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“Influence is persuasion in slow motion” said Robert McKee, author of Story and teacher to countless Oscar-winning screenwriters over many decades, at the Storynomics seminar in Boston last month.

He was talking about advertising but that seems to apply even more fundamentally to the internal and external communications functions of business. I travelled to Boston for just one day because I wanted to learn what the writers of fiction can teach us about the art and science of storytelling, and how that could be applied to purpose-driven business stories.

Unlike a screenplay or novel, business stories are not neatly packaged with all loose ends tied up. They are messy and complex, with twists and turns that roll on continually, like Game of Thrones (although hopefully not that bloody!).

Having spent many years in brand marketing and corporate affairs, I thought I knew all I needed to know to work my way up the Corporate ladder: leadership, strategic planning, tactical delivery and routes to market. The narrative approach to changing what people think about you seemed to work well if told consistently and powerfully enough.

But the narrative approach, I learned, misses a fundamental element: An emotional connection with the audience. That thing that gives the audience a reason to listen, to put themselves in your shoes, to take action. To care about what happens to you because you mean something to them.

“Write the Truth” says McKee. That requires embracing something that businesses hate talking about: the Negative Floor. In other words, the challenge to be overcome, the thing you learnt from getting it wrong. Storynomics delves into the concept of Negophobia - the fear of all things negative – but re-assures that business stories end on a positive. It teaches how to navigate the audience through compelling twists and turns that result from the imbalance created by an Inciting Incident, and how to create a Protagonist (or central character) that the audience can literally buy into. 

Energy comes from the negative. Without this, it isn’t a story. We are programmed that way. We expect it.

I’ve spent nearly a year now learning about story. It began at the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh where I heard about the culture-driven stories of Maori tribesmen and the Bushmen of Namibia. They all said “without our stories, we don’t exist.”

I realised that the same is true for businesses. To cut through and prosper in a world in which technology is accelerating the speed of change (through learning and adaptation, Uber take up in China was 479 times faster than in New York), stories need to be told in seriously compelling ways.

Then, I sought out some brilliant leadership coaches who look me deeper into visual meaning, data storytelling and metaphor, opening up a world of learning that I would need to explore to understand how to help others apply a storytelling approach. It felt like I was taking on board a new and fascinating sphere of learning which turned all my templates and ways of working on its head.

I realised that the challenge is that great storytelling, while seemingly familiar to us all and an innate human instinct, takes moments to learn but a lifetime to master. Thankfully, I was able to learn at the feet of someone who has done just that, and is now applying that thinking to business.

Storynomics is well worth a read. The approach taken by Robert McKee and Tom Gerace brings together story structure with powerful application to the modern business environment.

They talk about how brands have been responsible for ‘bragging’ in the past, making it all about them, focused on rhetoric and facts but lacking the empathy that makes a connection with customers (and other stakeholders).

Millennials and Gen Z citizens, who by definition make up an increasing proportion of our audience, expect good stories, well told. Worryingly, we have six seconds to grab their attention but when we get that right, we have 6 seconds to land the message home – otherwise known as the Open Mind moment.

If you can get to a seminar, I would recommend it. The authors are relentless in their pursuit of story excellence and their delivery is nothing short of mesmerising. For businesses who want to make a change, whether B2B or B2C, it could be the first step towards applying what McKee and Gerace say that visionary brand storytellers like Amazon and Apple have already made part of their culture – a storified organisation.

My story of story continues. If you’d like a conversation about how to change your business story, please get in touch. In the meantime:-

Storynomics is coming to London…

Robert McKee and Tom Gerace will be presenting Storynomics in London on November 15, 2018, and there’s an early-bird discount available until September 10.

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