The greatest challenge is not to get people's attention – there are many ways to achieve that – but to keep it. Particularly so in business communications, which too often tend to evolve into a painfully long and winding road. In contrast, a skilled Hollywood scriptwriter knows exactly how to keep an audience mesmerized for hours, with or without visually exciting action scenes. So, how do they do it?
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, senior editor Bronwyn Fryer asked Robert McKee, an award-winning Hollywood director and screenwriting lecturer. His student’s have written, directed and produced masterpieces like Forrest Gump and Erin Brockowich, so he obviously knows. Based on his deep insights and decades of hands-on experience he has also written the ultimate book about it: Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
The core message of the HBR article is that most executives struggle to communicate, let alone inspire: ”Too often they get lost in … PowerPoint slides, dry memos, and hyperbolic missives from the corporate communications department. Even the most carefully researched and considered efforts are routinely greeted with cynicism, lassitude, or outright dismissal.”
The approach of the successful scriptwriter is the exact antipode: Toss the PowerPoints and engage the audience in a good story instead. McKee argues that stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living – not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”
“Unite the idea with an emotion”
Most business people use conventional rhetoric knowledge and skills to bring their ideas across. The problem here is that everyone in the audience has his or her own, firmly established set of authorities, statistics and experiences. ”So while you try to convince them, they keep arguing with you in the head.”
The fundamental skill of the movie people, according to Mr. McKee, is to unite the idea with an emotion and energy. We are all human beings, and a catchy story essentially expresses how and why life changes.
We can all identify with a scenario where life is relatively cool, everything seems OK. But suddenly that orderly life is thrown out of balance. Something horrible happens, or is about to happen to the hero, and we get excited to learn how he or she struggles to deal with this fundamental conflict between people’s expectations and cruel reality.
Mr McKee exemplifies this with actual, dramatic stories from Wall Street and the corporate world. But who says that life in, say, a small town family business would be any less dramatic. The stories are there, right in front of your eyes, if you only dare to look away from the ordinary, plain success stories.
We remember the past through stories, so we need to understand our company history from a personal, human perspective: What made the young, struggling entrepreneur take those risks, ignoring those impossible odds? What part of their everyday life inspired that great idea, and what near-catastrophe was avoided in the nick of time? And how do you share your imagination of the future? It’s about our lives; so don’t be afraid to get a bit emotional or personal sometimes.
A good story should ignite our imagination, but it isn’t necessarily any less true than any business statistics or annual reports. Far too often ”statistics are used to tell lies and damn lies, and accounting reports are often BS in a ball gown – witness Enron and WorldCom”.
There is of course more, much more, to say about storytelling. For example the power to earn your audience's trust by also revealing ”the dark side”. Human mistakes and shortcomings, doubt and confusion, failing to keep your promises or reach your targets, fear and dread. This adds life and energy, and ultimately makes your story ring infinitely truer.
Now, don’t expect to find an Oscars-winning blockbuster in every single blog post or news release. But maybe, just maybe, we can all learn a few things from the world’s best storytellers. Highlighting real people, their dreams, achievements, doubts and failures – not just the successes. Daring to break the mold of corporate jargon. Addressing both the heart and minds of your audience.
And remember: Even the best content needs a carefully considered strategy, efficient distribution and, not least, analysis and follow up.
So, what’s your story?
Senior Writer & Strategist at Freya News