Robert McKee’s “10 Commandments of Storytelling” applied to support conversations

Catherine Heath Catherine Heath · 6 min read

In support conversations, it’s extremely important to get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible.

Robert Mckee’s 10 Commandments of Storytelling (some also attribute this list to William Goldman) for screenwriting can help us have better support conversations. Whether it’s over the phone, through email, live chat, or in person, we can use the commandments of storytelling to communicate more effectively and engage our audience.

Now, onto the 10 commandments and how they relate to support conversations!

1. Thou shalt not take the crisis/climax out of the protagonist’s hands

In a screenwriting plot, the protagonist should be in charge of the climax outcome. The story’s resolution cannot just be brought about by a random act of God, because this is too unsatisfying. Similarly, during every support conversation, your customer needs to be in the driving seat.

To help customers to feel in control of the conversation’s outcome, you need to listen to each and every one of them. One of the top customer complaints is feeling unappreciated, and a big reason why they ultimately switch to using an alternative product or service. You might be talking to thousands of customers in the course of your job, but the conversation is unique for each customer.

2. Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist

Struggle creates dramatic tension in a movie, and a story without conflict is just boring. While a support conversation is not entirely like a blockbuster movie, there are some parallels. You don’t want to make life too easy for your customer.

A good solution is to fix a customer’s problem for them. They’ll be happy, and go back to their lives feeling satisfied. They’ll probably forget all about you – until the next time they need to fix the same problem. And then they’ll feel frustrated.

A great solution is to teach your customers to fix the problem themselves next time. If you explain how you troubleshoot an issue with their software, for example, they may be able to repeat the steps if it happens again, without having to contact support.

3. Thou shalt not give exposition for strictly exposition’s sake

In screenwriting, dialogue becomes clunky when the characters describe exactly what is happening on screen. It’s breaking the rule of “show, don’t tell”, and we can all fall into the trap of enjoying the sound of our own voice a bit too much.

However interesting your story is, customers don’t care! In support conversations, it’s extremely important to get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. 12% of American customers said a lack of speed was their top frustration with customer service.

Customers may be annoyed by encountering issues, and you’re under time pressure to help as many customers as possible. They just want to solve whatever problem brought them to your desk in the first place.

When talking to customers, keep it short! Don’t waste your customer’s time with your priorities. Customers don’t want to know “why” a bug happened, just that it impacted them, and that it’s fixed now – otherwise, it’s considered making excuses. And if you can “show” a customer how to fix a problem with a screenshot or GIF rather than telling them, even better.

4. Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise

Audiences feel cheated when they sit down to watch a movie, and later it turns out that the protagonist is dreaming, for example.

Or they eventually discover the protagonist has an evil twin!

In the same vein, don’t mislead your customers or use cheap tricks. Customers generally know when you’re not being honest with them, and dishonesty erodes trust in your business. Take the bold approach by being honest with your customers. If the problem was the company’s fault, try your best to fix it, and honor any Service Level Agreements in place.

Being transparent in general and willing to answer the tough questions creates loyal customers and brand advocates.

5. Thou shalt respect your audience

Lazy storytelling is obvious, and a sign that you don’t respect your audience. Don’t be a screenwriting hack – and the same goes for dealing with customers. Give every solution 100%. Treat your customers with the respect they deserve, and assume they are at least as intelligent as you.

It’s easy to get focused on our own egos, and assume that it’s your customer’s fault when they’re experiencing a problem. And maybe it is, but your customers don’t have the same depth of knowledge of the product as you. If you give respect to your customers, you will receive it back.

“To earn the respect (and eventually love) of your customers, you first have to respect those customers. That is why Golden Rule behavior is embraced by most of the winning companies,” says Colleen Barrett, President Emerita of Southwest Airlines.

6. Thou shalt know your world as God knows this one

In the field of screenwriting, this commandment means having full and complete knowledge of the world your characters inhabit.

You know what keeps the wheels turning, and you always know what’s going to happen next.

Take inspiration from the most compelling movies, since insight into the service and knowledge of the product is a key part of a good experience according to 62% of customers. Learn your product inside out so you can correctly diagnose problems each time.

Make the business case to your line manager for why you should be spending one day a week on continuous learning. Ask to be involved with the product and engineering teams to get a 360 degree view of the product.

7. Thou shalt not complicate when complexity is better

Top screenwriting means avoiding the complicated and aiming for complexity instead. Don’t have five characters involved in the plot when you could have three. Complexity means adding depth – within each character, between the characters, and in the environment.

For customer support conversations, it’s important to keep it simple. Customers don’t need to know the ins and outs of how your product works, or why exactly the system ate their data. At the same time, don’t shy away from sharing necessary details if it helps your customers understand the situation better.

And remember – as complexity increases, for example with payment disputes or complaints, customers are more likely to seek out a face-to-face, or over-the-phone interaction.

8. Thou shalt seek the end of the hero

Seeking the end of the hero means pushing your protagonist to the limit of what they can endure. The ultimate conflict of your plot should be the worst situation the hero could overcome within the narrative. When it comes to customer support, this one’s easy. Your customer is the hero, and you want to get to the end of the conversation so they can go back to being successful.

B2B decision makers cite a speedy resolution as one of the most frustrating elements of working with their suppliers. Don’t rush anyone off the phone or close a ticket too early, but focus on resolving the problem as quickly as possible. You should ideally fix whatever caused the problem to prevent it from happening again, and seek the end of the hero.

9. Thou shalt not write on the nose

This one’s about avoiding the use of dialogue in screenwriting to state the obvious. Over-reliance on characters describing whatever’s happening is just lazy writing. This one can be applied to support conversations by making sure you avoid stating the obvious.

Sometimes not communicating is better, since good communication also means knowing what to leave out. “If you just communicate, you can get by. But if you communicate skillfully, you can work miracles,” says Jim Rohn, author, and motivational speaker.

If you can turn a support issue into a knowledge base article, then do it. 90% of customers appreciate having a self-service option for customer support. This will save you and your customers valuable time.

10. Thou shalt rewrite

All great writers are really great editors. The best screenwriting script in the world is the result of a rigorous editing process.

One of the great things about using written communication is having the chance to edit your responses. It makes up for some of the drawbacks of not being able to hear the emotional tone of your customers, or read their facial expression and body language.

Clarity is essential in your support conversations, so it’s very helpful to use formatting choices like headings and bullet points to clearly communicate your responses and solutions.

Powerful storytelling

Our ancestors have been telling stories around the campfire for generations, and they resonate with our deepest instincts. Stories are a powerful way to communicate with others, and when we speak to our customers, we are continually telling a story. The story is about the customer’s relationship with the brand, and how the customer experiences each small interaction.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end – and so do your support conversations. There is a struggle and a process of transformation. Ultimately, stories are about putting your audience at the center, and in this case, your audience is your customer.

How did you like this blog?


Catherine Heath Catherine Heath

Catherine is a content writer and community builder for creative and ethical companies. She’s a blogging sensei — you’ll often find her writing case studies, help documentation, and articles about customer support. Her writing has helped businesses to attract curious audiences and transform them into loyal advocates.

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