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Robert McKee on the power of story


StoryAs children we were naturally good at telling stories about events or topics that mattered and learning from others via their stories, but as we became older we were taught that serious people relied only on presenting information and "the facts." Accurate information, sound logic, and the facts are necessary, of course, but truly effective leaders in any field — including technical ones — know how to tell "the story" of their particular research endeavor, technological quest, or marketing plan, etc. There are a few people talking about the importance of storytelling these days (see this post from last year: Ira Glass: Tips on storytelling), and if you look to non-traditional sources there is much to be learned. Famed screen writer Robert McKee's book (Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting) is one I have recommended before—highly recommend it. But you may hesitate to spend $35 for 480 pages on the topic of screenwriting (though the lessons have broad applications). However, the Harvard  Business Review featured a nice article on McKee's ideas in their June, 2003 publication. You can purchase a PDF of the short article for $6.50 titled Storytelling that Moves People on the Harvard Business Online site.

Below, I summarize McKee's points by touching on just a few of the questions discussed in the interview. Following that is a great video interview with the man and the legend, Robert McKee. The last video is from the movie Adaptation featuring a scene of an actor playing the part of McKee. Fantastic scene.

Does being good at storytelling make you a good leader?
Harvard Business Review"Not necessarily," says McKee. "But if you understand the principles of storytelling, you probably have a good understanding of yourself and of human nature, and that tilts the odds in your favor." McKee says that good storytellers must have a good deal of life experience. He can teach the fundamentals of storytelling, he says, but not to someone who has not had a breadth of experience (good and bad—especially bad). "Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling."

Why should a CEO or manager pay attention to a screen writer?
 "A big part of a CEO's job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that she must engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is story." The most common way to persuade people, says McKee, is with conventional rhetoric and an intellectual process that in the business world "...usually consists of a PowerPoint presentation" in which leaders build their case with statistics and quotes, etc. McKee says rhetoric is problematic because while we are making our case others are arguing with us in their heads using their own statistics and sources. Even if you do persuade through argument, says McKee, this is not good enough because "...people are not inspired to act on reason alone." The key, then, is to aim to unite an idea with an emotion, which is best done through story. "In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener's emotion and energy."

Mckee_quote.020 Slide with
quote from HBR article (click for larger size).

What is a story?
At it's core, story is about  a "...fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality," says McKee. Story is about an imbalance and opposing forces (a problem that must be worked out, etc.). A good storyteller describes what it's like to deal with these opposing forces "...calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions...and ultimately discover the truth." Can not a presentation on a technical or scientific topic be a story — with plenty of data and information along the way — about a long journey of discovery, of trial and error, and so on?

How can executives/leaders learn to tell stories?
We tend to forget lists and bullet points, McKee says, but stories come naturally to us; it's how we've always attempted to understand and remember the bits and pieces of experience. McKee's point is that you should not fight your natural inclination to frame experiences into a story but should instead embrace this and tell "the story" of your experience/topic to your audience.

Story_slides.018  Story_slides.019
Sample slides based on HBR material (click for larger size).

What makes a good story?
It's not what you think—the beginning-to-end tale about how results meet expectations is boring and banal, McKee says. Avoid this. Instead, it's better to illustrate the "struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness." So, what's wrong with painting a positive picture? McKee says that spin and a glossy, rosy picture actually works against you because everyone knows it can't be exactly true. What makes life interesting is "the dark side" and the struggle to overcome the negatives — struggling against the negative powers is what forces us to live more deeply, says McKee. Overcoming the negative powers is interesting, engaging, and memorable. Stories like this are more convincing.

Isn't this just exaggeration and manipulation?
McKee admits than business leaders are often skeptical of story. But "the fact is," he says, "statistics are used to tell lies...while accounting reports are often BS in a ball gown — witness Enron and WorldCom." When McKee helps executives turn their dull presentations into stories, he starts by looking for the dramas and the difficulties, the antagonists and the struggles, and even the dirty laundry. People prefer to present only the rosy (and boring) picture. "But as a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you've overcome them." If you tell the story of how you struggled with the antagonists, says McKee, the audience is engaged with you and your material.

More from Robert McKee
Here's a nice 10-minute interview with Robert McKee (interviewed by George Stroumboulopoulos).

In the interview, McKee quotes Aristotle.

Story seminar from Adaptation
This short clip features a great actor playing the Robert McKee chacter giving some "feedback" to a writer's question (played by Nicolas Cage) in the Oscar-winning movie Adaptation.

A takeaway line: "If you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis you'll bore your audience to tears." For presentations, and from the audience's point of view, the question is: Why the bloody hell does this matter? Clarify that and you're on the right track.

Robert McKee's seminars (got to make it next year).
Interview with Robert McKee (The Screen Players).
Chapter 4 (Crafting the Story) from PZ book free on the Peachpit website.


Don Campbell

I just picked this book up last week because I was reading in "The Pixar Touch" that the Pixar team attended McKee's seminar early on and used many of his principles in their films.

I'm fascinated with storytelling and exploring the subject with my 9 year old daughter now - it's such and important life skill; in both business and personal settings. Thanks for the great summary and perspective on this Garr!

Andy Breeding

I recommend the abridged audiobook version of McKees book as recommended by Kevin Kelly in this article:

It truly was great listening to this...


Matthew Bennett

Great post Garr, thanks. Inspired me to go and read more about Mckee and I found these two articles which are relevant if anybody's interested:


Thanks for this really interesting post. I think that part of being a good leader is the ability to connect with your audience. Story telling can be a really great way to do this as it enables you to stir the emotions of others and to take them on a journey with you. Of course there are times when facts are more appropriate too (perhaps in times of crisis) but storytelling should be something every good leader has in their tool bag.



Garr, I followed the link you provided to the interview with Robert in the The Age online site. I was VERY excited to see he was doing a three day course right here in Melbourne in mid-August ... just a few weeks away. There is a ph number to book ... and it's only $600 !

I excitedly call the number, credit card in hand and guy at that number doesn't have a clue what I'm talking. I reload the page to tell him how The Age has *his* ph number published as the booking number for McKee's seminar .... and only then notice that the article is from 2004 !

What's that thing Homer Simpson always says ....

- Dean

Don Campbell

@Matthew Bennett - thanks for the additional links. I enjoyed those articles too.

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