“An entrepreneur has to tell a story that’s a prophecy that we feel will definitely come true.” 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.

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.

BY: ROBERT MCKEE AS TOLD TO DRAKE BAER

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 to 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 likeMicrosoft, 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.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.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS THE MOST EXTREME USE OF STORY.

So the mode of thinking in business, imitating science, is to use 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. Causal logic based on upon a dynamic of changing value charge in opposition to all the forces that would keep you permanently out of balance, unless you have the way to be able restore balance.

WHEN YOU MEET WITH A CLIENT, TELL A STORY

I have a client in a big huge construction company, it has branches everywhere but the head office is in Wisconsin. [They’re] 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 that they’re considering numbers, and a committee from the client makes a decision based on those numbers. Bolt’s 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 sort 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. So I said “Look, make those people the core character of a story that begins with–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 Bolt, as your sidekick, partner, will foresee these problems. If they do occur, and we can’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 Bolt and 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 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 t 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 I technique that I call seduction. It associates itself positively with something we love: sports, the Goodyear blimp. It’s effective.

MICHELIN HAD A TIRE AND AN INFANT BABY SITTING ON THE TIRE IN DIAPERS SMILING. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT IMAGE? THAT’S A STORY.
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 products not in the world, the services are not being performed, it’s only a future possibility. So you have to 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 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.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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