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Creating Business Stories


Modern marketing has moved from the paradigm of advertising to story-telling. In large part, the shift away from advertising is led by post-modern consumers and especially the millennial generation who are no longer persuaded by advertising’s old bag of tricks. I know my millennial kids are not. They value the “context” of experience much over “content” of things the baby boomers’ value. Members of the millennial generation have constant, planned “Woodstocks” during weekend runs or group challenge events or their sports league teams like kick-ball. They care little about old icons like Tiffany and prefer other “substances” in life other than diamonds. Old advertising methods focused on telling them how great products are no longer work.

Hollywood based story methods have application within the business world. This is the message of a new collage area of writing business books advising how to create stories for products and brands. For corporations. Certainly, the methods have probably found their way to politicians and celebrities. Probably to individual’s using them solely to sell their story to other people. (Perhaps in nothing more than cocktail party conversations?) Is it the leading edge of new marketing methods or little more than something old repackaged to sell? The jury does is still out on this.

The move to story does evidence a major change in marketing today that goes proceeds ahead – quietly – like a context in the background of all the content of the daily Pied Piperesque barkings of media. (For Jungians out there – other readers can skip the following part – the move from persuasion content with advertising to context with stories has a symbolic corresponded with the movement in the heaves from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius. From the sign of fish in water to a water carrier. From fish to water. From an object to an object in a context. A fish in water. The fish were the advertising messages and the new water carriers are those who create stories, who carry the context.)


The shift has created a new cottage industry of books that show businesses how to create stories about their brands and products. I’ve read my share of them as well as visited countless websites. I’ve also read most of the leading book on screenwriting and in fact outlined a number of them. I once planned on writing a book about all the screenplay theories in Hollywood called Hollywood Safari that listed genres of screenwriting theory.

I lived in a little apartment in the San Fernando Valley in 1987 when I moved down to LA looking to sell some screenplays from screenwriters up north in the Bay Area. Most from the Saul Zaentz Center in Berkeley, California where I had my main office. I did most everything I could to read and outline and study all the screenwriting books at the time, but it was frustrating. The more books that came out, the more different screenwriting theories there were. And the more confused I got on screenwriting. I needed to perhaps take more ownership and pick out in all the books my own system. At times, though, it felt such a waste to read more and more books. Each book on screenwriting aimed at a particular audience and there was never any attempt at connecting “bridges” or ideas in the screenwriting business. Each of the Hollywood gurus staked their own little territory. Robert McKee at that time had staked the largest territory in the screenwriting world.


I think that the below two books best illustrate this new shift in marketing from the idea of advertising to stories. After my readings, I can say that the two leading books in this new marketing area are Robert McKee & Thomas Gerace’s book Storynomics and Donald Miller’s Building A Story Brand. Not that you shouldn’t read other books or visit websites or watch any TV, Ted Talks or social media in the area of the application of story techniques to business. But these are really the two books you should read and explore as key gateways into the new marketing method of using stories to market products and build brands. The craft of modern Hollywood story structure is being sold to the business public with these books. In effect, Hollywood’s story methods are sold to Madison Avenue and Washington DC.

Are these books by modern business prophets?

Or just by people that just want to make a profit?

Watch out if you read the below two books (as we suggest). They are both “doors” into a world of expensive seminars behind the books. Perhaps the most organized in the entire industry.

Robert McKee, the older, almost the founder of the story consulting industry in Hollywood.

And Don Miller, the upstart young guy with the sharp crewcut from Nashville, who has written a powerful business book. (Yes, in ways based on his theories about story)

Thinking about things right now, all of this would make a good story.


Robert McKee is the grandfatherly dean of Hollywood screenwriting gurus based around his seminal book Story and the many seminars connected with it. Storynomicsis McKee’s foray into the business story-telling market. The book’s subtitle defines Storynomics as “Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World.”

As McKee notes on his Storynomics website, “There has been a fundamental shift in how brands connect with their customers. In the past, they would find stories people loved and then interrupt them with ads. But, today consumers are ignoring, skipping, blocking or avoiding those ads at unprecedented rates. The net effect is that marketers are finding it harder and harder to reach customers. Leading CMOs recognize that storytelling is the future of marketing. They realize that to succeed in an increasingly ad-free world, marketers have to put story at the center of their strategies. Yet, there is still a misunderstanding about what story is and how to use it effectively.”McKee offers an interesting Reference Pageon his Storynomics site which provides examples of branding stories using the ideas of Storynomics.

In Storynomics, McKee offers Eight Stages of Story Design and lists them as follows.

Stage One: The Target Audience = Meaningful Emotional Effect
Stage Two: Subject Matter = Balance
Stage Three: The Inciting Incident = Imbalance
Stage Four: The Object of Desire = Need
Stage Five: The First Action = Tactical Choice
Stage Six: The First Reaction = Violation of Expectation
Stage Seven: The Crisis Choice = Insight
Stage Eight: Climactic Reaction = Closure

McKee notes that the eight stages of storytelling create meaning in two major ways. First, at the core of all stories pulses at least one binary value–such as life/death, freedom/tyranny, success/failure, truth/lie, love/hate and the like. Second, the dynamic of cause and effect within the story’s events expresses the how’s and why’s, the ‘because’ of change. Examples: Indiana Jones lives to fight another day ‘because’ under pressure, he is courageous, cool and smart; Winston Smith submits to tyranny ‘because’ he is vulnerable to the cruelty of Big Brother; the A’s win the pennant and Bill Beane saves his career ‘because’ he never loses faith in his judgement. The clear, simple statement of value plus cause expresses a story’s meaning in one sentence.


Donald Miller’s book Building A Story Brand(as well as his many seminars listed on his Storybrand website) uses many of McKee’s ideas and the various steps involved in the screenwriting process. Miller even offers “Storybrand Certified Guides.”

While McKee’s book discusses many surrounding areas in the new revolution of story-telling in business (such as the marketing revolution, story creation, putting story to work, storified demand and lead generation and storified sales), Miller’s book lays out seven universal story steps and discusses them throughout his book. All are pretty well-worn steps of screenplay construction known to all screenwriters.

  1. A hero character
  2. Has a problem
  3. And meets a guide
  4. Who gives the character a plan
  5. That calls for action
  6. To create success
  7. Or failure

Perhaps one of the biggest take-aways from Miller’s book is that the customer is the hero of the story and not the product or brand. This is a big point as many others in the business storytelling niche assume the Hero/Heroine is the product. This major shift is perhaps the big paradigm shifting idea of Miller. The customer is the Hero. The Guide is the business or brand helping a customer reach his or her goal. As Miller says, one of the biggest mistakes businesses make is trying to be the hero of their own story. The customer of the business is the real hero and it is the businesses function to be the guide (Step 3) in the Storybrand plan.


As one can see, the two books offer different ways to approach the creation of business or brand stories. While both use the screenwriting approach to creating business stories, surprisingly Miller sticks closest to pure screenwriting with his seven steps. McKee on the other hand, introduces new ideas and words into his eight stages. For example, his Stage Two and Three discuss “balance” and “imbalance,” his Stage 5 talks about “tactical choice” and his Stage 6 focuses on “violation of expectation.” Much of the addition of these new areas are partly the result of McKee’s co-author and founder of his Storynomics approach, Thomas Gerace the CEO of Skyword, a leading content marketing platform.

Both books and methods represent the leading books in the new trend of supplanting advertising with stories to sell products. One might define this new trend as the business of creating business stories. And, both are very useful. McKee and Gerace take a wider perspective on the new phenomenon of using stories and explore philosophical and psychological aspects about the meaning of stories. They explore the state of marketing today and the shift from advertising to stories.

Symbolically, the shift corresponds to the change from the visible power of content to a shift in power to context. In terms of advertising and business messaging, this is a shift from the old content of advertising to the context of story. The new generation of advertising and business people need a particular “guide” into this new world controlled so much by the Millennial generation. Miller’s book is particular targeted to achieve this purpose. McKee offers the advice of the grandfather of story conculting, someone who will always be in the background of any new business book niche like books on stories are.


The great shift in communication is going on right now, as McKee and Miller both claim. New advertising and marketing theory must center around stories more than anything else. Not only are the two books targeted towards giving business people an introduction to the application of using the power of stories in business, they are lso meant to increase the importance of the entire “Story Approach” to aparticular business or industry. What percentage of marketing budget should the Story Department receive? And, how is this ultimately measured? Questions on the horizon for a new marketing discipline already taught in leading business schools.

The Canadian media legend Marshall McLuhan once said that “The medium is the message.” By this he meant that the visible part of communication – the content of communication – was always before us with pictures, sounds or words. The tools of modern persuasion. The new shift in advertising and communication is towards the invisible part of communication, the unseen, the “elephant in the room.”

The shift is really from the “messages” or content of advertising to the “medium” or context of story. Modern American advertising – populated by many in the millennial generation – has little trust in traditional advertising. Or, for that matter, time for it with all the other information streaming towards them. (I know as I’m father to a number of millennials.) In this new environment, the quick content of advertising gets lost with the hundreds of other messages of content individuals are exposed to each day.

On the other hand, Donald Miller’s Building A Storybrandprovides a solid template of seven steps in a clear and concise method for applying this template. The entire book is little more than a template or scene sequence in a screenwriter one might say. McKee offers a type of template based around his eight stages and the book explains some of these new areas of scene progression, not familiar to screenwriters as we note above.


In the end, both books are types of entry gates into expensive seminars behind Storynomics and Storybrands. (In fact, Miller’s book offers a form of Call to Action mentioned in his Step 5). In effect, they are products selling services. Both tell excellent stories, with Miller’s book finding easier application. Both books are created to introduce readers to this new area of marketing and create a need for more information.

Before proceeding into the seminars and other products behind these two books, it is well-worth the time to read both of these short books. I would suggest one read Storynomicsfirst and Storybrandsecond. The old man of the indstury combined with the young somewhat upstart in the story business. In the end, though, like many things in life, the essence of the new story trend in marketing might not be in the further seminars or courses one takes but on the successful implemenation of the ideas of these two book.

Yes, in one’s business perhaps.

But also, perhaps in one’s personal life.

The real idea being sold is the use of stories one can use to persuade another to take some positive action them. If one somewhat buys into this idea, these two books are worth carving up some quiet time to read.


(Stay tuned in future posts as we attempt to extract the essence from these two books)




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