Valetta, Malta, late November. It’s an evening at the end of one of those days. Summer has finally lost his last fight against Jack Frost, reinvigorated by Judas Autumn, his beautiful, deceptive seasonal companion. Stealing the remaining rays of warmth from the year’s sunny season for his own colourful performance. Just to lose his beauty to master Winter with the blow of a November wind. The last moment before the days become grey and miserable, foggy and wet, cold.
Nature’s true game of thrones, a drama of expectation, surprise, and change, story in repetition mode. A perfect platform, autumn the perfect time of year, an island the perfect location for a very unique scene, at least in my life story …
… Dinner with Robert McKee, one of the world’s most renowned, respected and successful story teachers, accompanied by his wife and my dear friend and story consultant James McCabe. Great food and even greater Maltese wine were the witnesses of an evening of lively and inspiring discussions about, naturally, all stories great and small, good and bad. About stories from Hollywood, McKee’s professional backyard, behind and in front of the scenes (very interesting to a provincial Bavarian story lover like me!); about movies galore; about the rise of sophisticated and elaborate TV series like Breaking Bad (the best ever produced, I recall McKee raving, that was some common ground to start an evening on!), and … about the poor state our world is in when it comes to business stories.
From Hollywood Entertainment to Malta Business
Robert McKee is not only Hollywood’s #1 story expert and creative writing instructor: His seminal book “STORY” is as famous and well-reviewed as his four-day “Story Seminar” is legendary, a must-attend guide for every ambitious (screen)writer willing to learn the craft or recall its essence. I have yet to judge this for myself, but allegedly 410 of his alumni have won Golden Globes, Academy Awards and many other renowned prizes. Not bad. Alumni like LOTR’s Peter Jackson go into rapture saying things like “McKee is the Guru of Gurus of Storytelling” (whatever a storytelling guru is…), or John Cleese who less guru-ishly claims: “It’s an amazingly important course that I’ve gone back to do three times.” Not bad either.
McKee has as of late also embarked upon the effort to transfer his knowledge and expertise in fiction story (mainly designed for entertainment purposes) to the sphere of business, corporate communications and marketing – storytelling with the slightly altered purpose of not only telling, but actually selling something, products and ideas, by means of entertainment. (Ideally. Mostly though, the State of the Business Story Union suggests that these means are currently mainly boredom, repetition and tutelage.)
McKee’s seminar builds upon one major notion: That companies are not abstract enterprises, they are not their portfolios; they are their employees. And these employees are actual human beings, people creating and experiencing stories every day. Only: They’re simply not telling them, rather burying them on power- and pointless PPT’s, vertiginous data sheets, and propaganda wolves in a press release’s sheep skin.
Businesses must shift from “We” to “You”.
So, there’s a urgent need for action here, a demand that McKee has identified and tries to answer with his “Storynomics Seminar”, which premiered under the then name “Story in Business” (which I find much more intuitive, to be honest) in Valetta, Malta, on above-mentioned autumn day.
Upfront: I sincerely believe that endeavours like this should be on the mandatory training list of EVERY person responsible for communications and marketing, from one-man enterprises to multi-national companies. Actually, while I’m thinking about it: slam McKee business story seminar it into the PMP files of every manager attempting to lead in a meaningful and not just power-centric way!
And why? Cos it’s good. Not perfect yet, but really a great start to break up fossilized PR and Marketing dinosaurs, and introduce them to a world where people are people and not abstract target groups, people that indeed WANT to embark upon meaningful dialogue with people from companies (not the companies!), for whatever purpose.
Here are a couple of notes I made, ideas and impulses that I got from that one day in Valetta – they’re pretty spot-on and need no further commentary:
- Everyone has storytelling skills, it’s natural. It only got erased by the way we are trained in schools.
- Very little in life that really matters can be measured.
- Facts are not the truth. Facts are what happens. Truth is how and why things happen.
- The only thing our mind is really interested in, is change. And change is NOT activity.
- Story means “learning by inquiry”.
- A story needs a violation of expectation.
- The business malady of “solutionism” ignores life, ignores duality and ambiguity. Most corporations suffer from “negaphobia”.
- A good (business) story gives the audience insights into their own life, it makes wise use of the “like me” effect.
- Before you can find your story’s character(s), you need to know who you are as a company. The spirit of every story a company tells needs to fit into its identity.
- Businesses must shift the pronoun from “We” to “You”.
- Let the events tell the story. Events are much stronger than the commentary on events.
A little less conversation, a little more (inter)action, please.
The seminar is structured into three parts: Story Purpose, Story Design, Story Telling. McKee convincingly demonstrates the principles of a good story that “serves its purpose” (be that entertainment or a trip down the sales funnel), mechanisms are the same everywhere. A story is a story is a story. With many a business video example, good and bad, reinforces the fact that “story is a metaphor for life”, hence also business life. Very illustrative, very stringent, very substantial, at times maybe a little dogmatic, definitely too much from-stage-to-audience style, and unfortunately almost completely interaction-free (apart from a pre-structured Q&A session at the end). Granted, this is probably the maximum you can do in the course of just one day with such a fundamental topic.
Still: While his screenwriting reputation and Hollywood expertise is the greatest asset and perspective-changing element of this lecture, it’s also maybe the cause for its only weakness, or let’s rather call it room for improvement. I really feel that it’s an opportunity wasted for McKee to have so many interested business people in a room hanging on his lips for story expert advice and only TELL them stuff, and not let them experience it themselves. Not just transfer fiction story mechanics to business story in a demonstrative way, but let them experience it hands-on.
Corporate dinosaurs need more than one day to be story-empowered
Maybe invite a co-lecturer or break-out session lead who actually has extensive experience of working INSIDE and just WITH companies, for the benefit of the much-aspired “like me” effect. To share this business expert’s experiences, especially in terms of overcoming organisational hurdles and convincing notorious nay-sayers nevertheless. Let the audiences maybe even work on short business story challenges amongst themselves, so they don’t just see and hear how it’s done, but can actually do it and feel it. Turn it from a lecture into a true seminar where PR and Marketing professionals are not only evangelized but actually enabled and empowered to go back to their desks and produce their first-ever real business story.
That would probably turn the one-day event into a two- or three-day event. But so what? Why not? Business story lecturing is faced with far crustier mindsets than the entertainment sector where disciples already know the Why’s and want to learn the How’s. Corporate dinosaurs need convincing before you can even get to the tutorial, the hands-on learning part. And that requires more than a day, and more story engagement spice in the story telling soup.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”, Churchill once said.
So please continue, Bobby McKee! And thanks for great insights – and great wine.