If you’ve ever had dreams of becoming a screenwriter in Hollywood, Robert McKee is a name with whom you are probably very familiar. His book Story: Substance, Style, and the Principles of Storytelling has been called the screenwriter’s bible, and McKee has taught over 50,000 students since 1984 in his 3-day, 30-hour seminar on storytelling. He’s taught 36 Academy Award winners, 164 Emmy Award winners, 19 Writer’s Guild winners and 16 Director’s Guild winners. In short, much can be learned from McKee’s masterpiece on storytelling, even when it comes to crafting an effective story for your upcoming presentation. Here are some lessons we can learn from Mr. McKee.
“Story is about respect, not disdain for the audience.”
McKee writes that when talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two reasons: either they’re compelled to prove a particular idea, or they feel they must convey a certain emotion. In both cases, the writer is neglectful of the audience’s needs. Rather, he or she is focused on his or her own motivations. “When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience,” writes McKee. A story should always appeal to the audience and the writer needs to be thoughtful of them in the writing process. They are a smart and thoughtful bunch, which can be easily forgotten in the individual, creative process.
This observation is important for presenters to remember as well. It can be easy to cast aside the needs of the audience for the seemingly more important task of getting the presentation just right, but in the end, if the audience isn’t tracking with you, your presentation isn’t going to resonate with them. While working on a presentation, align your motivation with a desire to connect with your audience.
“Story isn’t about flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”
Stories are a prime source of inspiration for us, McKee writes. They order chaos and allow us to gain insight about life. At times when our existence feels haphazard and misguided, stories allow us a framework in which to place our fears and our difficulties. Stories aren’t a flight from reality, McKee says, instead they reinforce, nuance and complicate our reality.
This point harkens back to the Heath brothers’ concrete component of a sticky idea. Our stories are much more impactful if they are grounded in reality, which is an especially important point to consider in a presentation. All aspects of a presentation should be based in reality so that it creates a concrete vision for the audience. Consider various ways you can situate your presentation in the hands of reality, so that your audience will connect with it easily and remember it more fully.
“Originality is the confluence of content and form– distinctive choices of subject plus a unique shaping of the telling.”
To be original is no small feat. In fact, it’s what separates the ordinary from the memorable. McKee says that “content (setting, characters, ideas) and form (selection and arrangement of events) require, inspire and mutually influence one another.” They are dependent on one another, which is true in presentations as well as stories. An effective presentation has both a solid form and compelling content, and they should nuance and strengthen each other.
Though originality is not a prerequisite for an effective presentation, one of the best ways to grab (and hold) the attention of your audience is to be unexpected. Think of ways you can present information in a creative, original way. McKee smartly warns us to avoid mistaking eccentricity for originality. Don’t be kitschy or cliché in your delivery. Remember that your audience is smart. Find a way to present information in a clever way, but don’t be tactless either. Above all, be sure that your delivery will resonate with the audience.
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