a girl with her hair standing on end at the end of a spooky corridor

Write the film and turn your horror story into a winning business

leadership planning product risk strategy Feb 01, 2022

How do you see the future? Unless there is circus palm reader on staff, not easily. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. Amazon have for many years pioneered the art of the ‘future press release’, which describes the impact of a new innovation and how it was achieved. It is a simple device that helps communicate the essence of what will make a project successful. 

There is also an equivalent from the dark side of the force, the pre-mortem. This is a brilliant planning tool designed to challenge bias, which if left unchecked, leads to doomed projects progressing. Rather than write about the future success of your project or innovation, assume the opposite. It has failed. It was a total disaster. We should have seen it coming. Now you ask the question: what did we get wrong? What usually follows is a litany of shaky assumptions, previously concealed concerns and suppressed angst. Handled correctly, this exercise can tease out many of the foreseeable causes of failure and give you a chance to address them before the project starts. 

There is another way of seeing the future. It’s one we are all familiar with because we encounter it almost every day. It’s called fiction. Fiction is a narrative of events that haven’t happened. It’s made up, but can be very real. Great fiction is compelling, insightful and useful. Not useful in the science fiction sense, such as William Gibson predicting the internet. Useful in that it communicates human truths, follows universal patterns of life, and it helps us understand the importance of struggle. 

Founders need to be storytellers because stories and fiction mirror real life. That is why when we read a story we subconsciously become a part of it. Our brains instantly recreate the experiences, imagining what it is like to fall from a train or narrowly dodge a bullet. Fiction can emotionally and physically transport us in the present. Think sweaty palms. 

It can also help us see the future. Here is how.

Imagine you are going to start a new business. You have a clear idea of what you are going to offer and what success looks like. You write a business plan and do a killer investment deck to show how everything is going to go smoothly and your success in inexorable.

Before you actually start your business, pretend you first need to tell its story and turn it into a film. Like a long Amazon future release. To do this you must write the script. You start by reading all the available advice on screenwriting, such as Robert McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! You quickly notice that film scripts follow very clear patterns. Not just the dramatic structure of three acts (beginning, middle and end), but also the events that drive the action in each phase. The introduction of the hero in their ordinary world; the igniting incident that disrupts the harmony of their world; their goal; right through to the closing segment, where the hero returns home only to find they no longer fit in because they have changed. 

What strikes you is that for approximately two thirds of the story things are going wrong for the hero. This is called antagonism, struggle, or, in film speak, conflict. The hero faces a tricky situation or dilemma and whatever they choose, things get worst. Then the sequence repeats. Things get worse each time. The peril and the stakes escalate. Luke Skywalker loses his droids, is attacked, has his foster parents murdered, avoids capture, is attacked again (more graphically), is captured in the Death Star, sees his mentor die, and watches helplessly as the flame of the rebellion is almost snuffed out in the final assault. The sequence only ends when the greatest antagonism is faced in the finale.

Why is there so much antagonism in stories? Simple. Firstly, because struggle is a fact of life. The world is not ordered for our automatic comfort or success. Quite the opposite – it needs a lot of reordering to achieve what we want. And while we are busy doing this, 8 billion other people are working against us by trying to do the very same thing for themselves. Life is full of friction and obstacles that we must overcome. Secondly, the greater the levels of antagonism, the more we root for the hero. Because the hero is who we empathise with. They are a proxy for our presence and participation in the story. We face and solve challenges together. Their victory or defeat is ours. 

Now you realise that the business plan you came up with was a bit misleading. If success is guaranteed there is no story. If there is no antagonism then it is not realistic. Success is likely to be a near run thing. To write your film you need lots of conflict, to show all the obstacles you faced and overcame. 

Writing stories full of antagonism is fun. You can just make it up. Co-founders can suddenly leave. The product might explode overnight. You suffer a ransomware attack. Your accountant is caught embezzling money. Your top account manager is caught having an affair. A big American firm steals your brand name. The list is endless. If you are struggling for inspiration, check out Mike Figgis’ 36 Dramatic Situations or the CB Insight list of start-up failure post-mortems. You’ll have the entire spectrum of human and business drama to work with. 

Once you have this list of bad stuff to inflict on your business, you put it in order, to make sure that the challenges escalate over the course of the story and the very worst thing happens at the finale. Now you can write your script, describing how you overcome each of these fictional threats.

Then you can sit back and congratulate yourself. You have not only learnt about storytelling and created a fun film script, but you have also seen the future for your business. Not the actual future, because now you are going to do something different to stop all these awful things from happening. But one possible future. And your film script has prepared you far better than any investment deck or business plan ever will, for the unpredictable struggles ahead. You will be less surprised. You will have more ideas on how to tackle them. You will be readier to prevail as the best heroes do.




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