If you saw the 2002 movie Adaptation, you’ll probably remember the (unforgettable) scene where the main character—an aspiring screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman played by a wan, self-loathing Nicholas Cage—attends one of Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting seminars.
Raising his hand in a crowd of hundreds, Kaufman finds the courage to challenge one of McKee’s inviolable 10 Commandments.
Kaufman: You talked about Crisis as the ultimate decision a character makes, but what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world –
“Are you out of your [redacted] mind?” the actor playing McKee says, the first in a profusion of profanities that he unleashes upon poor Kaufman in what turns out to be one of the more memorable, gratuitous and hilariously disproportionate dressings down in cinematic history.
Yes, McKee may be a bit over the top, but that’s part of his appeal. His strong opinions appear to be earned. He wrote what’s widely considered the screenwriting bible and, for thirty years, he’s delivered the most important seminar on the craft, which has been attended by no fewer than 20 Oscar winners and bold-faced celebrities with names like Julia Roberts, John Cleese and Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame.
I had a chance to speak with Bob last week as part of a publicity junket he’s doing to promote a partnership with content marketing platform vendor Skyword. As part of this partnership, McKee and Skyword founder Tom Gerace will collaborate on storytelling training and tools for content marketers.
I may have unintentionally played the role of Charlie Kaufman when I asked McKee whether storytelling techniques apply to the most prosaic of brands, products and services that don’t exactly make the heart skip a beat. How do you tell a story about a [insert arcane, esoteric or otherwise uninspiring product or service here]? I mean, seriously, aren’t there limits to this storytelling thing?
(OK, maybe I was baiting him a little.)
“That’s very shortsighted. Nonsense, really” he said, referring to someone who would think this way and not (necessarily) me. I braced myself for the dressing down, having seen Adaptation more than once.
Truth is, Bob may have strong opinions, but, in real life anyway, he’s practically a gentleman. He spared me the indignity so artfully demonstrated in that movie, which I concluded must have been fictionalized.
He said that every product or service has a story to tell. Marketers who can’t see that are failing to consider how their product or service fits in the context of a culture.
“There isn’t a product or service that’s successful that isn’t somehow contributing to the life experiences of people and isn’t making their existence in some way more livable,” he said. “It’s a matter of stepping back and looking at how people use [the product or service] to realize that it enhances lives. And if you took it away, that life would be diminished.”
Those who can’t see this, he suggests, are simply being too modest.
Skyword’s Gerace weighs in with the example of Volvo’s YouTube video that demonstrates the virtues of the precision steering technology the company uses in its big rigs—not a topic high on the mind of the average consumer—by featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme executing a perfect high-speed split between two fast-moving Volvo trucks. Gerace reminds me that this is a B2B ad for the trucking industry. By the measure of YouTube views, anyway, the example proves McKee’s point roughly 83 million times over.
Practically every marketer I know thinks of themselves as a storyteller, but McKee says that most marketers are trapped in a cycle of inductive and deductive thinking. They think they’re telling stories when they’re actually just “bragging and promising.” Or they’re telling stories, but not particularly well.
“The mind storifies reality,” he says. “Of the millions of points of stimuli that are coming into every one of us sitting here, the mind knows how to eliminate 99% of it and put the rest in a storified form that it stores it in the memory. The mind is a story-making machine.”
How do marketers capitalize on this?
“When you speak in this story format, it’s instantly absorbed by your audience,” he says. “If you tell a story beautifully, the mind receives it like a drink of water.”
And what makes a story good?
“Well, there are a long list of characteristics that make a story bad,” McKee says. “There will be no conflict. There will be no surprise. There will be no empathy.”
He says that, of all characteristics of a story, empathy is the most important.
“The irreducible step is to connect on an empathetic level,” he says. “It can’t be just charming. It can’t just be sympathetic. It’s not a matter of likability. The audience must connect on some subconscious level that this story is about me.” Meaning them. Not you.
But it’s also not just about storytelling for the sake of telling stories. Marketers have to put these stories to use. McKee says that this is the difference between entertaining and entertainment. McKee calls it “the purpose-told story.” Stories that move audiences to action. To make a purchase. To change an attitude.
Now show me a marketer who doesn’t understand that part.