How to Tell a Blockbuster Business Story

Estimated reading time: 17 minute(s)

Copywriting lessons from Hollywood
Learn to grip your target customer with storytelling tips from Hollywood.

When it comes to learning storytelling, few teachers are as well-regarded as legendary screenwriting expert Robert McKee. His seminars are seen as a rite of passage for any aspiring storyteller looking to make his or her mark in Hollywood. With the launch of his newest book, Storynomics, McKee is bringing his storytelling insights to the business world to help leaders and marketers bring some of that silver screen magic to their brands.

Earlier this month, we attended one of McKee’s Storynomics seminars, which he presented alongside his co-author Thomas Gerace. Here below are a few of the key takeaways you can use to cut through the clutter, engage your target audience, and tell a story that builds lasting value for your brand.

Choose an empathetic protagonist

In Home Alone, we’re all cheering for Macaulay Culkin outsmart the bad guys and stay safe long enough for his parents to get home. In a word, we empathize with him. Meaning, if we found ourselves in that situation, we’d want the same outcome for ourselves. You don’t need to be a 8 year-old boy to feel that way, you’re simply “drawn into an emotionally connection based on your common humanity,” as McKee put it. That’s empathy, and an empathetic protagonist is essential for an effective story.

But too many businesses make themselves the protagonist in their story: We have the best products, we have the latest technology, we have amazing services. The problem is, we don’t easily relate to companies. We relate to people. So according to McKee, the best thing to do is to make your target customer the protagonist. “In a well-told story” he says, “the audience is rooting for themselves.”

Launch your story with an inciting incident

Picture this: You wake up. Get dressed. Eat breakfast. Everything is as it should be, no story here. But then you walk outside and discover that your car has been towed. Now you’ve got a problem. A problem that you need to solve. A problem that, once its solved, will become a story, namely The Story of How I Got My Car Back After It Was Towed. The point is, you don’t have a story until you have a problem.

McKee calls this essential problem the inciting incident. It’s the unexpected change that “radically upsets the balance of life” for the protagonist. What unexpected change can you identify that’s throwing your protagonist’s life out of order? Are they struggling to keep pace with a digital market? Losing market share to a challenger brand? Having difficulty standing out from a sea of competitors? Identify that problem or change, and use it to set your story in motion.

Create suspense with positive and negative turns

The best stories keep us on the edge our seats, burning with a simple question: How will this turn out? Great storytellers tease the audience, leading them through a series of twists and turns, each heightening the drama, until the story’s cathartic conclusion: guy gets girl, team wins the pennant, planet is saved, and so on.

How can you build this tension in your business story? McKee sums it up in two magic words: but and therefore. “Be able to say either one of those two words between each scene,” he says. “You should either contradict the previous scene, or be the cause of the following scene.”

For instance, let’s say you run the ACME LAWN CARE COMPANY and your target audience / protagonist is Bill, the homeowner. A basic business story might go something like this:

Bill the homeowner has the most beautiful lawn on the block. One day, he discovers a nasty patch of crabgrass that’s starting to spread, THEREFORE he tries to get rid of it himself BUT it turns out he’s not that handy THEREFORE he spends money on an overpriced lawn care product BUT it fails to do the job THEREFORE he reaches out to ACME LAWN CARE COMPANY who solves Bill’s problem in a jiff, at a reasonable price.

Two simple words, but and therefore. Don’t forget them!

Make your story about your core value

Every story is about something bigger than just a series of events. There’s a larger value, or theme, at play. Often, we think of themes as things like love, freedom, and justice. But McKee points out that every story value is binary; Romeo and Juliet isn’t just about love, it’s about love vs. hate. Effective stories traverse between the two polarities at either end of the core value throughout.

So what should the value of your business story be? “Your core value in your story should have a relationships to the core value in your company,” says McKee. “Ask yourself, what value, if we took it out of our company, would cause it to collapse? Think about Apple. You might say their core value is beauty. So their whole story is all about fighting ugliness, and telling the world that beautiful products, and beautiful ideas deserve to be celebrated in this world. That’s what the story they’re telling is about. How about yours?

Fulfill your protagonist’s object of desire

Remember the inciting incident that started the story? Your protagonist is desperate to resolve it. In business terms: The facility manager wants to curb on-site accidents. The HR director wants to decrease turnover. The product designer wants to stop user complaints. McKee refers to this outcome as the protagonist’s object of desire.

This object of desire is the primary benefit that your product or service can provide. It’s the happy ending that you promise to your audience. And ultimately, when they achieve that object of desire in your business story, they learn something about life. One example McKee shared in the seminar was the “Real Beauty” campaign by Dove soap. The protagonists were people who judged their appearances too harshly. The value was self-criticism vs. self-empowerment. By the end of the story, the protagonists reached the object of desire, which was to see the beauty that others saw in them, and accept it. And of course, at the center of that story, making it all happen, is Dove. It’s great storytelling as great brand building.

Final thoughts

I hope you found these tips helpful. At MarketSmiths, we are passionate about the power of story to help leaders, marketers, brand managers, and business professionals of every stripe connect with audiences and enjoy greater business success. Stay tuned for a new post about storytelling, copywriting, and communication next week.

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Paul Rosevear

What do you get when you combine the soul of a musician with the mind of a writer? Copy that sings. And for the last decade, that’s precisely what Paul has delivered for global brands, bootstrap startups, and everything in between. When he’s not hard at work crafting top-notch communications, you can find Paul hanging with his wife and two young daughters, singing and playing guitar for The Vice Rags, or roaming the streets in search of the nearest slice of pizza.

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