The Secret to Every Good Story Is a Bad Villain: Part I

luciano-ribas-34641

I have a question for you. You won’t understand at first why it’s important. But it goes right to the heart of who you are, and what your business represents. Just bear with me.

Who is your favorite movie villain of all time? Darth Vader? Hannibal Lechter? Voldemort? Norman Bates? The alien in Alien?

I have two.

First, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. I love that she is a misunderstood villain. Or rather, she isn’t really a villain at all—just a high-powered woman doing her job better than anyone else could. She refuses to change her demeanor so people will like her. She doesn’t care if people like her, because she is at the top of her game. I also love that Meryl Streep intentionally chose not to have the character yell. Miranda never raises her voice, so she forces people to listen intently to what she says. Brilliant!

Then there’s Gordon Gekko from Wall Street. I have been a fan of this movie for decades, long before I was interested in financial services. As a character, Gordon is charming, ambitious, successful, driven and even likeable. He has an invincibility about him that is so compelling. His character may also have inspired an era of imitators that nearly took down the financial system as we know it (or at least, it’s fascinating to imagine he did!). All of the movie’s clichés about Wall Street are true: there are still plenty of undesirables in our industry who couldn’t care less about clients. I think Gordon’s character taught us important lessons about the inner workings of Wall Street and capitalism. I could watch this movie every weekend—if only I had the time!

These are the kinds of villains that stick with you. They make a story memorable.

A good villain doesn’t even need to be a person. In Silver Linings Playbook, the villain is really Bradley Cooper’s inability to move forward with his life. In The Martian, it’s the harsh environment of space. It doesn’t matter who—or what—the villain is. What matters is what the villain does.

Villains give heroes something to struggle against, an obstacle to overcome in order to reach a goal. The best villains go way beyond cliché; they’re unpredictable and complex, just like real people. And they pose a serious, believable threat to the hero. They keep us on the edge of our seats! Villains bring conflict to a story—and without conflict, there is no story.

This is a lesson advisors need to remember.

I’ve written before about how critical storytelling has become to advisors. A firm that can craft a unique, compelling story—and then deliver it digitally—will pole-vault ahead of firms that still rely on rainmakers and referrals. Advisors are coming to realize this, too. They’re trying hard to tell good stories.

Then why are so many of their stories so bland?

Here’s what happens. Every time we have an initial call with a prospective client—and I mean, every time—the owner tells us, “I don’t want to be like those other firms with sailboats and compasses all over their websites. I want to be different.” And I think: Sure you do. Everyone wants to be different. Until somebody presents you with a concrete idea that actually differentiates you from the competition. Then you flip out and back off.

Read through advisors’ websites. You’ll find a few that are genuinely compelling, while others were clearly written by committee. They talk about wonderful advisors in a wonderful firm, helping wonderful clients achieve wonderful things, wonderfully. Pure corporate happy talk. Dull as a dial tone. If the firm were a movie character, it would be what screenwriters call a Mary Sue­—an impossibly perfect heroine who never genuinely struggles, and really just serves as the screenwriter’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. There’s no conflict, and therefore no story.

You can’t make a big splash if you’re afraid to make waves. Your story needs tension, conflict, a villain. John Bogle didn’t build Vanguard by saying passive investing is a very nice strategy, too, would you like a piece of cake while you consider it? He created the world’s largest mutual fund company by saying, “Hey, those guys are ripping you off! Let’s stop ‘em.”

What scary problem are you trying to solve for your clients that no one else dares to tackle? What oppressive status quo conditions are you the only one brave enough to overthrow? What is the greatest threat to your clients’ dreams and hopes—and why are you the only one who can rescue them? Are you actually ready to play hero? Have you invested enough in your business to make your promise to help credible?

I know it’s hard to think about your own business this way. It doesn’t come naturally. That’s why, in my next post, I’ll share with you two examples of financial businesses whose stories are very good—precisely because their villains are very, very bad.