Martin Koolhoven on storytelling: “Without emotion, a story is pointless”

Martin Koolhoven

A good story can accelerate business transformation processes. But what are the key criteria for a good story? Dutch film director Martin Koolhoven answered that question for the SCM Directors Club in an inspiring talk full of movie images. His most important message: make sure it has emotion and retain control of the story. “Otherwise people will create their own version of it,” he said.

By Marcel te Lindert

Martin Koolhoven kicked off his talk with the opening scene from what he regards as one of the best films ever made: Once Upon a Time in the West. A small, grey-haired stationmaster sees some fearsome-looking men, dressed in long leather jackets, looming ahead. The tension, heightened by the music, is palpable. “A good story is all about emotion. Without it, a story is pointless. It won’t achieve anything,” said Koolhoven.

Meaningful versus meaningless emotion

The concept of storytelling is almost as old as humanity itself. In the past, stories were passed down from one generation to the next to convey certain norms and values. Today, only some stories have that same aim. For Koolhoven, telling stories through films has become a goal in itself: “I don’t want to spend too long thinking about the message. Above all, I want to convey a meaningful emotion – and by that I mean one that sticks in people’s minds.”

Not all emotions are meaningful, as Koolhoven illustrated by referring to TV programmes that reunite family members after being apart for many years. The scenes often move viewers to tears but are quickly forgotten again because they feel no real connection with the people on the screen. “In actual fact, it’s a meaningless emotion. Film is an excellent medium for conveying meaningful emotions by ensuring that as a viewer you become interested in the main characters. The emotional journey they go through then becomes a journey you experience too. A film provides a safe environment for viewers to experience emotions that can help them in real life.”

Retaining control of the story

In the business world, there has been a lot of focus on storytelling in recent years. A good leader must be able to tell stories that move employees, since that’s the only way to ensure that they understand and remember the underlying message. “A story is a number of related dramatic events that follow an arc. The three key elements in this definition are ‘related’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘arc’. If a story doesn’t contain all three, it’s not a story,” said Koolhoven.

He conducted a little experiment to demonstrate the importance of establishing relationships between the events. He played an animation showing a number of geometric figures in random motion, and everyone interpreted the story differently. “Our brains are programmed to try to recognize a cause-and-effect relationship in everything we see. We turn everything into a story, even if there isn’t one. If you want to stay in control as a storyteller, you have to make sure you have a strong story. Otherwise people will create their own version of it.”

No emotion without conflict

It goes without saying that a story needs to follow an arc; the series of related events should lead to a more or less satisfactory ending. “That’s true even in the case of a joke or a commercial,” explained the film director. “And drama simply means that things are clashing. There has to be conflict. Without conflict, there is no engagement and no emotion. Similarly, there has to be conflict if you want to achieve behavioural change through storytelling. Employees must have something to overcome in order to change their ways.”

Martin Koolhoven claimed that stories that start in the past and end in the future can make an important contribution to a company’s transformation process. “If you can show a logical progression and you can mix in some emotion, you have a strong story. The transformation will make the company better. The story has to show that you will emerge stronger. And sometimes you have to exaggerate the drama a bit to enhance the emotion.”

Honest and transparent

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Robert McKee, author of the book called Story, was quoted as saying that leaders must also allow their own doubts and scepticism to shine through in their stories. If leaders dare to be honest and transparent, that creates the necessary drama. If their stories paint a picture of an entirely rosy future, they won’t be believed – which is not beneficial for the transformation.

Martin Koolhoven agreed with that reasoning: “That creates a situation in which employees themselves start to fill in the gaps. Why isn’t he sharing his doubts and scepticism? That’s how you lose control over the story. Lately, this has been happening in the extreme. If there’s no control over the narrative, people start creating their own versions of the stories – and that’s why we’re seeing so many bizarre conspiracy theories emerging.”