Storytelling Principles: Controlling Idea (#4)

By Wilmar Alex Tax, 05 February 2021

The power of transformation starts with a simple description. "Controlling Idea" is a powerful tool from the Storytelling Toolbox to sharpen your thinking and steer it into the right direction.

Controlling Idea
“A controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why [a brand, company, organisation] undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another (...).”
(inspired by Robert McKee's Story)

Controlling idea is a very strong way of describing change and can also be used to start visualizing and be(come) the change (like Jacqueline Bosselaar always states).

Let me give you two examples:

From Fast Fashion to Total Transparency
H&M was long known for fast fashion (and probably even a metaphor for it). Once upon a time fast fashion was cool. Nowadays, even though fast fashion unfortunately still is a very established phenomenon in our society, there’s more and more resistance towards it, because of societal relevant questions around working conditions, pollution through use of chemicals to make clothes, ever increasing waste.

So you might formulate the controlling idea for H&M the following way:

“An existential need to remain societally relevant arcs the protagonist (H&M) from fast fashion icon to one of the top brands when it comes to transparency and leadership with regard to sustainability.”

H&M is open about (i) The materials used to make the product - and the durability of those materials (ii) In which countries the product was made (iii) Which supplier(s) they have worked with for the production (iv) In which factory(s) the product is made (v) Information about fashion recycling (H&M now tops the Fashion Transparency Index).

Supervisual to Supervoice
Social media newbee Clubhouse in short is a “drop-in audio chat” social media platform. It features short lived real-time voice conversations everyone can listen to, but can’t be recorded. It's controlling idea could be the following:

“In a world where mass social media is more and more shallow and supervisual (should be a new word ;) social media platform Club House takes two typical social media elements away (visualisation and copy) and deepens emotional real connection by focusing on another one, namely voice.”

It’s not that there is no text used on Club House, but text is used in a Twitter / Insta type of way. (h/t my fellow strategist Zhivago Holwijn for pointing this platform out to me). 

Think about your controlling idea and how you can use it to enrich, evolve or transform your brand or company. There’s never been more need to do so plus it’s a great way to earn the right type of attention.

We wish you the attention that you deserve to earn.


Storytelling has been around for a long time. It’s been overly hyped, booed off stage and recently it seems to have picked up traction again. Some - like my honourable fellow strategist Frank van de Koppel - say this may even be called the Netflix effect as in Netflix has propelled storytelling into everyday life like no other. At HPB we’ve always respected storytelling as a way to emotionally engage and connect with audiences, culture, people. The foundation of the Art of Storytelling - as we’d like to call it - are its Principles. Personally I am a great admirer of the way Robert McKee - a creative writing instructor and former professor at the University of Southern California - has written about storytelling in his book Story. Here’s my take on his principles and their relevance in the context of today’s Earned First Era. Over time, I will try and touch on all Story Principles McKee’s calls out, #1 'Premise' #2 'Character Arc', #3 Inciting Incident.

Photo by Javier Esteban on Unsplash