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June 2012

Robert McKee: Storytelling Trumps Bullet Points



"As a method of persuasion, I am not a big fan of PowerPoint presentations," says the legendary screenwriting guru Robert McKee. What McKee is saying here is that using slideware the way most business people still do today — slides filled with loads of data and lists of "points" — fails (even assuming people are able to pay attention through the visual assault) largely because the audience assumes the presenter is hiding something and that he is including only bits and pieces that support his case. Beating people over the head, one bulletpoint-filled slide at a time, is a much weaker approach than the use of story, McKee says. Watch the video below to hear McKee explain the three different methods of persuasion and why he thinks storytelling is the best method.

"PowerPoint Presentation"
I dislike the term "PowerPoint presentation" — a term McKee used several times in this video clip. When people use this term, especially in a disparaging way, they assume that using PowerPoint necessarily means using it the way the Microsoft templates suggest (title, bullets, small charts and graphs, etc.) rather than as a simple digital storytelling tool that can amplify a person's live message with full screen video clips, easy to see quantitative displays, high quality photography, good type, and so on. "PowerPoint presentation" (or "Keynote presentation" or "Prezi" etc.) is a term I never use. There are no such things as "PowerPoint presentations" — there are only effective presentations and ineffective ones. The effective ones almost always incorporate elements of story and good storytelling, regardless of whether they use multimedia or not. I agree with McKee's assertion that story is extremely effective and very much underutilized by business people today. And I agree with his implication that even great visuals are not at all necessary for effective storytelling. However, visuals can obviously be a powerful storytelling amplifier,  assuming they are designed well and the story is properly constructed and convincingly told.

Data and storytelling
Statistics and storytelling are not mutually exclusive. In Business and in technical fields the good visualization of data can be very valuable. Software such as Tableau, for example, does a good job of visualizing your data in a way that can be incorporated into your persuasive story. While boring, cluttered, and impossible-to-see slides are very ineffective visual support, quantitative displays that are easy to see and serve as harmonious support to clear thinking and an engaging story can be a powerful amplifier for the storyteller. In this clip below, notice how Hans Rosling uses a great deal of data to tell a clear story regarding global economic growth over the last 150 years. Wether you use data or not, there is no excuse for boring an audience.

A book for all creatives, not just writers
The classic Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting is a wonderful book that I recommend often — I think all of my own books have at least one reference to this book or other writings by Robert McKee. Whatever business you are in, you in the business of being a human most of all. And humans tell stories. “Stories," says McKee, "are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” The best communicators in any profession understand the power of story and the basic principles of good storytelling. 

 Robert McKee on the Power of Stories
 Another Robert McKee video similar to the video above

Going analog: sketching with an erasable pen

As much as I love digital technology, I still prefer using a whiteboard or paper for brainstorming and sketching out ideas. Obviously you can erase little errors quickly on the whiteboard, but I never really cared about having the ability to erase while using a pen and paper; I still remember the mess that erasable pens made when I was in college (admittedly that was a million years ago). Things have changed a lot since then. The 3-colored FriXion by Pilot that I have been trying uses a thermo-sensitive gel ink that disappears when erasing friction is applied (see the rough iPhone video I made to see another method for erasing).

The ink is not quite as strong as traditional ballpoint pens, but pretty close. The pen writes just as smoothly as a regular pen, however. The downside is if you leave your notebook in a hot car, for example, it's possible the ink could disappear (some people have reported this). And of course, you should never use this kind of pen for legal documents or writing checks, etc. These pens are very popular in Japan. You can read what people say about the pens — good and bad — here on Amazon to get a feel for what people think. I am still experimenting, but I really like the pens so far.

ABOVE Best use of a PC ever? Students use pens and post-it notes to brainstorm and organize their ideas long before opening up an app.


Ichi ju san sai: A lesson in less-is-more

A couple of years ago, two of my students created a presentation extolling the virtues of eating a traditional Japanese diet and encouraged their fellow students—with evidence and anecdotes—to eat much less fast food. The secret to a healthy life, they said, was eating a traditional Japanese diet inspite of the ubiquitous fast food options in today's Japan. In this presentation they introduced a simple phrase — ichi ju san sai—which many students had not thought about, although they had heard the term before. Japanese cooking is in part based on the principle called ichi ju san sai (一汁三菜) or one soup and three side dishes (plus rice). The ichi ju san sai pattern goes back several centuries in Japan. The three side dishes usually have a main dish plus two lesser dishes. The main dish is often a protein like fish and the lesser dishes might include items such as tufu or potatoes or vegetables like carrots, daikon radish, burdock root, and so on. And a typical meal is served with tsukemono (Japanese pickles) on the side as well. With this kind of meal it is very easy to follow the hara hachi bu principle (eat until 80% full) while still feeling satisfied.

Here is one of their slides sketched first on the whiteboard. Later they took their own photos and built there images in slideware, but occasionally students sketch all their slides like this on a whiteboard and then take pictures of each sketch with text and use those images to fill the full frame in their slides.

A lesson in variety & balance
We can apply the spirt of ichi ju san sai to other aspects of our creative lives, including presentations. For example, ichi ju san sai is good for achieving a relatively low-calorie but nutrient-rich diet. A lot of fast food reverses this equation—high-calorie, nutrient-weak—especially when sugary drinks are added. In a similar way, many effective presentations are relatively short in terms of time but rich in content and meaning (and relevance, inspiration, etc.). Good presentations subtract the superfluous and add the meaningful and are efficient with time. However, ineffective presentations are often weak in relevant content and meaning but nonetheless take a very long time to deliver.

The principle behind ichi ju san sai is a good lesson in achieving variety & balance through simplicity. With food we need a variety of different sources from which we get our calories. The ichi ju san sai principle encourages variety and adjusting menu items to include what is in season, ensuring the freshest of content. Variety and balance are keys to many aspects of our lives, however, including education — how we learn and help others to learn — and our pursuit to make a contribution in the world and find some bit of happiness and fulfillment while doing so. We need security and reassurance and we get that through routine and exposure to the known and the expected, but we also crave variety. No variety, no life.


Looking back to the future

The photo above is of one of their pre-slide sketches which features the phrase 温故知新 (onko chishin) which means something similar to "visit the past to understand the new" or "learn from the past." My students are calling this "Back to the Future." That is, there is much to be learned, they said, from the past and that we are well advised to bring some of those things from traditional "old Japan" with us to the future, such as the healthy, sustainable, and delicious eating habits of the past including the ichi ju san sai approach. The secret to the future, at least when it comes to cooking and eating they said, is to look back to discover lessons from the past that we may use to improve our present. This principle too has many applications for our personal and professional lives today.

Two students plan their presentation on the benefits of traditional Japanese cooking vs. modern fast food, first by brainstorming on paper and sketching visuals on the whitebaord, and then in their storyboard books long before the computer was turned on.

What is your intention?

John_hIn the world of presentation visuals, I often have new students in university or clients in the business world who are very eager to come to me to show off their "visual masterpieces." These cluttered and distracting multimedia creations, filled with the superfluous and the nonessential, incorporating seemingly every special effect, color, and font the software had to offer, end up assaulting the brains of anyone who dares to look in the general direction of the screen. When they ask me what I think, I usually begin by asking them what there intention was. "What's your intent?" I ask them. The response is always the same: a blank stare followed by some "ums" and erms" and other disfluencies, and the realization that they "had not really thought about it in those terms." And this is the rub: Almost all ineffective design can be traced back to a failure right from the beginning to ask (and answer) the simple question: "What's my (our) intention?"

Today, I am happy to point you to a simple and evocative TED presentation by award-winning journalist John Hockenberry that touches on the issue of design and intent. John Hockenberry's message was clear, engaging, memorable, and inspiring. If this was his intent, then I must say his presentation was wonderfully designed indeed. Well done, Mr. Hockenberry. (View on

Related links

Design with intent blog
Article: Design with intent

Steve Jobs on life: change it, improve it, make your mark

Every year around this time I look for inspirational speeches, presentations, and other words of advice for graduating seniors. Last year, for example, I pointed to these three graduation speeches. This year I do not have a formal speech to point to, but I stumbled on this short and simple yet profound piece by Steve Jobs below. This clip is from a PBS documentary called "One Last Thing" which aired last November. This interview clip dates back to a time in the '90s, before he rejoined Apple. The words are very simple and uncomplicated...and true. Life is short and ephemeral, an yet we can have an impact. We can each make a contribution. Our job is to figure out what that contribution is. (The clip on Youtube.)

Life: "You can change it, you can influence it..."

Here is the transcript for the video clip. There are some good quotable lines in there.

"When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

"The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

"I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”   — Steve Jobs