winter / 2014

The magazine of branded content
Robert McKee has been teaching generations of Hollywood writers the finer points of story design. Now he’s going for the C-Suite.
Nov 11, 2014

Photo by Andrzek Bartkowiak

While teaching his story design workshops to established and emerging screenwriters and novelists, Robert McKee realized that marketing executives and brand managers were sneaking in. So, last fall he began tailoring his lectures to the business crowd.

At his recent “Story in Business” seminar at Hunter College in New York City, McKee, a salty-tongued, bushy-browed, self-described angry intellectual, spent the better part of nine hours explaining the form of a “purpose-told story.”

We sat with him afterwards and this is what he told us:

All business stories end on the positive, but in order for it to feel positive, it has to start on a negative platform, whether that’s an immediate negative, like an oil spill, or the result of something enormously positive, like winning an enormous new contract, that puts the company under pressure.

The human brain is keen to change, and reacts to change.

The underlying theme of all stories, from children’s stories to Hamlet, is how and why life changes. Human beings are obsessed with change, because it determines your future, and what we want to understand in a beautifully told story is not just what happens, but how and why change happens.

Getting data out is not the problem for brands. Frequently I have business executives come to me and say they don’t think they’re telling their story very well. So I look at what they do to brand and market themselves, and I come to realize they don’t tell a story at all.

President Obama does not use his natural storytelling powers.

For brands, there was a time throughout the 20th century when bragging worked. Brands would say, “We’re the biggest, we’re better than so and so.” It doesn’t work anymore. People, especially young people today, are so cynical, so fed up, they’ve had it with institutions both private and public. And when an institution starts bragging, they just turn off. Bragging just doesn’t cut the grass. Not anymore.

I have no idea if Aristotle could tell a story worth shit. But he understood them, and he could break them down, and show the world what they are, with tremendous insight, precision and clarity of thought. But he was never asked to tell a story.

At a business lunch in Italy it’s forbidden to talk business.

Every human being in their heart of hearts feels they’re up against massive forces of antagonism—the Government, the competition, etc. Everybody feels like they’re an underdog.

Western culture is an effort to answer Aristotle’s question: how should a human being live their life? The stories that Western Culture culture has told to dramatize how a human being should live their life, as a collection, with the values of freedom and working in a community together, I would argue that it’s answered that question better than any culture.

I love unnecessary beauty.

Story isn’t just form, or a technique, or a skill in executing events in a progression. What difference does it make if what you have to say is not true, deep, meaningful or important to the person you’re telling the story to?

When people are in crisis, they don’t need information, because they’ve already got the information—or the wrong information.

If the ebola crisis was going on while FDR was President, there would be no panic. FDR was a superb storyteller and would tell the story that would calm everybody down.

Story is the way the mind works. It’s not only natural, it’s genetic.

A great executive has to talk to the world in the world’s language, and the world’s language is story. They have to be able to take all their insight and knowledge and data that they’ve gained and shape it and incorporate it into story.

Inductive logic is what specialists trade in; story is what the rest of us trade in.

Every corporation has a subconscious mind—all those things that people who work there know, but they don’t think about. Some companies are just more aggressive about it than others.

I don’t blame Powerpoint for miscommunication in business. The problem is business logic, how people in business think. If they restrict themselves to inductive logic, and fail to think in terms of cause and effect, they’ll have a narrow view of life. Causal thinking will enhance the businessperson’s ability to guide their company.

Some people don’t trust story because it can be one step away from bullshit.

Branding is a 20th century phenomenon. People used to self-identify primarily from their work, from their own creativity, from religion, culture and language. People have always worn crosses or Stars of David, now people wear logos—excessively. A human being’s identity should be based on what you personally can do, what you put into this world. The choices that you make in life—that’s who you are.

Everybody can draw, but not everybody can paint.

The historical figure I most identify with is Jonathan Swift. He was an angry Irishman, and he had a clarity of vision, an insight into human nature and the magical talent to convert these into allegories that were so meaningful and so moving to people, that 400 years on people are still re-reading his stories, because they are eternal. If I could have some small sliver of that, to put some practical insight into the world, I would feel like my life has been worth living.

The deepest pleasure of going to the theater is to learn.

Driving through all of those beautiful villages of the Italian countryside can give you an art headache.

I suspect the English sense of humor was much cultivated by the Irish. I think they taught the English how to look at things from the inside out.