Does Robert McKee’s Storynomics Persuade?

Robert McKee’s 1997 book Story presents the following template for the plot of a standard Hollywood movie. As a result of an inciting event, a protagonist finds that his/her life is out of balance. To restore balance, the protagonist undertakes a quest for an object of desire. The movie depicts the quest, in the face of numerous obstacles, to grasp the object of desire. McKee elaborates on this template and applies it to a variety of movie genres.

McKee teaches very popular three day courses expounding and applying this template. After discovering that some of the participants in his seminar were not screenwriters, but managers and entrepreneurs, he decided to develop a seminar exclusively for them. In this one-day seminar, entitled Storynomics, McKee discusses what he calls “purpose-told stories,” that is stories used in business to communicate and persuade. These stories might be in the form of broadcast advertisements or pitches to clients selecting a contractor or venture capitalists evaluating a startup.

I have taken the Storynomics seminar and I receive his blast emails to former students. It is clear to me that McKee uses the Hollywood template as the core of his seminar. In addition to expounding the template, he shows several ads that roughly conform to it. An ad for the

VW Passat, shown during the 2011 Superbowl, has a young boy dressed in a Darth Vader costume copying the hand gestures that make objects move, unsuccessfully and with growing frustration. Dad drives home in his new Passat and the boy then attempts to exert his dubious magic on the car. Watching this from the kitchen window, the dad clicks the keyless entry, the parking lights flicker, and the boy finally – in his own mind – prevails.

An Apple ad, shown at Christmas in 2013, titled

Misunderstood, presents an extended family arriving on Christmas Eve at a winter vacation home, with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the background. A teenage son appears to be ignoring everyone else, occupied entirely with his iPhone. When the family gathers on Christmas morning, however, the teenage son turns on the television, surprising and delighting the family by showing them video he has shot the day before with his phone.

Both commercials are delightful in depicting youthful quests, the first of a child wanting to exert magical power, the second of a teenager wanting to participate in the family reunion in a way that is meaningful to him. Whether or not the feel-good message contributed to sales is another matter. The Passat ad struck me as generic, while the Apple ad made more direct reference to the iPhone’s capacity.

In his posts, McKee seems to me to have become quite dogmatic, perhaps as could be expected from someone in his mid-seventies. Thus he lists seven “fatal flaws” for business stories, which include “no conflict,” “no suspense,” “no risk,” “no emotion,” and “no surprise.” Put differently, he thinks business stories must conform to his template. In a recent post, he critiqued an Uber ad that explains that the company is linking atoms (people) to bits (information) because it is what he calls a narrative, not a story. So, for McKee, effective ads must contain full stories rather than temporal or conceptual references.

McKee was also critical of the ad because the narrator is “a droning nasal valley girl” rather than “an actress who reads with resonance and inflection.”  He should get a grip. For better or worse, the audience will identify with her speech patterns rather than Helen Mirren’s.

For me, the problem with this stricture (or structure) is that the 30 to 60 seconds for an ad isn’t much time in which to tell a story conforming to the template. An ad may make references to events or concepts that the audience is aware of, and they can complete the story themselves. Two notable examples of this are 30 second Canadian Cialis ads. In one, a middle-aged couple arrives at the opera just before intermission. In another, a mother discusses that evening’s curfew with her teenage son and is surprisingly lenient. In both, the audience can readily imagine what isn’t being shown and understand that the drug is achieving its desired effect.

Another aspect of McKee’s conceptual rigidness is his critique of both Powerpoint and big data as effective modes of persuasion in the business world, primarily because they don’t incorporate stories. (McKee employs Powerpoint as the platform for the visual components of his presentation.) I agree that stories that are crafted and presented well can persuade, whether they conform to McKee’s template or are more fragmentary or open-ended. But audiences such as venture capitalists deciding whether to fund a startup and government agencies choosing a contractor are by nature skeptical. They may like the story, but ultimately they want to see the data, whether in a cash-flow analysis or a statistical model.

As an aside, I think the problem with the Republican presidential campaign to date is that the candidates have been much more enamored with telling compelling stories than respecting the facts, a classic example of Mark Twain’s adage “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”

Aging intellectuals often tend to rail against new ideas, technologies, and culture, rather than assimilate them into their thinking. Intellectual agility is necessary to stay in the game. I’m not convinced that McKee still has what it takes.

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