Screenwriting for Executives

The most successful leaders of business and government gain that power by being able to persuade their constituencies with a compelling story.
  • Transcript


Question: What are some screenwriting lessons for businesspeople?
Robert McKee: Well, in business, the problem is persuasion, how to get people to do what you want them to do.  How to get the employees below you, wherever you are in the pyramid of power, how to get the people below you to do what you want them to do; how to persuade the people above you and the board of directors, or higher management, or whatever, to recognize that what you’re offering is of real value and do things again to further your work, and the corporation as a whole.  So, the problem is persuasion.  And there are three ways to persuade people.  One is rhetoric, and this is, of course, the PowerPoint presentation where you try to build an argument out of facts.  This pie chart, that statistic, this quote from authority, this blah, blah, blah, therefore at the end of the day, we should do this.  The problem with rhetoric and PowerPoint presentations is that the people you’re making the presentation to have their own facts, their own statistics, their own authorities. And while you’re laying out all of your evidence, they’re arguing with you.  Silently.  Because they know they have another set of facts.  Okay?  What’s more, they know in your PowerPoint presentation you have left out everything negative.  Everything that’s wrong with this company, everything that they have failed at, every projection that says this is not... everything that is negative has been left out, and they know from business because they are in business too, that the business world is full of things negative.  All kinds of problems and labor unions and government agencies and who knows what, okay, that are in your way.  But the rhetoric leaves all of that out.  So they know you’re lying.  They know that you are distorting.  And so PowerPoint presentations rarely ever work to persuade anybody.
A second way to persuade is coercion.  You can bribe people, you can bully people, you can seduce people, you can threaten people, you can manipulate people in one way or the other, either by seductions or by abuse.  And you can get them to do what you want them to do that way.  That is every day at the office.  The trouble with coercion is that it is short-term.  You might be able to bully somebody into doing what you want, or seduce somebody above you to see things your way, but because it’s not founded on anything real, in turn, that snake will turn around and bite you in the ass.  And so coercion as a short-term affect may or may not help, but in long-term, it just builds resentments and blah, blah.
The third way to persuade people is with story.  You take all the facts that you would have used in a PowerPoint presentation, you take all the emotional impact that you would have used coercing people, and you create out of that a story that imparts those facts emotionally.  And the story stars you, or stars the corporation, or your division as an underdog up against very powerful forces and admits to the existence of the negative.  When you tell a story, it isn’t just and then, and then, and then, and we all lived happily ever after.  It’s that and then, and then this and that, and that and this, and by admitting that somebody stole our patent and we had to go out and fight that in the court, but we got it back, some competitor stole our best people, but we rehired and we got even better people, and so forth.  By describing the dynamic of life, and therefore this product is now, da, da, poised to win the market share, or whatever.
By telling story dynamically, you hook them emotionally, because everybody’s rooting for an underdog struggling to succeed.  You tell the story honestly because you’re admitting all the negative side, and you’re telling the story emotionally because they get involved and they have a huge stake in the storytelling. Is this company, or is this product going to win?
And so storytelling is, by far, the greatest leaders of business and government, for that matter—people with great power gain that power by being able to communicate a story to the citizen, to the workers, to the board, that hooks them and holds them and pays off.  The trouble with that, of course, is it takes talent to do that.  Not everybody is a natural storyteller.  That’s why people lean on PowerPoint presentations because it’s an essay form and they can do that.  But it’s dangerous to tell stories if you don’t have talent because you just bore people.
But the best leaders have that talent, or they learn that craft and the know how to beguile people and move them and excite them with their visions and persuade them.