We’re all storytellers.

Regardless of whether you’re a writer grinding out your first screenplay or a CEO staring into the blank eyes of your board members, your first and most important job is capturing your audience’s imagination.

Why? Because stories capture our imagination in a way that lessons, recitation of facts and research can’t. When we listen to a story, we want things to work out for the protagonist because for the duration of the story, the protagonist happens to be us.

You hear a lot about storytelling in blogs for some reason. I think it’s because everyone, to some degree, is saying what I just said, above. “Stories are good.” There aren’t many credentialed authorities out there who can tell us with any degree of gravity why stories are good or why they help us through our lives. As a matter of fact, I don’t know any who actively blog.

What I do know, however, is that there are authorities on this subject and they have opinions on this subject that go beyond what you or I know about it. And I’ve spoken recently to two of them, the third being unavailable for comment.

So let’s listen to what screenwriter Robert McKee, psychologist Dr. Norman Holland and mythologist Joseph Campbell have to say about the power of stories.

The Screenwriter: Robert McKee

If we’re all students of story development, Robert McKee is our most respected and cherished teacher. Over 50,000 students responsible for 29 Academy Awards, more than 160 Emmy Awards, 21 Writers Guild of America Awards, and 17 Directors Guild of America Awards have attended McKee’s “Story Seminar.” His three-day, thirty-hour seminar is more than you will be able to absorb, even if your ambition peters out at Power Point and the biggest screen you aspire to is hanging on a conference room wall.

Robert related a story to me some months back that hit upon truth and the dark side of life, animating these points against a backdrop of a life of business.

“When you tell a story, the whole gist is to admit the negative side, then dramatize the positive side of how the courageous little company overcame all the negatives. To get executives to admit they ever made a mistake – that they didn’t predict that would happen, that surprises came from out of the blue, that means they were not in control – that really scares the shit out of them.”

“A great leader knows how to do this. ‘You wouldn’t believe it – just when we got to this point, when out of the blue comes this a competitor with a better product, or the government wouldn’t give us the patent, we were knocked back on our heels, but we turned it around and did this and did that.’”

“Everybody loves it when the underdog gets off his back and back on his feet and wins. But to do that you have to admit that something happened you couldn’t predict or you made a mistake. And then you had to fix it. That’s why the storytelling for a lot of people is terrifying. They don’t have the ability to admit they ever misjudged anything any person or any situation. And to tell a story, you have to do that.”

What I think he just said:

Stories – and admitting that bad things have, and do, happen – do more than just build credibility. They draw us in. We want to hear how the hero returns triumphant.

We’re tired of bullshit because it’s plastered everywhere we look. No one tells the truth anymore. In a culture increasingly built on instant success without accomplishment, we wrongly look down upon failure. These failures are what make us human, credible and interesting to the world.

The Psychologist: Dr. Norman Holland

Norman Holland is now retired from the University of Florida, where he was both a member of the English Department and of the school’s McKnight Brain Institute. He received his Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard and graduated from the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. Left brain, right brain.

Dr. Holland’s research delves into the brain science of stories, looking specifically at the chemical changes in our brains when we’re under the influence of a compelling narrative, be it a movie, a book or a play. What he has discovered is fascinating: yes, we can all agree that we “like stories” – now, we have additional insight as to why.

“We have good psychological evidence that people believe stories momentarily, even when the stories cast doubt on something they know perfectly well is true.  And we have neurological evidence that our brains organize experience in narrative sequences.  We have every reason, therefore, to believe that we respond both emotionally and intellectually more to narratives than to mere statements of fact.”

But do the same principles described, above, hold true for brands? When we develop strong emotional connections to the brands that tell vivid stories (whether we’re talking about Nike or Coca Cola or others) through their communications/advertising, are they touching upon the same neurological reflexes? Does a “brand story” – comprised of less story-like elements than a screenplay or novel would – engage us in the same way?

“I believe they do.  It’s why advertising works.  Even the mere pictures in magazines conjure up stories for us. When we adopt a brand for our own use, we integrate it into the stories of our daily lives.”

What I think he just said:

We lose ourselves in stories because we know, psychologically, that we’re not expected to act. We relax. Stories tap a decision trigger in our brain’s middleware that tell us to drop our rational objections and sense-making filters and just let the goodness wash over us.

Frankly, if it works for Nike, it can also work your cheese shop. Or your billion dollar athletic shoe brand. You need to engage us in your story.

A friend of mine, a leading authority on tracking consumer sentiment, told me that their research strongly points to the dramatically declining trust that consumers have in “brands” in general and an increasing desire for these same brands to prove that “they’re working just as hard as we are.” We want to see the struggle because we’re struggling. Are you one of us? Show us the dark side. Then we’ll lose ourselves in your story and we’ll believe.

The Mythologist: Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell may be best known to you through his PBS series, The Power of Myth. His academic career began in 1934 as an instructor at Sarah Lawrence College where he taught mythology to four decades of very lucky students. His books, amongst which are The Hero With A Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, are must reads. I don’t care what you do for a living or where your interests lie, just go buy them and read them. Professor Campbell passed away in 1987.

On the subject of “working just as hard as we are,” Campbell again mirrors the point that life’s imperfections make us worthy of attention. Campbell attributes to writer Thomas Mann the quote, ‘The writer must be true to truth.’

“And that’s a killer. Because the only way you can describe a human being truly is by describing his imperfections. The perfect human being is uninteresting… it is the imperfections of life that are lovable.”

As to the universal story, the monomyth, Campbell reminds us that in myth, we see our own yearning for the experience of life.

“When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you…

“These bits of information from ancient times ,which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don’t want to give it up.”

What I think he just said:

Myths – stories – give us, as Robert McKee once said in his STORY Seminar to us, “equipment for living.” They teach us that the struggles we face have been faced before by generations stretching back to the dawn of time. They tell us, in other words, that we’re not alone, that we’re OK and that we’re doing it right. Or, conversely, that we’re not. Read your own destiny in the mythology of human culture.

What This Means

Stories engage us on a cultural, societal and physical level. We respond to stories because we’re wired to. It’s how we teach our children, it’s how we learn and it’s how we animate our desires so other will comply.

And it’s that last point that matters to people engaged in a life of business. We want compliance. Everything in business comes down to our getting someone to do something.

Buy our stuff. Think this way. Tell your friends something else.

We want them to listen and to act in our best interests – but the walls are getting increasingly higher, not because we, as people have changed but because we as consumers have been treated poorly. We’ve been talked down to, lied to, mislead. As a result, we’re once burned twice shy.

We need to back up. We need to “try just as hard as they are” and re-build their trust in us.

Stories – the good, the bad and the inconceivably stupid – are the imperfections in our brands and our actions that make us believable, lovable and human.

Your brand and your job are good stories, well told.


PS: All three of these authorities have written works you should read carefully.

Robert McKee: Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting.

Dr. Norman Holland: Literature and The Brain

Joseph Campbell: The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The quotes above are from his book, The Power of Myth.