The surprising power of negativity in stories
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Today, we’re talking about the fear of negativity in marketing and its role in story.
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Now to today’s piece 🌎
You sit down for dinner. Across the restaurant you see Julia Roberts, Peter Jackson, and Russell Brand.
They have one thing in common – Robert McKee taught them screenwriting.
McKee is one of the rarest talents. He taught screenwriting to the best of the best before shifting his focus over the last 10 years to brand storytelling.
He has collaborated with:
And others to re-center their brand around stories.
In short, he’s one of the most successful people at the intersection of business and story.
I mean, he had a hand in everything from the Lord of the Rings movies to Nike’s ‘greatness’ series. Quite the legacy.
McKee harps on what he calls ‘negaphobia’ – the fear of using negative messaging in your marketing. He says it’s the biggest mistake marketers make today.
Kurt Vonnegut breaks down the shape of stories that stand the test of time. He argues there are three structures along two axis. The Y-axis is the ‘axis of good fortune’ and the X-axis is time. The structures:
- Somebody gets into trouble → gets out of trouble
- Find something wonderful → oh goddammit → gets it back again
- Start at the very bottom → life improves → disaster strikes → off-scale happiness
Guess what? None of these shapes are flat lines from beginning to end.
But the shape of stories that go from positive to positive is a flat line. And flat lines are boring.
Shoutout Robbie Crabtree who writes Storyteller’s Playbook for the vid.
A story is not a series of interesting events. A story must show change over time.
McKee hits on the idea of tension in many of his YouTube videos. If everything in your ad is positive, how can there be any tension? How can there be stakes? How can there be any painkiller that your product or service solves?
Seeking out the negative lets you raise the stakes, show transformation from beginning to end, and build a world where your product isn't just another shiny object but an actual need.
Great stories highlight struggle. Your audience wants your characters to succeed. But they want them to struggle, to strive, to suffer, to get there.
McKee argues most marketers have a great reason for wanting everything to be sunshine and rainbows. If a piece of creative bombs, negativity (if it’s there) is the first thing to get blamed.
But companies known for their storytelling actually lean into negativity. What’s crazy? They’re some of the most respected brands on the planet.
Apple – Your Data Is Being Sold!
Chevy – Maddie
Neuroscientists find the brain’s response to a good story’s climax is a few seconds of heightened memory.
McKee recommends putting your logo right after the climax to take advantage of this, which is exactly what Chevy does.
Nike – Banned!
The call to action in each of these is made stronger because the ads show a compelling 'original world.' The world without their product.
McKee’s Purpose-Told Story is my favorite framework for getting your audience to actually take action.
He starts it with his Three Targets. Before considering your story, you must understand your:
- Target audience – who you’re talking to
- Target need – what problem they have your product solves
- Target action – what you want them to do
Without defining those three, you’re guessing.
Stories move people to action. Your audience empathizes with the protagonist, sees their own lives portrayed in the story. The protagonist should start as one version of themself and end as something new – reinforcing the idea that your audience can do the same.
That’s how stories inspire action. The best way to create that arc from beginning to end is to lean into negativity.
Go tell some stories, and enjoy your weekend.
📰 Newsletter: My friend Alex writes a free weekly newsletter bringing you the best book recs and reviews. Try it here.
🎥 Video: Speaking of Alex, he spoke with Tiago Forte (of Building a Second Brain) about how to start taking notes while reading.
📈 Growth: Storynomics – Robert McKee focuses on brand storytelling, translating what he’s learned from the world of screenwriting to brand.
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