Last week in Cannes, Gareth Neame (Downton Abbey) Gale Anne Hurd (the Walking Dead), Suk Park (Dramafever), and Steven Moffat (Sherlock and Dr. Who) held a seminar that sought to “expose the truth about universal storytelling—how (and why) creative ideas travel.” To no one’s surprise at all, we learned that “there is no formula!”
Each panelist rejected the very notion of easy replication of their storytelling success, and yet, even these Olympian and unique creators lean on certain recurring elements that they themselves betrayed even as they denied them.
Steven Moffat was introduced with a clip from Dr. Who, in which the hero is heard asking what he should do to become a hero. “Do what you have always done,” came the reply, “be a doctor?” As one seminar participant said later, “for something to work at a global scale, it needs to retain its cultural narrative for it to travel”. Sherlock lives in London and not New York. Audiences demand an authenticity in these characters (and in themselves) as they “choose with whom they will identify,” as Ms. Hurd reminded us. Good stories need real people with whom we can relate and with whom we can identify. By definition, a story is someone else’s tale, but a successful one can be claimed, understood, and identified by the hearer. Sherlock is Sherlock because of his vulnerabilities, not in spite of them. We are each uniquely and culturally anchored, and like these well-formed archetypal characters, we find our identity therein. The real brilliance of stories is uncovered when they are about real people, in real places with real lives.
If there was one “secret” to which each panelist alluded, it was an attitude toward the stories rather than the stories themselves. These creators talked of an “insane passion” and an almost unexplainable conviction to bring their stories to life. For a story to become great, it must be embedded with conviction of people who will tirelessly strive to bring it to life, pursue funding against all odds, and keep believing even when the experts say (as they did to Gareth Neame), that “Downton Abbey will never catch on in America.” Great stories require people who passionately believe in the importance and the value of that story, for such people will bring it to life.
Two important questions surfaced as a guide for any storyteller. First, what role do you play in peoples’ lives? And, second, what is the tension in the culture to which this story will speak? These questions ferret out the recurring themes of meaning; self-identity in relation to a social need. Stories that “stick” bring real people into relevant interaction with real questions. They explore lasting uncertainties that transcend time and culture. Great stories live at the intersection of identity and social tension and have lasting relevance.
Our panelists may well be right to deny that there is a formula for great stories that transcend cultures and go global, but they have each tapped into these three truths that make for great stories. As it turns out, these truths make for great companies, too.
The companies that will discover lasting relevance, what we might call “character companies,” are the ones that, like relevant stories, evade formulae for success while sticking to essential truths:
Real people, in real places with real lives,
Each of whom believe in the importance and the value of that story, and thus bring it to life by
Acting out a relevant purpose that can be found at the intersection of a personally known identity and something the world most deeply needs.
Successful businesses—the ones that can travel around the globe and endure for generations—furnish good products and services along with timeless characters and truths that transcend cultures and time.