The godfather of storytelling
In 2019, I had the chance to attend Robert McKee’s signature seminar „Story“. Meaning: witness a 78 year old guy standing on a stage for more than ten straight hours, three days in a row, passing on his storytelling knowledge to a large crowd of adults from all over the world. An audience that is reverently listening and taking notes. Robert McKee, decades-long Hollywood author, professor and also known as the „godfather of storytelling“, amazes, entertains and, at least a little bit, scares professional writers from all over the world with his wit, wisdom and tough dog character. His seminar is based on his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting and gives you deep insights not only into screenwriting but also the art of storytelling in general.
Beware of the godfather: Robert has a great sense of humor – but better don’t disturb during his lessons
Besides the fact that it is absolutely worthwhile to experience Robert live on stage teaching – you can tell the former actor is still inside him – the thing I like about his approach is that he doesn’t try to sell you a recipe for how to write an Oscar-worthy screenplay or how to pen a bestseller. Instead, he points out certain principles you should follow to create a great story – no matter if you are writing a novel, a play, a documentary or a memoire. Here are my top five – and how they match with my own work.
1. A story is all about making sense out of life.
»Story is all about making sense out of life« – and also about making sense out of business. Because even if we tend to think that life and business are two different things, they actually are not. Simply because businesses are people. Even with advances in robotics and AI, companies today are still founded, run and operated by people made of flesh and blood. And these business people are the same as the real life people. So why do we often assume communication and processes have to be so different in business? Writing down how day-to-day processes actually work (or how they don’t), or what your business is about at all, helps you to clarify where you come from and where you are going.
2. A story is more than language. It’s a metaphor for life.
Again, this quote is also true for business. When you talk to people who are not used to writing or reading too much, you tend to hear things like »It’s just words«. But to be honest, it’s not. Whether in your home or at work, language is the vehicle that sends a message from one person to another (we could also, for example, draw funny pictures and show them to each other, but that doesn’t seem very practical or precise to me). But the art of storytelling is about the message behind the mere words – and can, in fact, be very powerful.
3. A story goes beyond the surface.
A story has the power to reveal the truth that lies beyond the surface. This is true for every kind of story: whether it’s a novel or a newspaper article or a brand story. Business communication is often dull and meaningless because it just scrapes the surface and uses marketing speak. Instead of saying what a company actually does, what they aim to achieve and why anyone should care. No wonder people say »It’s just words«. Because if you don’t ask the right questions and dig deeper into the topic, it might not be more than that.
4. If you can’t write it down, you don’t really know it.
Do you really know where you are heading with your business? What you are actually doing? Or if you are part of a team in a larger company: are you absolutely sure what your role is? Then test yourself: try to write it down in a few, short, clear sentences. From personal experience as a writer as well as from the work with clients, I am a hundred per cent on the same page with McKee.
As soon as you try to put in writing what you supposedly know, you may be surprised to learn it’s not as crystal clear as you thought. You might not even be able to do it at all. The good news here: you can start writing on a regular basis, not necessarily to become the next J.K. Rowling, but to practice how to express your tasks, strategies or goals. The bad news is: If you struggle to do it first time and don’t make an effort to learn, you might never know what the hell you are doing.
5. We were taught to criticize, not to be creative – time to turn things around.
A sad truth that is especially true in Germany. In the country of Kant and Schopenhauer, of Siemens, Diesel and Lilienthal, we tend to analyse things and to work with facts. That was great so long as it allowed us to easily drive our own car or board a plane and fly to Hawaii. But at a time in which we need to find new solutions for our businesses and our entire society (read more on this topic in my article about New Work, New Culture by Frithjof Bergmann), we need to create and to foster new ideas, instead of criticizing them from the start. What may be possible today, might be key for real change tomorrow. What does this have to do with storytelling? Well, to write down your own story and start on a blank piece of paper can be one way to sniff the scent of creation again. And to open up new perspectives on what can be done.