By now, there are few people in the business world who would deny that telling a story is a great way to get a point across, helping drive such desirable outcomes as deep learning and change.

But how do you construct a story that will, for instance, persuade employees that the organization needs to make a dramatic turn if it’s going to survive? Or, more prosaically, teach a particular employee that a certain set of behaviors isn’t working for him or her?

A storytelling guru
To answer that question, it makes sense to consult a master storyteller. And that’s just what the editors at Harvard Business Review did. HBR interviewed Robert McKee, a veteran teacher of screenwriting in Los Angeles whose text “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” is recognized as an industry bible.

According to McKee, a storyteller doesn’t create, or make up, a story; rather, he or she discovers it. The storyteller does this by asking four key questions:

  • What has happened to disturb the balance in the life of the person or entity concerned? Life’s ordinary routines don’t usually contain great stories, but when someone’s spouse dies, or she loses her job, or she wins $35 million in the lottery, the balance is upset and the beginnings of a story can be glimpsed. Similarly in organizational life, the story might begin when a competitor introduces a hot new product that steals major market share, or an employee contracts a serious disease that impairs his ability to do his job.
  • What does the protagonist — the story’s central figure — want in order to restore balance in his, her or its life? McKee defines desire as a core need that, if satisfied, would stop the story in its tracks. That competing product might prove dangerous to consumers and be recalled. A cure might suddenly be found for that disease. But of course, because you want the story to go on, you don’t satisfy the protagonist’s desire so easily!
  • What is keeping the protagonist from fulfilling the desire that will restore balance? In other words, what is the antagonist? McKee notes that antagonists “come from people, society, time, space, and every object in it, or any combination of these forces at once.” On the personal level, these forces could include doubt, fear, confusion, or misunderstandings with friends. On the societal level, they could include conflicts with institutions like the IRS, an employer, or a religious organization. Or the antagonist could be a force of nature, or overwork, or even, as McKee puts it, “The damned automobile that won’t start?”
  • How would the protagonist decide to act in order to fulfill the above desire, under the pressure of one or more antagonists? The organization facing a hot competing product might divert resources to an all-out, time-critical drive to top the competitor. The supervisor of the employee with the serious disease might do an all-nighter to figure out how to modify the person’s job so they can still do it.

Taking a hard look
The storyteller isn’t quite done yet, according to McKee.

A last, critical step is to let the story sit for a bit and then come back to it with a hard eye. McKee says the storyteller needs to ask: “Do I believe this? Is it neither an exaggeration nor a soft-soaping of the struggle? Is this an honest telling, no matter what?”

Everybody likes a story that comes out well for the protagonist, but if you get there by a too-easy route, people probably won’t buy it. McKee adds that the best stories acknowledge the “dark forces” in life, even if the person or organization concerned eventually overcomes these forces.

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