How Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee Teaches Brands To Tell Better Stories

If you want everyone from customers to colleagues to believe in your mission, you need to tell them a story, not make an argument.

It's hard not to refer to Robert McKee as a "guru." And why not? McKee, who has been teaching a seminar on screenwriting for 30 years and has written the field's holy text, has become a foundational necessity for making it in movies, with alumnae including Peter Jackson, Julia Roberts, and John Cleese, and with 50-some Academy Award winners and 170 Emmy Award winners. McKee, who's worked with brands like Microsoft, Nike, and HP to craft their stories, is now also teaching a Story-in-Business seminar. I had lunch with McKee and his wife, Mia, in Manhattan last week to talk about why brands need narratives. Here, we present an edited portion of our conversation.

To me, "story" is a fundamental. When people say story or whatever, they immediately begin to think of Hollywood and/or maybe the theater and novels, history, biography, autobiography. To me, they think about those big narrative forms and they call it the story, or they think in those terms. To me, the heart of it is a story, a mode of thought in direct opposition to other modes of thought that business tends to favor.

Robert McKee

The typical business mode of thought is inductive logic. You gather evidence, in a Powerpoint presentation often, or in whatever you're writing or explaining—but you gather. Point, point, point, point, point, point, point [to] one kind of data, another kind of data, and appeal to an authority data of some kind, and the conclusion—"therefore." And this was taught to us since junior high school: To learn data, memorize data, put it into an essay that builds to a final paragraph that says "and therefore."

Inductive logic is the mode of science, and scientific method is inductive logic. Science gathers evidence. Unlike business, [scientists] gather evidence of a massive kind, and then unlike business, they also gather all the contrary evidence in order to try to disprove the theory. But they gather evidence and they build an inductive argument too, and then "therefore." That conclusion then becomes the premise of a deductive argument from which they draw out particulars: "all whatever a so and so" and then they draw it up.

So the mode of thinking in business, imitating science, is to work inductively to build to a conclusion, use that conclusion as a premise from which you draw out particulars.

Story is a whole other mode of thinking. Story is rooted in causal logic. A story is X happens, and in reaction to X, Y happens, and because of Y, Z happens. The story is a dynamic way of understanding life as a dynamic of positive and negative changes of value charge, driven by the forces of conflict in life, in an effort to restore the balance of life. And so a story begins when something throws life out of balance, and everything to restore the balance discovers the truth of life, which is that there are forces in opposition to you that will resist your efforts to restore the balance, counteract your effects, even reverse your efforts. As you struggle through that, eventually you will be able to know enough truth to be able to restore balance.

Thinking like that means thinking in stories.

When you meet with a client, tell a story.

I have a client in a huge construction company. It has branches everywhere, but the head office is in Wisconsin. [It's] a 125-year-old company. It's always in the top 100 construction companies in America. It's a good company, a solid company. They bid for 120 years in the traditional way, which is that you get the request from the client, you analyze their request, you convert that into numbers of cost and time. You put that together in a proposal. It's all data, and you pit your numbers against the other construction companies, and a committee from the client makes a decision based on those numbers. Their win rate was 1 in 10; 10 bids, 1 win.

So I sat them down and I trained them to do it another way, which is to sit down with the committee, because often these sorts of meetings are not engineers—they've never built anything. If they're going to build a hospital, it will be the head of surgery, administration, head nurse, the head of the charity that supports [it]. So I said, "Look, make those people the core character of a story that begins with you. And it's a big shift from talking in the first person, using first-person pronouns, to second-person pronouns. So stop talking about me, I, us, we—start talking about you. You want to build a hospital, and you want to put it in this location, and you have a budget of a certain type. You have now stepped into an extremely difficult and dangerous world.

There are forces of antagonism, starting with environmentalists and on and on—wind against you, labor unions, all these other things. Not to mention availability of materials and weather.

The first step is to do this. When you've taken that step, here's what could happen. But your sidekick, partner, will foresee these problems. If they do occur, and we ca''t control everything, then we will improvise, and you will then have to make a choice as to go in this direction or that direction. Do we spend more money? Do we delay the project? Whatever.

So instead of throwing data at them, they told them the story of what this adventure of building a hospital was going to be like, and how you were going to do it successfully because (both of you) want the same thing: a beautiful, complete, owner-ready, on budget, on schedule, law suite-free edifice.

Their win rate went from 1 in 10 to 1 in 2. In one year, they went 20 places up the [ of the] top 100 construction companies in America by simply shifting from data to story.

It's not that difficult, it really isn't. But you have to let go of your ego, stop talking about yourself. Because you're always going to be there. But these are the people who have to make the decisions, not you. They are the protagonists of their story, not you.

Every brand is a story.

One difficulty that people have is understanding how brief a story can be. Because when you say "story," they think novels, films.

As we were driving here today, I was pointing out to Mia the difference between the old Goodyear branding campaign and the Michelin branding campaign—both tire companies. Goodyear has a blimp, it says Goodyear in big letters, and it goes to sporting events and often becomes a camera platform for the sporting event. And so it's a technique that I call seduction. It associates itself positively with something we love: sports, the Goodyear blimp. It's effective.



Then there's Michelin. The Michelin approach is to do a campaign: It had a tire and an infant baby sitting on the tire in diapers smiling. Do you remember that image? That's a story. When you see that image—I mean what is a baby in diapers doing sitting on a car tire? The moment you see that, a story passes to mind. I'm driving along the street with my family in the back, somebody cuts me off, I swerve out of the way, but thanks to the gripping talents of a Michelin tire, I successfully avoid a collision and save my family. All of that is conveyed inside that image of a baby sitting on a tire, and it is a single-event story. Negative, inciting incident, somebody swerves, positive reestablishment of balance, I saved my family. That's story thinking: That's not data; that's story thinking.

Every entrepreneur is a storyteller.

Entrepreneurship is the most extreme use of story because what else do you have? That's all an entrepreneur has is the story. You may have some test data, but it's not a business yet, it's not a functioning business, the product's not in the world, the services are not being performed. It's only a future possibility. So you have to use data from the past and the present—"this is what we know," and project that into a future story—"and this is what will be." And that future story has to be credible and authentic and grounded in reality, but there's no fact involved because the facts for the future do not exist. So you have no facts when you're telling a future story, you only have hypotheticals and suppositions and assumptions based on the past. Prophecies are notoriously wrong.

Bottom Line: "An entrepreneur has to tell a story that's a prophecy that we feel will definitely come true."

[Image: Flickr user Carl Nenzén Lovén]

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7 Comments

  • Park Howell

    Robert McKee provided me with the privilege and pleasure of interviewing him in his Connecticut home to create this series of short podcasts about the power of storytelling in business. https://soundcloud.com/park-howell/sets/robert-mckee-and-the-business.

    I am now using much of his inspiration to teach storytelling in an Executive Master's for Sustainability Leadership program at Arizona State University. Bottom line: McKee is one of the best professors around to coach executives about how to use story to nudge the world in any direction you choose. Both his screenwriting and business story seminars are worth the investment. I've been to both.

  • DeenaMcClusky

    Couch (www.couchguitarstraps.com) is an excellent example of a company that has followed this 'tell a story' methodology. By telling their own story of being musicians that couldn't find the product they wanted they connect on an immediate, personal level with other musicians. By telling their story of creating products from deadstock they connect with environmental interests, etc. If more companies utilized the 'tell a story' methodology, more people would feel a personal connection and become long term customers, rather than people just waiting for the next big thing.

  • martin sadofski

    Mckee is harnessed to tightly to the american hero model of storytelling, his thesis is narrow and although smart he thinks there is a path to follow. If we all follow the same path we'll all write the same stories. European cinema has a different and often less plot driven story blueprint. Be careful because he want writers to only think outside the box from within the safety of the box.

  • Josh Epperson

    Pretty interesting perspective, but the writing in this really got in the way. Definitely needs another edit, there are several typos. Also, very abrupt ending. Not sure what happened with this article, but it'd be a shame to do disservice to such an awesome interviewee.

    Take another pass through this one, editorial team!