What Robert McKee’s Hollywood Storytelling Can Teach You about Marketing

by | Nov 2, 2015 | Conversations that Sell

Robert McKee Sitting in the back of a large hotel conference room, I watched this white haired man shuffle up to the stage carrying a leather bag. He wore running shoes, dress pants, and a long sleeved blue button up collared shirt.

It seemed like a strain for him to climb up the stairs and get settled on his platform.

Wow – I guess that’s Robert McKee! Can he make it through four days of this?!” I thought.

But, at 8:59am he took his watch off his wrist to place it on on a stand in front of him, and then turned to the audience.

He stood tall, and with a sparkle in his eye he began:

“There’s no smog in LA. It’s just the stench of all the rotten scripts.”

Robert McKee, is probably the best known screenwriter lecturer in the world. Students of his training include 100’s of Emmy, Academy Award and Writers Guild Award Winners. And, when his Story Seminar kicks off, he comes to life. This is a man who lives to teach about story telling.

Those four days contained some golden material to help with story telling in life and business.

Here are some of the great takeaways to help you get attention, hold it and have a big impact with your marketing messages:

  1. Numbers Kill Thought

Remember the story of Rokia?

Hearing about millions starving doesn’t move us to donate as much as the plight of one single girl can.

Why is that? The same researchers think it was because statistics made donors think analytical instead of emotionally. The result was less connection to the cause and therefore, less money.

To prove this, they ran a new study asking one group questions analytical questions like “If an object travels at five feet per minute, then by your calculations how many feet will it travel in 360 seconds?”. They asked another group emotional questions like “describe how you feel when you hear the word ‘baby'”.

Then, they gave both groups the Rokia letter. When people were put in a more analytical mindset they gave $1.26. When they were set up to be more emotional, they gave $2.34.

Simply asking someone a single analytical questions caused a major decrease in support for the cause.

Robert McKee summarizes this by saying numbers kill thought. The way we’ve been taught to present in business, with charts, graphs, and stats to back up an argument, is not a compelling way to connect with your audience and get buy in.

His suggestion (and something you’ve heard from me over and over again), is to tell a compelling story that illustrates the problem and your solution.  Your audience will engage, and likely pull out their credit card or sign on the dotted line.

2. Story Matters – But It’s Not the Story You Think

the story you tell your friendsIt’s easy to get hung up on the story you are telling. You want it to persuade, inspire and impact the person who hears it.

The story you tell is not the most important story though.

The story that matters is the story your client (or, potential client) tells after you leave the room.

That story will determine if you get the business, or if your message made it’s mark.

There are two key points Robert McKee made around this. The first was that if you’re not giving them a story to retell, they are making up their own. He said, “We’re storytelling creatures. Our mind thinks in story. While you’re sitting here, your mind is trying to create a story called ‘What the f#$% am I going to do with all this information?

So, you must give your clients a story to pass along. This might be a story of why you started your company, how you helped someone just like them, or just something you’ve experienced that is related to your business.

The next, is that you need to keep the stories you’re telling simple.  Make it easy for someone to retell your story by giving them concrete images they can visualize and a powerful insight they will want to share. Use concrete and specific words to do that. Did he walk, or did he strut? Or, did he plod? Your mind actually sees the difference.

Too many confusing details or vague information, and the message will get diluted, and eventually lost.

If you’re not sure whether your story is good, tell it to someone and then ask them to repeat it back to you a few hours or, even days, later. What details did they remember? What did they forget? Did they remember the important message? If they didn’t, go back and adjust the words you use to describe the pieces they missed.

To help you know how to improve what you say, this video covers some points that will help you when you tell stories, whether written or spoken:

3. The Story You Do Need to Tell is Not a Narrative

A narrative walks you through someone’s day, step by step. This morning I woke up to the sound of pounding rain. The storm hit us hard overnight. I wondered if the gutters were overflowing. I looked at the clock. It was 5:55am. My alarm was going to go off at 6:15, so I figured I would get up so my husband wouldn’t be disturbed by my alarm. I turned the alarm off and dressed in the dark.

That’s a narrative.

A story can be a narrative, but not all narratives are story.

Robert McKee teaches you to write screenplays, but this element of story telling is so important in business. Whether you’re producing a commercial, writing sales copy or selling face to face, you want short stories with big impact.  To do that, your story should be a single point in time, with one key point that fuses emotion and mind.

Think of the classic comedian like “So I’m standing there and …”. That begins a single point in time story that usually ends with you laughing.

Good stories don’t have to be long. I’m writing this on Hallowe’en so here’s a couple of scary stories that are only a couple of sentences long:

  • We were just waiting for the power to come back on when my friend Breanne asked why I was breathing so heavily. I wasn’t.
  • The laughter of a baby always makes you smile. Unless it’s 1 a.m. and you’re home alone.
  • With two dogs in the house I am used to hearing scratching at the door. The problem is I’m alone in a hotel room and I’m still hearing scratching.
Of course, you’ll probably tell a slightly longer story in most situations, but if you stick to a single point in time, you’ll avoid the boring narrative.

4. Create a God-Like Knowledge of the Subject

Hollywood Story Telling If you tell a story about a one night stand that leads to pregnancy and it happens in the 21st century in the United States, you have a movie like Knocked Up. If you tell that story and it happens during the 1990’s in Ireland you get The Snapper. Even though the premise of the story is the same (a drunken hook up), the entire story changes based on a few details like when and where it happens.

In an effort to make your message short, you must be careful to include the important details. These details bring your story to life. To know what details to leave out and which ones to include, you need to do a lot of research.

Know your subject so well you could fill pages and pages of yellow legal notepaper just writing backstory on the place, the time, and the characters.

Robert McKee said that you need to create a ‘god-like knowledge’ of the subject so that you can do this. In business, knowing your industry is obviously important. A deep understanding of your competition will be really useful. But, knowing everything you can about your customers is probably the most important. Spend time speaking with your customers, observing them, reading what they read, and researching anything in detail that you don’t quite understand or feel knowledgeable in.

With that depth of expertise, your specific stories will be messages your ideal customers can relate to. And, because you have the god-like knowledge, you’ll be able to create stories that include the important details and leave out the ones that dilute the message.

When you first start applying these principles, this one could be tricky, so for now, let’s leave it at this: If you feel like you’re struggling to create a great story, do more research.

5. The Energy Comes from the Negative.

“Look on the bright side” is a common platitude that is tossed around. But, if all you do is look on the bright side your story will be boring.

Next time you’re watching a really good movie, watch for this. Every good scene has a change in emotional value. For example, the scene opens with the happy couple having coffee together. Everything is going well until a text message from her ex-boyfriend comes in. Now, the new boyfriend gets jealous and mad. He accuses her of leading her ex on. She gets up and leaves.

When I tell the story of writing my first book, More than Cashflow, people don’t relate the fact that my book sold thousands of copies in the first week and went to #1 overall on Amazon. They relate to the deep rejection I felt when the publisher said that they didn’t think my platform was good enough to sell any books. My book idea wasn’t rejected; they rejected me.

Even if you’ve never wanted to be published, you’ve been rejected. If I left that part of the story out, it would be fluffy and not at all interesting.

Bad things happen in business. There are challenges. Your story gets energy from the negative, so you must include it in the stories you tell, especially in business settings.

Story is a critical part of business success. The best leaders are almost always the best story tellers. As you grow your business, take note of these lessons from one of Hollywood’s masters. Resist the urge to drown people in stats or platitudes, and get to the heart of what matters most in your business with a great story.

I should also note that I shouldn’t have worried about whether he could make it through. A smarter concern would have been to worry if I could keep up with this 75 year old man. It was intense. It was also inspiring. As long as people want to hear his lessons on story, he’s going to share them. This is what he lives for. That’s pretty cool.



1st Image Credit: Julie Broad
2nd Image Credit: ID 58870961 © Antonio Guillem 
3rd Image Credit: ID 30076415 © Carrienelson1

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