With a large fan (and a tall glass of water) to keep me cool in this prairie heatwave and with gratitude that we’re past the bulk of our forest fires, I am happy to return from holidays to prepare this issue of “Communications Digest.” The copy in this issue will be somewhat easier to read and I’ll continue to explore options for layout, to ease any potential eye strain.
Last month, I spent a wonderful few days with friends in Southern Ontario. No solo freelancer should underestimate the importance of “getting away” from the daily grind, at least once, each summer!
And in last month’s issue, I prepared for that break by featuring Nicole Dieker’s valuable insights on preventing burnout. Thanks to those of you who wrote it to say you found them helpful!
This month, I feature cinematic producer Robert McKee on the importance of storytelling for business; I tune in to Michael Katz for a more effective networking strategy (for fellow freelancers); and I revisit my blog on the vexed distinction between “mitigate” and “militate.”
Enjoy this issue and the beauty of our (too brief) Saskatchewan summer!
Elizabeth Shih Communications
On the Importance of Storytelling for Business …
For many months (in fact, years) now, marketing and communications specialists have been referring to the importance of storytelling for business. But people are not clear in explaining what connections lie between the two. Recently, however, I discovered senior editor Bronwyn Fryer’s interview (from the “Harvard Business Review,” 2003) with cinematic producer, artist and academic, Robert McKee. He observes that storytelling goes back to ancient cultures and is not a new phenomenon, although only more recently have “marcom” professionals sought its relevance to business.
Journalist Bronwyn Fryer says that many business people recognize that persuasion is at the centre of business activity, but that most executives struggle to communicate adequately, much less to inspire: “Too often, they get lost in the accoutrements of companyspeak: PowerPoint slides, dry memos and hyperbolic missives from the corporate communications department.” A lot of business communications are ignored, viewed cynically or even dismissed.
Enter Robert McKee, the world’s best known and most respected lecturer on screenwriting. After earning a Ph.D. in cinematic arts, he became an award-winning writer and director. Through his company, “Two-Arts,” he has lectured to writers, directors and arts producers, as well as to business executives. And his students have helped to produce many hit films. In his best-selling book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (Harper Collins, 1997), McKee writes that stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”
To Fryer, McKee says that executives better engage listeners “on a whole new level if they toss their Powerpoint slides and learn to tell good stories, instead.” From the 2003 interview, here are the major principles of McKee’s “take” on the importance of storytelling for business:
(1) McKee says that a CEO or executive’s job “is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that, he or she must engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is story. There are two ways to persuade people. The first is by using conventional rhetoric, which is what most executives are trained in. It’s an intellectual process and in the business world it usually consists of a PowerPoint slide presentation in which you say, ‘Here is our company’s biggest challenge, and here is what we need to do to prosper.’ And you build your case by giving statistics and facts and quotes from authorities.” This persuasion works only “on an intellectual basis, ” he says.
The second way to persuade people is to engage their emotions, McKee says, “by telling a compelling story. . . . . It demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable. If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet . . . instead of yawning and ignoring you.”
(2) McKee defines a story as that which essentially “expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance . . . .But then there’s an event—in screenwriting, we call it the ‘inciting incident’—that throws life out of balance. . . . The story goes on to describe how, in an effort to restore balance, the protagonist’s subjective expectations crash into an uncooperative objective reality. A good storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with these opposing forces, calling on the protagonist to dig deeper . . . take action despite risks, and ultimately discover the truth. All great storytellers since the day of time . . . have dealt with this fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.” This conflict undergirds much of the business world, as well.
(3) Executives can learn to tell stories by reading good books, watching movies and seeing plays. Stories are everywhere and have been “implanted in [us] thousands of times” from childhood. McKee says that “business people not only have to understand their companies’ pasts, but then they must project the future. And how do you imagine the future? As a story. You create scenarios in your head of possible future events to try to anticipate the life of your company or your own personal life. So, if a businessperson understands that his or her own mind naturally wants to frame experience in a story, the key to moving an audience is not to resist this [storytelling] impulse but to embrace it.”
(4) McKee says that a good story should “not . . . tell a beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations. This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.” He says that when people ask him to help them turn their presentations into stories, he “ask[s] questions that . . . psychoanalyze their companies, and amazing dramas pour out. But most companies and executives sweep the dirty laundry, the difficulties, the antagonists, and the struggle under the carpet. They prefer to present a rosy—and boring—picture to the world. But as a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you’ve overcome them. When you tell the story of your struggles against real antagonists, your audience sees you as an exciting, dynamic person. And I know that the storytelling method works, because after I consulted with a dozen corporations whose principals told exciting stories to Wall Street, they all got their money.”
(5) Don’t try to paint a positive picture: “Positive, hypothetical pictures and broilerplate press releases actually work against you because they foment distrust among the people you’re trying to convince . . . . The great irony of existence is that what makes life worth living does not come from the rosy side. . . . The energy to live comes from the dark side. It comes from everything that makes us suffer. As we struggle against these negative powers, we’re forced to live more deeply, more fully. . . . One of the principles of good storytelling is the understanding that we all live in dread . . . . when you know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Death is the great dread; we all live in an ever shrinking shadow of time, and between now and then all kinds of bad things could happen. . . . Most of us repress this dread . . . through sarcasm, cheating, abuse, indifference—cruelties great and small” that we inflict on others. “We all commit those little evils that relieve the pressure and make us feel better. Then we rationalize our bad behaviour and convince ourselves we’re good people. Institutions do the same thing: They deny the existence of the negative, while inflicting their dread on other institutions or their employees . . . . Audiences appreciate the truthfulness of a storyteller who acknowledges the dark side of human beings and deals honestly with antagonistic events. The story engenders a positive but realistic energy in the people who hear it.”
(6) He says that another principle for storytelling is skepticism: “The skeptic hunts for the truth beneath the surface of life, knowing that the real thoughts and feelings of institutions or individuals are unconscious and unexpressed. The skeptic is always looking behind the mask. . . . the mask is only a persona [because] genuinely hard people make no effort. . . . The best leaders . . . have come to terms with dark reality.”
(7) McKee says that storytellers discover and unearth stories by asking key questions: “First, what does my protagonist want in order to restore balance in his or her life? Desire is the blood of a story . . . . Next, what is keeping my protagonist from achieving his or her desire? Forces within? Doubt? Fear? Confusion? Personal conflicts? . . . .The forces of Mother Nature? . . . . Antagonists come from people, society, time, space and every object in it, or any combination of these forces at once. Then how would my protagonist decide to act in order to achieve his or her desire in the face of these antagonistic forces?. . .[There] the storytellers discover the truth of their characters, because the heart of a human being is revealed in the choices he or she makes under pressure. Finally, the storyteller leans back . . . and asks, ‘Do I believe this? Is it neither an exaggeration nor a soft-soaping of the struggle? Is this an honest telling?’”
(8) Being a good storyteller does not necessarily make you a good leader, but “if you understand the principles of storytelling, you probably have a good understanding of yourself and of human nature, and that tilts the odds in your favour. I can teach the formal principles of stories, but not to a person who hasn’t really lived. The art of storytelling takes intelligence, but it also demands a life experience [such as] the pain of childhood. . . . which your brain records . . . as material . . . out of which you will create business ideas, science or art. . . . Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling. . . . The more you understand your own humanity, the more you can appreciate the humanity of others in all their good-versus-evil struggles. I would argue that . . . great leaders are by skepticism . . . [They] understand their own masks as well as the masks of life, and this understanding makes them humble. They see humanity in others and deal with them in a compassionate yet realistic way.”
Through these eight insights, McKee illustrates fundamental values and strategies by which business is informed by storytelling. These notes are long, but the original interview is all the more so!
More importantly, do you find truth in McKee’s insights? How can they help you to transform the way you communicate in business?
Please send your comments to the “contact” page of my website (www.elizabethshih.com). I’d be delighted to hear from you.
Nerd Alert! “Word Nerd’s Corner”: Mitigate vs. Militate . . .
In his “Usage Tip of the Day” (June 17, 2015), American etymologist Bryan Garner corrects common confusion between two similar sounding (and meaning) verbs (long a bugbear of mine): mitigate (vs). militate.
“Mitigate” = to make less severe or intense (Garner writes: “The new drug mitigates the patient’s discomfort.”)
“Militate” = to exert a strong influence (Garner writes: “Harry’s conflicting schedule militates against an October 17 meeting.”)
Garner corrects a common error in usage: “Mitigate against,” is incorrect for “militate against.”
He provides two useful examples to demonstrate this error:
(1) “In general, the speed of mass communication mitigates [read ‘militates’] against exploring an issue carefully as people’s attention span decreases in correlation with shorter, rapid-fire presentation.” (Barry R. McCaffrey, “Perspective on Illegal Drugs,” L.A. Times, 2 Jan. 1997, p B7, in Garner, 1).
(2) “It is the one thing that most mitigates [read ‘militates’] against the Patriots winning their last two games.” (Ron Borges, “Two-Game Series for Patriots,” Boston Globe, 18 Dec. 2002, p E1, in Garner, 1).
Today, Garner writes, the verb “mitigate” is almost invariably transitive, a synonym of “alleviate.” The OED recognizes an intransitive sense, meaning “to grow milder or less severe,” but labels it rare. Garner says that using “mitigate” with “against” is not standard e.g. (3): “The show’s excellent 57-page guide mitigates against [read ‘mitigates’] its density, as does the curators’ healthy respect for the impact of real things.” (Roberta Smith, “Icy Genius with a Taste for Order,” N.Y. Times, 29 Nov. 2002, p E37 in Garner, 1).
I’d add a similar error of mine, from early university days: “Lorna Crozier’s speaker provides a momentary spark of optimism that mitigates against [read “mitigates”] the unrelenting despair of the closing lines.”
As a reader and editor, I rarely see the term “militate” used at all, and when I do, it’s usually wrong: Garner concludes that “militate against” — as well as “militate in favour of” or “militate for” — is perfectly acceptable. E.g.: “The campaign he ran militates against the historic presidency he would like to lead.” (Jonathan Rauch, “Self-Inflicted Budget Woes,” U.S. News & World Rep., 18 Nov. 1996, p 94, in Garner, 1).
I’ll add this: “Readers’ conscientious efforts to understand errors in usage militate in favour of Garner continuing to share his ‘usage tips.’ ”
Garner adds that “militate toward” is unidiomatic.
Have you confused “mitigate” and “militate” in your mind, or avoided them because you weren’t sure how to distinguish between them? Please send me your usage issues and bugbears and I’ll use them in a future blog or issue.
“Ask an Expert”: Michael Katz on Effective Networking . . . .
This month, I’m featuring another powerful insight from e-newsletter expert, Michael Katz. Two months ago, in his newsletter, “The Likeable Penguin Gazette,” Katz shared some good advice for how freelancers can network more effectively to build leads or secure clients, outright.
He wrote that when one meets potential leads, one can interact with them as either a “waiter” or a “doctor” does: The waiter gives his/her patrons a list of possible menu options and asks you to choose one. S/he may give some suggestions, but is basically an “order-taker, bringing whatever you request.”
By contrast, Katz says, is the approach of the doctor, who asks you “broad questions regarding things that affect” your overall health, such as “ ‘How are you feeling? How much alcohol do you consume? Why are you here today?’ ”
Katz’s point is that your approach matters because you need to identify what your prospect’s problem is upfront, before you can offer a solution.
Also, by asking relevant questions, you come across as the expert that you are.
Katz says: “The more you ask, the more obvious it becomes to others that you know what you’re doing. Katz says that if you take a waiter’s approach to interacting with prospects, you rattle off a list of programs and fees, inviting the listener to choose one.
But if you take a doctor’s approach, you never start with solutions. Instead, you say something similar to “ ‘I’d be happy to tell you more about what I do, but do you mind first if I ask you a few questions about your business?’ ”
Then you ask gently probing questions such as “What issue or problem is your business facing? What’s not working? How long have you had this problem? How have you tried to fix it yourselves? Why do you think that you need help from someone outside of the organization/company?’ ”
When you adopt this stance, you demonstrate a higher level of understanding and professionalism. The conversation may very well clarify for the prospect his/her own set of (sometimes murky) issues.
Katz concludes: “The more you can help frame the situation, by asking questions that help prospective clients narrow in on what really matters, the more you become the obvious solution to the problem.”
Now, you might find fault with the class ridden distinction between “waiter” and “doctor.” But if you suspend your objection for a few minutes, Katz’s insights can be helpful.
Have you tried asking good questions as a method of networking? Please tell me about your experience doing so, on the “contact” page of
my website: www.elizabethshih.com I’d be delighted to continue this conversation.
Shop News . . .
In the past week, I have begun working on curriculum development for Monica Kreuger, at the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship. It’s been a pleasure to shadow program facilitators there and to meet some of their entrepreneurs-in-training!
Some of my copy for October’s “Getting to Great” 2020 Health Vision Conference has been published online (and soon in print). The conference is co-chaired by Sanj Singh (CEO, AdeTherapeutics), Dave Dutchak (former CEO, MD Ambulance) and Corey Miller (VP Saskatoon Health Region). If you’re working in the health industry and haven’t heard of this important event, please email me and I’ll update you.
I have continued in spare moments to work on my e-book project on the lives of local creatives who are “over 40” (in some over 60) year of age and whose experience has allowed them to endure (or overcome) various adversity. Special thanks this month to veteran and award-winning writer and editor Wilf Popoff and to acclaimed Regency novelist Lesley-Anne McLeod, for sharing their stories with me.
The Raj Manek Business Mentorship Program is on its summer break. But I’ll return to it and my peers there on September 10th, at its annual “Business Mixer.” I hope to see you there.
And despite weathering our late summer heat wave (perhaps because of it), I look forward to creating another fall and winter of your marketing and communications materials. Please contact me with your projects and ideas!
About Us . . .
Since 2011, Elizabeth Shih Communications has provided B2B marketing and communications services on the Prairies and across Canada.
Do you need help writing your “marcom” materials? Please contact me through my website, via the CASL-compliant email form, on the right-hand side of each page (www.elizabethshih.com).
After I have received your permission, I’ll be pleased to discuss projects with you!
I help small- and medium-sized businesses create e-newsletters, blog postings, promotional emails, press releases, and related documents that secure good clients. Please visit my website for more information (www.elizabethshih.com).