As the title suggests, the biographical documentary Keep On Keepin’ On sings a bebop hymn to perseverance. This well-told film portrays the life of legendary jazz artist and mentor of musicians, Clark Terry.

Born in St. Louis in 1920, Clark played lead trumpet for Duke Ellington’s orchestra. His brilliant stylings inspired many hopefuls, including a very young Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. Even though his life-long battle with diabetes cost him his eyesight and both legs, Terry, at age 94, still coaches the talented musicians who flock to his Arkansas home.

The film’s co-protagonist is one of his students, a blind pianist, Justin Kauflin. Kauflin is a jazz prodigy but plagued with self-doubt, stage fright, and an over active intellect that gets between his feelings and his music. In other words, he keeps thinking himself out of success.

The Major Dramatic Question becomes “Will Terry’s musical and psychological mentoring put Kauflin’s future on track?” Spoiler alert: It does.

A documentary or fiction about two people who suffer from severe physical disabilities is an open invitation to emotional indulgence. So the writing lesson here is the difference between sentiment and sentimentality; how to express the hard truth of sentiment without wallowing in the mushiness of sentimentality.

Sentimentality delivers outpourings of warm emotion unbalanced by life’s negative experiences. Sentiment moves us with beautiful emotions but only after negative events have fully tested the characters. In others words, characters must earn their happy endings.

Study this film to see how Allan Hicks and his co-writer Davis Coombe document the grit and pain in the lives of both protagonists. Kauflin suffers his burdens of blindness, poverty and failure with grace.   Clark Terry, in his life and teaching, embodies that rare combination of a heart as loving as sunlight and a mind as tough as Bethlehem Steel.

The key to the satisfying, moving climactic triumph over adversity in “keepin’ on” is the protagonists’ disciplined dedication to music and their unrelenting persistence in life: sentiment without sentimentality.

How To Persuade

The most successful leaders of business and government gain that power by being able to persuade their constituencies with a compelling story. In this Big Think interview, Robert McKee explains why Story works, and what you need to know about coercion and seduction.



Bonus Video:

How Piaggio Aero Started Marketing From Scratch

Forbes interviews John Bingham, Piaggio Aero’s President and CEO/CMO, on defining four core brand values and building a brand story.


Quotes of the Week:

“The safety zone has moved. Conformity no longer leads to comfort. But the good news is that creativity is scarce and more valuable than ever. So is choosing to do something unpredictable and brave: Make art. Being an artist isn’t a genetic disposition or a specific talent. It’s an attitude we can all adopt. It’s a hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map. If you do those things you’re an artist, no matter what it says on your business card.”

– Seth Godin

“Thinking in terms of minutes is both mechanical and amateurish.  Thinking in terms of “hook, hold and pay off” is organic and professional.  Listen to your feelings and the feelings of others, and when you get a spontaneous “Wow!” from those feelings, that’s how long the pitch should be.”

– Robert McKee

A Letter From Joyce to Ibsen

James Joyce to Henrik Ibsen, 1901
(Translated from the original Norwegian)

Honoured Sir,

I write to you to give you greeting on your seventy-third birthday and to join my voice to those of your well-wishers in all lands. You may remember that shortly after the publication of your latest play ‘When We Dead Awaken’, an appreciation of it appeared in one of the English reviews — The Fortnightly Review — over my name. I know that you have seen it because some short time afterwards Mr. William Archer wrote to me and told me that in a letter he had from you some days before, you had written, ‘I have read or rather spelled out a review in the Fortnightly Review by Mr. James Joyce which is very benevolent and for which I should greatly like to thank the author if only I had sufficient knowledge of the language.’ (My own knowledge of your language is not, as you see, great but I trust you will be able to decipher my meaning.) I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held so high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling. One thing only I regret, namely, that an immature and hasty article should have met your eye, rather than something better and worthier of your praise. There may not have been any wilful stupidity in it, but truly I can say no more. It may annoy you to have your work at the mercy of striplings but I am sure you would prefer even hotheadedness to nerveless and ‘cultured’ paradoxes.

What shall I say more? I have sounded your name defiantly through a college where it was either unknown or known faintly and darkly. I have claimed for you your rightful place in the history of the drama. I have shown what, as it seemed to me, was your highest excellence — your lofty impersonal power. Your minor claims — your satire, your technique and orchestral harmony — these, too, I advanced. Do not think me a hero-worshipper. I am not so. And when I spoke of you, in debating-societies, and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead — how your wilful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart, and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing dark for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it — to the end of ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ and its spiritual truth — for your last play stands, I take it, apart. But I am sure that higher and holier enlighenment lies — onward.

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting.

Faithfully yours,

James A. Joyce

Can Conventional Protagonist vs. Antagonist Roles Be Reversed?

Robert McKee teaches that the hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villain scene is an important convention in the thriller because it demonstrates the power, resourcefulness, or ingenuity of the hero. What happens if we give that moment to the villain instead?

Featured Video:

Keynote: Story and the Future of Entertainment

Jeffrey Katzenberg (CEO of Dreamworks Animation USA) shares his unique perspectives on the television business with the 2013 MIPCOM audience at the Palais des Festival’s Grand Auditorium.


Robert McKee Reviews Zhang Yimou’s COMING HOME (2014)

coming-homeOne of the many beauties of the cinema is its storytelling flexibility.  The screen not only takes its stories from the imaginations of screenwriters, but it also recycles stories that were first created by playwrights for the theatre, researched by historians, reported by journalists, or most frequently, written by the authors of literature.

Stories created for the page demand a special talent for retelling in film.  And as COMING HOME once again demonstrates, Zhang Yimou is one of the world’s most brilliant conveyers of prose to the screen.  In fact, with one or two exceptions, the stories in this master’s finest films have almost always been adapted from novels:




TO LIVE (1994)


KEEP COOL (1997)







The critical problem of adapting novels to the screen is this:  The great power and beauty of the novel is the dramatization of inner conflicts, conscious and subconscious: whereas, the great power and beauty of the cinema is the dramatization of outer conflicts, social and physical.  The expressivity of page and screen are at the opposite ends of human experience.

On page, in either first, second, or third person, a novelist can directly invade a character and use literary language to describe and imitate the profound flow of thoughts and emotions in the depths of the mind and soul.  But the camera cannot photograph thought; the unseen life within a human being can only be implied from images of gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice, augmented and nuanced by images within the setting, their lighting and colors.

In other words, literary adaptations demand superb acting to bring subtext to life within the character, and then superb directing to house these performances within expressive frames.

In COMING HOME, Zhang Yimou placed the characters played by Gong Li and Chen Daoming in delicate, quiet compositions of naturalistic rooms, hallways and streets.  Then he wrapped their faces in subtle, sensitive light.

Trusting to Zhang’s vision, these two magnificent actors brought their characters’ complex psychologies and inner turmoil to life.

This combination of implied inner action and expressive imagery gave the COMING HOME film audience what Geling Yan’s novel, The Criminal Lu Yanshi, gave its readers: the power to see with seemingly supernatural vision through the surface behaviors of the characters Lu and Yu to the wordless passions, confusions, and undying love within them.

Robert McKee – Oct 30, 2014

How Does Story Affect Life?

If you wish to understand the Primacy of Story – why story is essential to human motivation and decision-making – Robert McKee will get you started in this in-depth presentation for Thinking Digital. .


Quotes of the Week:

“The Business story is designed to trigger the listener to take an effective action. If it doesn’t, the story fails.”

Robert McKee

“Story is morally neutral. It can express profound truth or propaganda. The two greatest political storytellers of the 20th Century were Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler. Because storytelling is a form of persuasive jujitsu, and because world is full of black belt storytellers, the corporate leader has to train both his offensive and defensive moves”

– Robert McKee

“Once upon a time you went to war with products and services. Today, the stories we tell or fail to tell determine our destinies.”

 James McCabe






The starting point of all stories is a moment of disruption. A negative event throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, hooking the audience’s curiosity: How will this turn out? The protagonist’s quest to restore life’s balance by struggling against negative forces is at the heart of all compelling narratives. Therefore, fine storytellers do not avoid the negative side of life; they seek it out. They look for a instance of trouble so they can arc the telling to a positive return to balance.


When human beings weigh their chances for achieving their deepest desires against the almost overwhelming forces of mother nature, social institutions, and even their own subconscious selves, they feel that they are an underdog. Indeed, no one feels like an overdog. Even the most powerful, wealthy, influential people fear, deep down inside, that everything they’ve achieved could be taken from them in a sudden moment of bad luck. Therefore, for a story to engage the feeling side of its audience, it must draw them into empathy or identification with a protagonist who, like the audience, is up against very powerful forces of antagonism.


Almost without exception, all statements about one’s self are self-serving. Even when someone criticizes himself in public, there there’s always a subtext of self-congratulations: “And aren’t I a wonderfully self-aware, honest and brave person to see my flaws and confess them?” The line between autobiography and bragging is thin. Therefore, at those times in business when you must talk about your life, try to tell your story from someone else’s point of view. If you were to talk about your university years, for example, tell the story of how an inspirational professor opened your eyes to a profound truth. Make the professor a star and you a lucky bystander.


The Purpose-Told Story for business is created from back to front, not front to back. Begin with the action you want to trigger in your audience: a purchase or an investment or a job well done. Once that is clear in your mind, ask yourself: “What kind of story would trigger that action in that particular person?” From there you follow your imagination back to the beginning: “What event would throw my protagonist’s life out of balance and launch a series of actions aimed at that trigger action?” With those two posts in the ground, you build a bridge of story to suspend between them.