Storytelling that moves people. A conversation with screenwriting coach Robert McKee.
When executives need to persuade an audience, most try to build a case with facts, statistics, and some quotes from authorities. In other words, they resort to "companyspeak," the tools of rhetoric they have been trained to use. In this conversation with HBR, Robert McKee, the world's best-known screenwriting lecturer, argues that executives can engage people in a much deeper--and ultimately more convincing--way if they toss out their Power-Point slides and memos and learn to tell good stories. As human beings, we make sense of our experiences through stories. But becoming a good storyteller is hard. It requires imagination and an understanding of what makes a story worth telling. All great stories deal with the conflict between subjective expectations and an uncooperative objective reality. They show a protagonist wrestling with antagonizing forces, not a rosy picture of results meeting expectations--which no one ends up believing. Consider the CEO of a biotech start-up that has discovered a chemical compound to prevent heart attacks. He could make a pitch to investors by offering up market projections, the business plan, and upbeat, hypothetical scenarios. Or he could captivate them by telling the story of his father, who died of a heart attack, and of the CEO's subsequent struggle against various antagonists--nature, the FDA, potential rivals--to bring to market the effective, low-cost test that might have prevented his father's death. Good storytellers are not necessarily good leaders, but they do share certain traits. Both are self-aware, and both are skeptics who realize that all people--and institutions--wear masks. Compelling stories can be found behind those masks.