Persuasive Storytelling – The McKee-Fields Sessions: Part 3

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Maybe you’ve heard story is the killer persuasion app?

In the third part of this in-depth conversation about the art, structure and business of storytelling with story-master, Robert McKee, we get into the business side of storytelling, especially as it plays into persuasion.

We explore:

  • Why McKee treats his seminar attendees like actors and what he’s seeking
  • How to leverage storytelling in the context of business
  • How story, truth and persuasion work together
  • The 3 types of persuasion in business
  • Why story is so much more compelling at persuasion than the other two
  • What people are hiding when they use slide presentations
  • How talent is really defined
  • And, much more…

If you missed the first two parts, go watch them here:

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23 responses

23 responses to “Persuasive Storytelling – The McKee-Fields Sessions: Part 3”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields and Bas Helderman, European Summit. European Summit said: RT @jonathanfields: Why Story is the Killer Persuasion App – The McKee-Fields Story Sessions: Part 3 – […]

  2. Jen says:

    His final comment about the talent of connecting two things that already exist is what The Medici Effect talks about. Very cool interview! Thanks again, Jonathan.

  3. Sean D'Souza says:

    I really like the interviews. I listened to them several times, and I really was impressed with the two/three video shoot 🙂

    But I totally disagree with his concept of “talent”.

    Deliberate practice works. And you can teach a person how to write a story. And he’s using the wrong techniques. I can prove it to him. Or anyone else. Just like he teaches people to do writing, we’ve spent years teaching people to do very unusual things like drawing cartoons or writing headlines or writing articles.

    I was a little upset to watch this particular episode. Because there is no proof that anyone has talent, but it’s easy to prove how a person can become talented. All you have to do is walk into a room and pick up twenty random people and you can teach them a skill that was thought to be only for the “talented”.

    The books are not kiss-ass as he mentions. The point isn’t whether or not he believes in talent or not, but whether it can be proven without a doubt, that talent is not inborn but is cultivated.

    Talent cultivation takes enormous time and effort and that’s why it’s so easily misunderstood. The very core of acquisition of talent depends on three core factors:

    1) The teacher
    2) The method
    3) The media

    If for instance, Robert is a great teacher, but uses the wrong media to teach me, I won’t learn. If he uses a method that’s too slow or too fast, I won’t learn. The proof of the pudding lies simply in pure results.

    If Robert says he can’t teach people to tell stories effectively, then there are others who can. It’s his belief in talent that is erroneous. But even that can be learned. 😉

  4. Sean D'Souza says:

    It’s a long post, so feel free to skip it. But as you can see, I feel strongly about this topic.

    If you go to any school, in any country, you’ll find one thing consistently.

    That if you asked the kids in the class if they can draw, then almost 100% of the kids put their hands up. What’s also interesting is that all the kids in the class are equally good (or equally bad, as the case may be). If you were to go back to that class a year later, and you asked the same question, you’d find that at least 30% of the students don’t feel so confident at drawing. If you were to then visit the class on a recurring basis till all the kids were about 10 years old, you’d find that you’d get diminishing percentages (that is, fewer and fewer kids who can draw). By the time all the kids have reached ten years of age, you may find that the percentage of kids who can draw have gone from as high as 100% to as little as 2% or even zero.

    So what happened? Did the kids suddenly get “stupid” with drawing?

    Let’s put that question aside for a moment and look at their reading and writing. At the age of five, almost the entire class can barely read or write at all. At best, they can recite the alphabet, recognise numbers and possibly read a few words—if at all.

    Almost the entire class is exceptionally crappy at writing—struggling to even roll from A-Z without their writing looking like gibberish. Then go back to the class the next year and the next and the next. If you were to visit when all the kids were ten, you’d find what you’re already expecting: All the kids (except those with severe disabilities) can read and write.

    So what was is the difference between reading, writing and drawing?
    The answer is: There is no difference.

    Reading and writing is considered critical to your future, so everyone from parents to teachers, even your peers, push you in the direction of reading and writing. A child spends at least an hour or more every single day learning the skill and practicing it.

    Drawing is considered to be not so critical, so it’s quickly abandoned except for the weekly token drawing class. And so if something is considered critical, everyone quickly learns because without it your future is in jeopardy.

    But what about the 1% who draw despite these barriers?

    They draw because of several reasons. The biggest factor is simply one of encouragement. They draw, they’re not a menace to society, and so their families encourage them to continue drawing. If the family beat them up every time they did a drawing, the child would quickly learn “not to draw”. But many kids are shy and drawing becomes their outlet.

    And in the hands of the right teacher, right person egging them on, they continue to draw spending several hundred, even thousands of hours learning and honing their skills.

    So does it require thousands of hours to learn a skill?

    No it doesn’t. It requires thousands of hours to become an expert in the field. Anyone with reasonable practice can learn in the hands of the right teacher, the right method and the right media. In fact in fewer than six months a person can go from zero skill in a specific field to incredibly competent.

    They can’t reach genius level, because genius level just requires enormous practice. When you compare yourself with the top stars in a field or even the mediocre stars in a field, you’re making an incorrect comparison. The comparison is you having spent ten hours with dubious methodology learning a skill vs. an expert spending thousands of hours with precise methods learning the very same skill.

    So what’s required to acquire a decent level of skill really rapidly?
    As I mentioned before, it requires:
    1) The right teacher.
    2) The right method.
    3) The right media.

    What’s also required is a concept called “tiny increments”.
    Most teaching is done with big leaps. So pick up any book on any subject from carpentry, to Photoshop to cartoons and you get the same problem.

    The teacher tries to drive home several points in the same book/audio/video. Yet our brains can only lock into one thing at a time. And then that one thing has to be practiced; mistakes have to be made; those mistakes have to be corrected repeatedly before you move on to the next thing. Yet no such system of education exists. Instead all we have is rush, rush, rush. Don’t believe me? Pick up a book on how to paint watercolours for instance.

    Your eyes will soon glaze over as you get hit by several concepts like unity, counter balance, value, focus point and dozens of other terms. And this in a beginner course or beginner book. Is it any wonder that learning is difficult, if not terribly tragic?

    Tiny increments mean that a person can move in such tiny movements that they don’t even realise they’re moving ahead.
    This means they do the same movement over and over again till it becomes second nature. Once that single movement is learned, they move to the next and the next and the next.

    But the increments must be extremely tiny. To the average person this slow advancement may seem way too slow—even a waste of time. But it’s how the brain learns. It’s how kids learn to read and write. They take years. And they get there.

    So who are the kids who can’t read and write?

    Those who stop. Those who don’t practice. Those who are not encouraged. Those who are beaten senseless at home because of drunk or abusive parents. Those kids will never be talented at writing and reading. They’ll never go to the fancy colleges. Those kids have been deprived the ability to “acquire” talent.

    And yet talent can be acquired.
    And acquired speedily. But first you have to throw off the shackles of believing that talent is inborn. If you believe in that, you believe that nothing can change you.

    And that’s your choice. For those who believe in acquisition of talent, it’s just a matter of finding the right teacher, the right method and the right media. And daily practice.

    Which means you can learn to draw, or cook, or do whatever you jolly well please.

    How liberating is that?

    • Brian Clark says:

      I don’t have anything to add to this comment other than to thank Sean for taking the time to leave it, and to say I think he’s a very smart man.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      I’ve been having this debate with my dad, who researches human cognition, for more than 20 years. I’ve followed the research of Andreesen on deliberate practice and greatness since before Malcolm made it popular.

      First, let’s understand, this conversation isn’t about being good or even really good at something, it’s about being world class great.

      And, the genetics aside, deliberate practice, which is very, very different than what most people call practice, is massively important in the acquisition of greatness in any field. Deliberate practice over years or decades can make nearly anyone extraordinarily accomplished in their field. I don’t think anyone’s really debating that (okay, maybe McKee would, now that I think about it, but I wouldn’t).

      So, yes, we should embrace the realization that, through deliberate practice, we can all create massive change in our abilities. My struggle around this issue, though, is not in buying into the import and impact of deliberate practice. I believe in my heart in can make you a force, but…can it make you the very best in the world at something? I have trouble buying into the notion that on that level of “elite-ness,” genetics plays no role, either for athletes, artists or intelligencia.

      In fact, if you bypass the popular expositions and go straight to the research, you’ll find the research hasn’t been “entirely” quoted.

      That research suggests that nature plays a stronger role than many thought, but does not entirely exclude the effect of genetics. And, it also shows that the clearest expression of genetics is where physical traits limit the ability of someone to become great simply because those traits are contrary to what a particular endeavor requires. Examples would be me trying to be a jockey or an NBA center. All the deliberate practice in the world won’t get me there, because greatness in those fields isn’t entirely about skill.

      One final though, the word talent is very nebulous.

      But, there is one genetic element I do believe is tied to it. Some people are wired from birth so that their brains light up when exposed to particular stimuli, while others couldn’t care less. This os often detectable even in infancy. This makes them want more of that stimuli, it makes then want to do more of it, not because they’re being pushed from the outside, but because they are being pulled toward it from the inside. That compulsion, in my mind, fuels people to engage in the deliberate practice that leads to mastery far earlier and far more often than someone else who’s organic structure at birth doesn’t have the same compulsion. In my mind, that organic predisposition is part of what I’d call the “nature” side of the equation called talent.

      So, can we all move from newbies to some level of mastery with years of deliberate practice and relish what that level of mastery brings up? Very likely so. Can we all be the best in the world, even with the required deliberate practice? Not sold on that.

      • Sean D'Souza says:

        It’s a very difficult thing to prove “Best in the world” to begin with. What’s “best in the world” is often a shifting benchmark. At any rate, this is a very complex topic because the audience debating this point often brings in issues that may appear relevant, but actually cross the topic boundary.

        e.g. When we discuss talent, we talk about say “I could never be a swimmer like Ian Thorpe (heck look at his wingspan and his shoe size—they’re like flippers). And you couldn’t. But there’s a problem with that argument. Because we aren’t comparing oranges with oranges. First we’d have to find someone who’s a living shadow of Ian Thorpe. Someone who has the same living conditions, same experiences, same teacher, same height, weight, shoe size etc. The variables themselves are mind boggling. And then we’d have to get that person into the pool at 4am.

        Notice that simple fact. Ian Thorpe was at the pool every single day of training at 4am. So now we not only have the problem of what’s going on his brain, but also the thousands of variables involved. And you have to get up and put in hours of practice under the right teacher who will get you to your goals.

        Almost everyone reading this will never so much as be able to match those variables, and if they do, they may not put in the effort. The real match up of being a “world beater” doesn’t lie in saying “I could never be Tiger Woods, or I could never be Ian Thorpe” but to compare the second or third top ranked player/swimmer in the world against Thorpe.

        What makes Thorpe stand out? Interestingly there’s statistics to back up this topic. Miki Ando was the top skater in the world. And here’s what they found.

        You may believe that those considered ‘talented’ or ‘creative’ require less practice. If you’re already talented, where’s the need for practice?
        You already have what it takes.

        Your brain is genetically engineered towards your talent.
        You should be coasting downhill, while the others struggle.

        Yet the evidence all around you, points to the exact opposite situation. The top athletes in the world practice long hours. The top artists in the world seem to be stuck to their palettes. The best speakers go over their material, time after time, after time. The best figure skaters do their routines hypnotically.

        In fact, when research was done on the top figure skaters, here’s what the researchers found. They found that the mark of the top skater is the ability to do their spins and jumps.

        And that the absolute crème da la crème skaters did more jumps and spins, when practicing.

        The researchers found that the slightly lower-ranked skaters did just a little less practice. And took more breaks in between their jumps and spins.

        So just a little less practice, and just fewer jumps and spins made one worse (or better than the other). Now it’s important at this point to recognise that we’re still comparing what most of us would label as “genetics vs. genetics”(because both of them are superlatively great skaters) but yet it appears that there’s just practice separating them.

        When we compare ourselves with the top tennis player, or the top whatever in the world, we’re nowhere close to comparison. We’re not doing one ten thousandth the practice they’re doing. We talk about it as if we could, by saying:
        “I could practice all I wanted and never be that person”. And you may never be that person, because of the difference in body structure, but even when you put two of those superstars side by side, the only real difference comes down to sheer practice.

        Note: I feel strongly about this point, which is why I’m commenting about it. I’m not here to prove anyone wrong or right. It’s just that I feel that this concept of talent is crappy because it forces us to pretend that we “SHOULD” be world beaters. Most of us could learn and be top 1000 in the world and still have a great life, but because of this ‘inborn talent concept’, we give up before we even begin.

        That’s what bugs me. 🙂

        One more post and then I’m done. 🙂

        • Sean D'Souza says:

          Susan Polgar is the world’s first female chess grandmaster.
          In fact, before Susan’s ’sudden’ arrival on the chess scene, people believed that the female brain was somehow inferior to the male brain.

          Especially when playing chess.

          And then Susan kinda burst that sad bubble of male superiority.
          But we’re not here to talk about male or female brains.
          We’re here to talk about measurement.

          Because Susan is such a genius, the kind scientist folk decided to look inside her brain.
          And they found something quite startling.

          But to understand how startling it is, we have to understand how your brain and mine works, in the first place.

          Here’s how our brains work
          When we see a person, or meet a person, we remember their faces.
          We do so, because our brain stores this information in a place called the ‘fusiform gyrus.’
          So though we may not remember the person’s name, we sure as heck remember their faces.

          Susan remembers faces as well
          And she too stores these faces in the ‘fusiform gyrus.’
          But she stores something else there too.

          She stores thousands of chess games in the ‘fusiform gyrus’
          So to her brain, the entire chess game, with all its moves, is like a face of a person.
          Which means she can recall thousands of games, just like you and I can recognise a face.

          But was Susan born with this unusual brain?
          She certainly doesn’t think so. She believes that her brain needed to store the information. And since there was so much information to store, it just found a store room that was handy. That storeroom happened to be the ‘fusiform gyrus.’

          Her brain is no doubt different from ours
          And so was Albert Einstein’s brain. The legend goes that Einstein’s brain was far more developed than most other brains.

          Now there’s absolutely no debate that the brains of geniuses are different from our brains.

          But did they start out that way?
          Were they born with a superior brain?
          Or did the sheer discipline of learning increase their brain capacity and function?

          No one measured baby Einstein’s brain.
          Or baby Susan’s brain.
          Or the brain of millions of babies who turn out to be geniuses.

          But here’s what I’m guessing.

          That there are a hundred billion neurons in your brain
          Even if one brain is bigger than another. Or different from another, it doesn’t count for much.Having a hundred billion neurons or a hundred and twenty billion neurons counts for little—if they don’t light up.

          The lighting up of your neurons is what sets your brain aglow. It’s what creates the intelligence.

          We are so focused on believing that some people are more talented than us.
          We are so focused on how un-creative we are.
          That we let most of those billions of neurons lie dormant.


          Like a Christmas tree with billions of bulbs and most of the bulbs without any power.

          If you want to become a genius, it’s relatively simple.
          You’ve got about a hundred billion neurons in your head.
          How many are you going to light up?

          Light up many of those neurons and some day soon they’ll put you in a lab.

          And measure your brain activity.
          And call you a born-genius.

          • Jonathan Fields says:

            I’m starting to think you might actually be a little bit passionate about this topic, lol.

            A few thoughts…

            One, I think we’re actually on the same page, just fleshing out different parts of the argument. The pursuit of mastery and development is an awesome quest, regardless of where you fall in the nature vs nurture debate and I don’t believe anyone should shy away from that journey based on what is likely a very flawed sense of what their ultimate capability may be. There is tremendous joy in the quest.

            Interestingly, too, the burgeoning field of epigenetics, controversial as it is, is throwing an even bigger wrench into the nature/nurture debate by suggesting there is NO difference.

            That it’s not only our genes that control a vast array of everything from traits and preferences to “intelligence” and disease manifestation, but rather whether the structures that surrounds those genes “flip” them on or off.

            The existence of epigenetic structure isn’t so much in play, but the claims that environmental conditions, from nutrition to behavior to stress and even thought may have the potential to switch certain genes on or off, thereby controlling what we eventually come to know as their expression is. And, that an environmentally-altered epigenetic state may actually then be heritable…wow!

            If this is, in fact, true, the whole nature versus nurture discourse is, well, largely out the window, because nature would have the ability to alter nurture not only for the individual exposed to the environmental conditions, but potentially, their offspring, too.

            That’s a whole new world, can’t wait to see how it all unfolds. But, until then…by all means, go forth and do everything you can do with what you’ve got. And who knows, that may even end up changing what you’ve got!

  5. Thanks Jonathan, I’m enjoying all the presentations but number 3 is my favorite.So far.

    I never thought about lawyers and businesses needing to know how to tell stories. It gave me an ah-ha moment because I’ve had other parents say, “tell our story”. Before I always told them to tell their own stories, the personal was more powerful.

    I remember watching the 9-11 people being interviewed and everyone kept using the word “horrible” and not giving any details. Every once in while someone interviewed would tell the story so you could feel the heat chapping your lips.

    There is natural talent, but that can be squandered, just as someone with only a little natural talent for storytelling–can develop it. I happen to think each of us need the 10,000 hours of practice.

    These tapes are giving us some of that 10,000 hours. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for the interview. I’ve really been enjoying them.

    I have to admit I’m somewhat disappointed that because I don’t have writing/story telling talent, I never will.

    On the other hand, I have other talents, so I guess that makes up for it.

  7. Bill Davis says:

    I really enjoyed this. I must have been living under a rock because I didn’t know who Robert McKee was until today! Then I saw a few posts on Facebook about the video…

    Sheesh, I’m dense. Anyway, I watched part 3 and found it very compelling.

    This video particularly struck me at the right time / right place because I’m giving a meeting tomorrow with business owners and the topic is…expertise.

    Expertise is closely related to talent, reaching potential, skill building, and experience.

    The commenter a few positions in front of me took real issues with Robert’s opinion on talent…I think it may be semantics.

    Or maybe not 🙂

    Anybody can learn skills. But not everybody has talent (in a given endeavor). Let me illustrate.

    Take a sprinter. He is fast. Inherently fast. Fast from a young age. He’s faster than 99 percent of the population by age 15. In fact, he may have never practiced sprinting and still be that good.

    But, oh lordy, if he trains and gets stronger, more powerful, and works on his mechanics, he can be world-class.

    Talent is bolstered by skill. Skills can be built. Talent can be honed. But it’s not something that everybody has.

    Let’s take another person who isn’t quite so fast. Show them proper mechanics, build their power, etc. You can make them into a decent sprinter. But they’ll never be world-class.

    Same goes for the cartoon drawing. You can teach me skills that get me to proficient but there is an underlying talent (or, more appropriately, talents) that runs through the best in any business.

    Having said all that, we humans have enormous untapped potential. And whether or not we can develop talent or simply harness what’s there, the point is “we are what we are” and let’s make the most of it.


  8. To me, you start with a talent (or affinity) which leads to an interest which develops the talent which creates depth, develops passion and the dedication to practise – and so on.

    If you want to see true talent in action, watch David Beckham live on the field – poetry in motion – it’s more that just kicking a ball around for 20 years.

  9. […] Persuasive Storytelling – The McKee-Fields Sessions: Part 3: While I’ve been in Vegas at Blogworld, like seven people have told me to watch this interview on persuading with stories. So I guess it’s important or something. […]

  10. Steve DeVane says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Nice interview. I’ve also enjoyed the discussion regarding talent and practice.

    I especially appreciated the emphasis on truth in storytelling. I consider it a very compelling factor.


    Steve DeVane

  11. Steven says:

    I like your comments about business, telling stories, putting people “in your shoes,” etc. It is very closely related to empathy in my opinion. Being able to change your self-orientation to a different person.

  12. Steven says:

    Also, I disagree with the talent/untalented argument McKee makes. It sounded like the Gladwell book recommends that practice can triumph talent, so it’s definitely no easy ride for those who want to be exceptional. I don’t think it is a blockbuster just because it gives talentless people hope. It says you have to work your ass off.

  13. […] can find them here:The McKee-Fields Story Sessions: Part 1 The McKee-Fields Story Sessions: Part 2The McKee-Fields Story Sessions: Part 3 You'll love my newsletter. Get blog updates, plus:A chance to win a 1-hour Brainstorming Session […]

  14. […] Persuasive Storytelling – The McKee-Fields Sessions: Part 3: While I’ve been in Vegas at Blogworld, like seven people have told me to watch this interview on persuading with stories. So I guess it’s important or something. […]

  15. […] needs to be writing more than ever before.  That includes you.  That includes me.  This interview series […]

  16. […] McKee-Fields Story Sessons: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. […]

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