It’s no secret to people who know me, and it’s not going to be one if you keep reading: I love Key & Peele. I don’t mean “love” in a generic way, as in people who say, “Oh, they’re fun. They do great skits.” I mean I’ve seen all five seasons of their show since the beginning. I have watched each episode at least a dozen times. I quote them (my husband now ignores me) as often as possible.
(By the way, calling them “skits” makes you sound like my grandma who, when I try to explain improv versus sketch versus stand-up, replies with, “That’s nice, dear”—older-folk speak for “I don’t care!”)
As a business storyteller, improviser, and comedian who has taken sketch and writing classes at Second City (it’s in the handbook that all good improvisers make a Second City pilgrimage at least once in their lives), I think this duo represents the best of what great comedy storytelling and social satire can and should be. And since they finished their very last season, it’s time to sum up all that “nooice-ness” (as they would say) into some important lessons for business storytellers, content marketers, and hey, anyone who wants their content to be better resonate with audiences.
Great Content Has Strong Characters With Strong Points of View
Storytelling is grounded in rich protagonists that are flawed, funny, endearing, annoying—human and multi-dimensional. Lots of organizational storytelling stinks because character development is shallow. If we cut corners here, we create shell characters that don’t create emotional investment from an audience. Want your audience to empathize, get angry, laugh, and relate in some way to your character? Give them a character people give a crap about. If I don’t care about your character, I don’t care about their conflict, the plot, or resolution.
Give me a fully fleshed-out human being with a strong point of view about the world. What do they like? Dislike? Any funny quirks, like a tick, a lisp, or a way of talking in metaphors? What do they believe about the world? The more specifics you can give about your character, the better. That’s what people will identify with. Now, put these people into strange situations, and see what happens.
Great Content Has Surprises
The power of the unexpected to reel us in, make us laugh, re-ignite our attention, and change perceptions is powerful. Give your audience something it didn’t expect. While I can sometimes predict where I think a sketch will go (I’m trained to look for the surprises and think about storytelling that way), the beauty of Key & Peele’s work is that some of their sketches totally surprise me in a way that makes me laugh out loud. That’s a great effect to have on your audience. It brings them back for more. A great story has surprises—even little ones—all along the way. It doesn’t have to come down to a big twist at the end, although that’s great, too. Little twists and turns make a story richer.
Great Storytelling Is Simple
Great sketches take one theme and comically exaggerate or play “the game” to the height of ridiculousness. Great stories don’t overwhelm, complicate, or try to do too much, such as tackle too many issues. Yes, stories can have multiple threads. However, the most impactful stories have one big idea that hits home.
A Story Without Conflict or Challenge Isn’t a Story
Organizations are all too happy to create content around customers’ superficial economic challenges. That’s not a great story. Go deeper. What are the personal challenges for your customer if the problem isn’t solved?
While you’re at it, talk about your own challenges. Way too many companies send the message, “Hey, no challenges here,” with their content. Or their conflict is watered down, and what’s at stake is a copy deadline being missed. Those are low stakes that invite low emotional investment. That’s not an interesting human drama. What happens if your company doesn’t get that product shipped, and it’s run out of funding? What happens if the hospital doesn’t reduce its catheter infection rates? What happens for a small business when it loses its customer data? These are very real scenarios that have consequences.
Every organization has challenges; be honest about those from a real, “crap is going to go down if this isn’t fixed” perspective. Make your audience feel the tension with you. Don’t fake it, and don’t force it. To have fun with it, take a real challenge and blow it up—even to a point of comic ridiculousness that will make your audience laugh. They’ll connect with the truth of it, however extreme.
Think Allstate’s Mayhem ads. That’s what it means to build tension, even to a comic, crazy extreme. You don’t have to use humor to do this, but humor is a great way to show people what’s at stake, albeit to a ridiculous extreme. Sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.
Story-Driven Content Doesn’t Need a Perfect Ending
Organizations spend so much time on heavy-handed resolutions that suggest their solutions are the best, and your life would be perfect if only you had their product. Nonsense. People don’t exist to buy your stuff or mine. People have their own fears, aspirations, and drama.
One of my favorite sketches from July 2015 was Key & Peele’s “Gay Wedding.” Try as the characters might to educate some family members that a gay wedding is no different from a straight wedding, certain members still don’t get it, although these people want to learn—that’s the hope. That’s also reality. The sketch—a great piece of social satire and one of my favorites—never gets mean about the characters who don’t get it. They’re not depicted as bad people—they’re depicted as real people.
Heavy-handed resolutions that try to tie up all loose ends with a bow for a magical ending aren’t real. It’s okay to have an ending that doesn’t solve all issues but still offers hope. Your audiences want honesty, transparency, and hope. Making your audience laugh in the process isn’t required, but it is pretty fantastic.
Have a fave Key & Peele sketch? What content lessons did you take away? Sad the show is over? Me too. The K&P therapy hotline is open…
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