels of interaction. All the sources of conflict, all of the energies that flow, positive and negative, dynamically through life from inner life, personal relationships, social relationships, the physical world, you’ve got to be able to see it first.
If you can’t think story, you can’t tell story. So the first step is not just to learn certain story components, which I’m certainly happy to teach, it’s to pull back from life and see it as a potential full story. That takes wisdom. It takes a wide-angle view of life. Then you have to know what to look for. You have to identify a core character that you can tell the story about. You have to identify the tricky action that you want the audience to take. You have to identify who that audience is. Then you have to ask yourself that big question, “To get a starting event, when things go wrong, how did life go out of balance?” Then tell a story that ends on a positive note that somehow restores the balance of life with a difference that motivates people to act.
You must take this complexity of life sorted into all of the forces that act on people, find that key moment when things go out of out of kilter and that hooks the audience’s attention. The audience immediately pays attention when things go out of balance, when there is clear change in the values in somebody’s life.
Getting people’s attention is the first and most critical step in business today. Today, attention is the greatest asset a business can have: The ability to cause people to pay attention, to react, to listen, to get involved and then to move to action. The way you get attention in story is to feel life out of balance. Immediately, your audience will react. They go, “Oh, how is this going to turn out? How will the balance of life be restored?” Now you’ve got their interest.
People in business who can think in story form and communicate in story form have an enormous advantage.
Interestingly, you talk about the importance of attention in business. I am sure you would agree that attention is the challenge no matter what the category; business, entertainment, pop culture. Isn’t attention the most difficult thing to capture nowadays?
It’s very hard, but the mind keys on stories. The mind keys on change. When you say, “Once upon a time, this happened,” suddenly, people naturally want to know the outcome. So if you can master this technique, if you can think story, tell story, you find that you can get attention and hold attention and move people to take action with real effect, but it takes practice. It takes study. It takes learning.
I mean, everybody has this talent innately in them. You had it since you were a kid, but your schooling drove it out of you. Because when you wrote essays, when you gave reports, you may have started to tell a story, but the teacher would tell you, “No, no, no. Just give me the facts, prove your point.”
So you are applauded for inductive logic and being able to draw a conclusion from a set of facts. You have to go back to when you were a kid and realize that you’ve always been able to do this and resurrect that natural talent, and then train it and focus it.
Let’s talk about audio. I’m assuming that stories work differently in different media because different media have different strengths and different weaknesses. What do you see as the special capabilities of audio when it comes to story?
It’s to create images in the mind based on sound and sound effect. I mean, what audio does best is activate the imagination of the listener. So if you want to bore the listener, just recite facts one after the other. But if you use audio well, you paint pictures with words, and the listener’s imagination is activated and they see the story you are telling. Getting people to see with words is a marvelous skill.
There is also another level to it. The intimacy of audio, there is something less intimate about television, about film, than about audio when you are listening one-to-one even though its one-to-many. What’s your take on that?
Yeah, you are right. It is intimate, more so because it’s asking you to use your imagination. You are actually building the story inside your own head, so you are as if in that world surrounded. It’s almost like virtual reality – you become immersed in a world. The audio story immerses you in that world, whereas television is over there, the movie is up there on the big screen. So there is a literal space between you and the story.
That world of my imagination is mine alone, right?
Yes, you get to create it your way. So when you hear somebody described as good looking, you get to paint that picture and it’s the best-looking person you can imagine. It is intimate and very involving.
So why don’t advertisers, the storytellers of commerce, use the medium of audio more effectively to paint those pictures you’re describing in 30 or 60 seconds? Given the opportunities you’ve just outlined, why don’t we hear more audio ads that are story-driven?
I suspect that they are trapped in the old-fashioned thinking. They think that what you are supposed to do is drop the name of the product into that 30 seconds as frequently as possible, as loud as possible, especially on radio. Plus, story is difficult. To hook interest with the story on the radio, hold that interest, and pay it off in 30 seconds with a little turn and climax requires creativity. They have to sit down. They have to do the hard work and use their imagination to create something in the listener’s imagination, whereas “name and copy” can get done within an hour.
But the payoff is that when you do it really well and you really hook the listeners’ imaginations and then deliver the name, there is a moment in a story…. When the story reaches its climax and the question “How will this turn out?” is answered, there is a moment where the mind of the listener is absolutely open to anything you want to put in it. That’s when they go, “How will this turn out? I see. Oh my, really?” At that moment, anything you say sticks like glue. Because the mind is opened up at that critical climatic moment, it’s now available, and when you put the name of the product in the mind at that point, it sticks.
That’s why we tell fairy tales to children. Because, for example, at the end of Hansel and Gretel you say, “That’s why you should never go in the woods alone.” Kids get it, right?
So a beautifully told story has that moment at the climax when anything you put in the telling at that point registers. But to achieve that, it takes a lot of creative effort.
Tell me about Storynomics on March 19 in LA.
Storynomics is a day-long workshop. We’ll use story form to communicate outward into the market and inward into your company in order to improve the economics of your company, in order to increase your sales, increase harmony and collaboration, and build strategy for business. So the event is for anyone in business who needs to communicate up and down the ladder of that business, anybody in marketing, advertising, sales, or anyone who is a private business owner.
A story is the most powerful tool for persuasion. Everybody in business has to persuade somebody. Fundamentally, what Storynomics does is teach you how to use story to improve the economics of your company and your career.