A strategic approach to great storytelling and quality relationships

By Mark Steele — Executive Creative of Steelehouse

I don’t like to be strong-armed. I didn’t like it when I was thrown into the swimming pool at age four and I don’t like it now. True, I learned how to swim that day, but only out of a necessity to survive. Not out of a personal epiphany or a desire to become a proactive swimmer for the long haul. I’m a huge fan of the process of discovery: of my life experience mixing with my unique perspective in a centrifuge and whipping around against the walls until the ideas with weight are separated from the nonsense. This is the way most people learn — not only how they prefer learning, but how it is most effective. People need to be led, yes — but with breathing room in the leading that allows for their perspective to translate the insight and make it personal. In these cases, knowledge sticks. It is owned. And when knowledge is owned, it soon becomes conviction.

I am built to tell stories. I try my best to write great narratives because I want to experience great stories, and what is the point in crafting something I wouldn’t actually engage with personally? We each have our own definition of what makes a story great. Think about it. What is the commonality between the books, films, albums, theater experiences, video game narratives that OWN you? You know the ones. You dream in their language, you wear the shirt, you theorize story implications with your tribe ad nauseum, you are fueled by consuming the narrative — even in the hundredth viewing. For me, the commonalities are these: there is always a dynamic of imagination while there is simultaneously a profound nugget of life truth. I want to escape in story — but only if the escape is capable of building me into a better person.

This is why my own storytelling approach is what I call the Philosophy of Arrows. When I find I have a great story to tell, it is always wrapped around a point: an idea that, when unpacked, is designed to help the entertained rethink his or her existence in a way that has the potential to build them up. But, I can’t force feed my point. If I do, I’m just a sweaty preacher or a politician with bad hair and my narrative has the adverse effect of my intention. It actually causes the entertained to resent and reject the point, because I didn’t do the work of helping them make it their own. A point is just an opinion until the case I state in my narrative makes it reasonable. That’s why I nudge.

Effective storytelling (including advertising) is not cheap manipulation. Any great story is truth disguised as fiction and it unpacks itself the way real life does: logically, earning thought transformation inch by rational inch. Your protagonist can be a cyborg mutant wereunicorn and your audience will connect with him as long as he thinks and reacts in line with the human experience step by rainbow-hooved step. But, great characters and great plot are not enough. If you want your audience to OWN your narrative, if you intend for them to really suck the marrow out of what you are trying to say — perhaps even transforming it into what THEY are trying to say — then your narrative needs a plethora of seriously effective arrows.

Design experts will tell you that every detail is an arrow: the color palette, the font, the line of the layout, the shape of the logo — each detail tells the audience’s eyes where to look and, in turn, informs their brain in regard to what messaging is most urgent to process. The same is true for visual storytelling. When I write, I am not only crafting dialogue. When I direct, I am not only steering the performances. If I have an Arrow sensibility, there is an intentionality to every artistic decision. Attention and emotions and ideas are steered by the smallest detail: the wardrobe, the sound design, the camera angle, the lift in the delivery of the dialogue, and on and on. If I am crafting with intention and clear in the vision of what I want to say, I am able to assist the viewer in what to REALLY see, what to TRULY hear, and at what exact moment that information should all collide in their brain like an avalanche transforming into epiphany. If I do so with a deft hand, the viewer may not even process that I am the one doing the pointing. They are likely to believe that they are doing it themselves. Artistic guidance becomes owned by the viewer and the big idea is processed as if it is a personal original thought. It sticks. It is owned. It becomes conviction.

But, this philosophy doesn’t only apply to great narratives. It also compels strong relationships. Yes, I can wield my actions on a daily basis with sloppiness, without intention. I have that right. On any given day, my less-than-optimal treatment of others can be excused away by stress, exhaustion, or too much beer. I have that out. But, the truth is that my actions are arrows. My words. My behavior. My habits. They are pointing all observers toward something — whether I intend them to or not. Have I taken the time to decide what I want them to point toward? Because if I have, then I am going to wield them with intention. I am going to realize that the details of my life matter, especially as those details handle other people in my circle. I can break others down or build others up. I can take a one-on-one moment and complain, shoot the crap, or attempt to inspire.

For a long time, I found myself frustrated with what those around me were not. I was quick to identify and point out flaws and I thought I was making others better by exposing the negative. Until I realized arrows have significantly more impact when they point towards a success instead of away from a failure. I now find myself attempting (not always succeeding) to locate that detail in someone that deserves to have an arrow pointing toward it. The skill that is still a seed, but growing. The attitude that has merit. The approach that is unique to them and, if refined, could really be a game-changer. I point to potential greatness. Many times, that is the fertilizer needed to actually make someone great. When you lead with kindness and intentionality, not disingenuous, but legitimately taking the time to observe the specific kernel of promise inside someone and then risk saying something about it out loud — well, suddenly that someone sees their own life narrative in a new light. Those arrows are owned and eyes are opened to true potential. Their story explodes. Their own narrative becomes inspiring. They, in turn, begin to look for the great in others. And the arrows continue.

As it is in storytelling, so it is in the narrative of life. You are an arrow. You either have a big idea you are pointing others toward, or you are aiming everywhere and nowhere all at once. That’s not creativity. That’s not leadership. That’s a broken compass — something no one should follow.

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