Blog, Change of Perspective, Conferences, Creativity in the digital age, Storytelling

Story: Robert McKee’s signature seminar, plus five principles for storytelling with substance

5 min read

The godfather of storytelling

Those who book the Story seminar in 2019 experience 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, former actor, decades-long Hollywood author, professor and 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

The most interesting thing about McKee’s 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. As both a writer and a storytelling consultant for companies, I was astonished by how many of Roberts’ principles on how to get at something’s substance are not only true for creative writing but also for storytelling in business. Here are my top five.

1. A story is all about making sense out of life.

»Story is all about making sense out of life«, says Robert. But it’s also about making sense out of business. Because even if most people try to pretend 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.

The story masters’ highest credo and personal claim: stop pretending, get some guts – and »write the truth«…

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.

… is everywhere, where the »story doctor« and his publications are

3. A story goes beyond the surface.

This is something not just Robert emphasizes but also my colleague Julia Peglow. Or to be more precise: McKee says a story has the power to reveal the truth that lies beyond the surface – Peglow says that is why we should do more storytelling in business (read Julia’s article »Everything I didn’t say: Über die Sprachlosigkeit in der Business-Welt«). A lot of brand and business communication is 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.

Tough dog working: While everyone else clings to the first coffee of the day, Robert is ready to go

4. If you can’t write it down, you don’t really know it.

Are you sure about your role at your company? Do you know exactly what you are doing? Then test yourself: try to write it down in a few, short, clear sentences. From personal experience as a writer, and from what we’ve experienced in the workshops we hold, we are a hundred per cent on the same page with the godfather. As soon as you try to put in writing what you supposedly know, you will 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.

For three days everything behind these walls revolved around storytelling: Herringham Building at Regent’s University

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.

What a place to study: The beautiful Regent’s University campus at the heart of London