Dear CMO:

Writing a compelling story is the inner game of marketing and is often the exclusive realm of your creative agencies. The client scowls during the presentation, asks if the logo could be bigger, and then selects the execution he thinks is the funniest. This symbiotic relationship holds up pretty well unless a client-side marketer sneaks behind the curtain for a look. Which I did.

Attending Robert McKee's STORY seminar has been on my "list" for years, along with other dubious goals (let's face it, getting an Oscar and hosting the Latin Grammies are going to take some work at this point). But because I come from a family of creatives, this was an itch that needed scratching.

McKee is a mash-up of Don Imus and Charlton Heston. His seminar consists of three 12-hour days. He doesn't accept interruptions. Removing rants against the president (one per hour), notes on the decline of Western Civilization (one every 15 minutes), and profanity (every third word), we could have been out of there after a day and a half. But context is everything and life itself is profane, so I won't complain.

The thing is, I don't aspire to write a screenplay. I invested 36 hours of lecture time because the development of "a good story, well told" is central to everything we marketers do. Everything else, to quote the professor, is "body and fender work."

For the sake of brevity, here are a few points to consider.

'Luke... I'm your father...'

Turning points are events during which progressively greater risks are taken and irreversible decisions are made. The protagonist's journey begins with a life-changing incident. The protagonist struggles against forces of antagonism. The quest drives the protagonist towards the possession (or not) of the object of desire. This journey is universal, in all cultures.

The flow from surprise, to curiosity, to insight, to new directions is the inner conversion turning an individual into a customer. Without surprise, the message is lost in the clutter. Without curiosity, there is no need to continue the dialog. Insight is the meeting of problems and solutions. New directions lead to the emotional life fulfilled.

'Give them what they want. But don't give it to them in the way they expect it'

"Character versus characterization" speaks to what you can observe versus what lies beneath, as shown by the choices your character makes under extreme pressure.

"Controlling ideas" are expressed by the single sentences that lay out the profound meaning of what you've written.

The "spine" describes the over-riding drive that compels your protagonist from beginning to end, connecting the scenes of your story.

And "image systems"—fire and blood in Macbeth, water in Diabolique, prison bars in Casablanca, all describe the subconscious elements hidden in plain sight that work their way into your audience's understanding.

All of us need to define what we are and what we're not, from the most mundane market requirement documents to the most conceptual branding development. The decisions you make under pressure—what you are when you have to decide without reflection—define your brand. Inconsistency kills brands.

'When the screenplay is written and the dialog is added, we can begin shooting'

Alfred Hitchcock's quote tells us to show, not tell. You can't explain cool, but you can be cool. Heavy-handed scripts are just as awful as badly developed copy, except they run an extra 115 minutes.

Here's a pet peeve that my old creative director used to call "jackassing"—you know, cubicle boy with his arms raised in the air, pumping his fists, and acting like his team just won the World Cup? Stop casting this guy, please. Stories need to show more than real life. They need to show life taken to its logical extreme—what McKee calls "the negation of the negation."

If our story begins at "performance parity"—the "our guys do about the same"—then our protagonist moves through the contrary value of "comparative advantage over peers" to the contradictory value of "uniquely successful." But you can't stop here with cubicle boy squinting his eyes and shouting "gooooal!" You must go to the logical extreme of "the expectation of success without the need for validation." So show me what happens to the guy after it's clear to him and everyone else that this success happens every day. Show me the swagger. Not the jackassing.

Here's an example from a meeting I had with Kellogg's not long ago. They didn't offer health club memberships or Weight Watchers discounts on Special K. They offered the logical extreme of what happens when you take care of yourself every day: Buy Special K and get a pair of jeans one size smaller than what you're wearing today.

Show it. Don't tell it.

* * *

If your life and work revolve around getting your point across to people who have other things to do, you're a storyteller by trade. Nurture your craft, throw most of your work away, and keep working it until you know it's extremely good work. Spend a long weekend in the audience with Robert McKee, if you have the chance, too.

How closely you pay attention to your story will often be the difference between a missed opportunity and a truly life-changing experience.

A good story, well told.


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image of Stephen Denny

Stephen Denny is managing director at Denny Leinberger Strategy, which focuses on spotting business performance trends and giving clients the tools and insights to act on them so they can achieve real-world financial results. He is a co-author (with Paul Leinberger) of Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World.

LinkedIn: Stephen Denny

Twitter: @Note_to_CMO