Once upon a time your business climbed to the top through its powerful storytelling. People flocked from all over the internet to visit your website because of your moving tale. Inspired by your words, the visitors wanted to learn more about your products and services, and your sales skyrocketed. Since your products and service matched your great story, people were pleased with your company and eagerly retold your company story to their family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and to random people at bus stops, often interjecting themselves into conversations to do so.
As the story spread from person-to-person like a virus, more and more people used your products and services. Thought leaders, pundits, and morning talk show hosts took notice and talked about your company on television, blogs, and even in print magazines, spreading your story further and further, so that people who had shunned social media ended up hearing about it. Eventually, your company became so successful everyone could recite your story whether they used your products or not.
That’s the power of storytelling. And we can all learn it.
Welcome to Matthew Luhn’s storytelling world
When Matthew Luhn, a former Pixar story artist and animator of 20 years, was growing up in San Francisco, he wasn’t born a storyteller. Instead, he came from a long line of toy shop operators. His great-grandparents sold toys, his grandparents sold toys, and his father decided toys were cool to sell but being an animator at Disney would be cooler.
Matthew’s father drew and drew and drew—even while serving in Vietnam, but when he returned from duty, like a good soldier he went back to work in the family toy store to carry on the tradition. And there, his father’s dream of animation died. Then one day he became sick. And Matthew, a four-year-old, made a drawing of his father with a stomach ache.
Everything changed. Matthew’s budding talent inspired his father. His father made it his new goal to mentor Matthew to be the Disney artist he never had a chance to become. He showed Matthew how to draw, took him out of classes to see films, and even let him deface the Eiffel tower with his drawings. Matthew became good enough to be accepted to the prestigious school of Cal Arts, which had been developed by Walt Disney to train future animators.
However, Matthew didn’t get hired as a Disney animator. Instead, he was hired to be a Simpsons animator. While he was there, he stumbled into the writer’s room and discovered his true desire was not to animate as much as to create the stories he was drawing for. He also wanted to return back to his hometown, San Francisco. So when Pixar called to offer him a job on the very first computer animated film, Toy Story, he leapt at the chance to move to San Francisco to work for Pixar.
Matthew was one of the first 12 animators at Pixar—but he still ached to be a storyteller. So after he finished animating the toy soldiers for Toy Story each day, he would stay late to help create characters and draw storyboards for the story artists. Everything seemed on track for achieving his dream and entering the story department. Then Disney took one look at the first version of Toy Story, hated it, and pulled the plug on the film. With no film to produce, all the animators were let go.
Undaunted by this setback, Matthew found a job with a small animation company, doing storyboarding for commercials and animated TV shows. He struggled to pay the bills, working in the family toy store like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him. But anybody who has fallen in love with Woody and Buzz knows that’s not the end to his story.
When Pixar called to say Toy Story was back in production and wanted him as an animator again, Matthew boldly asked to come back as a story artist. Pixar said no; they didn’t need people in the story department at this time, but that they would keep Matthew in mind if things changed.
Matthew didn’t want to give up on his dream of being a storyteller. In the meantime, to pay his bills, he moved back in with his parents and even borrowed money from a friend to fix his car. Just when all seemed bleak, Pixar called again. This time it was for Toy Story 2 and they wanted Matthew to work on the story team. The rest is a twenty-year story of success working on films like Toy Story 3, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, UP, and Cars, among many others.
The best story wins in business
If you liked Matthew’s life story, it’s not just because it’s a good story, it’s because he follows successful storytelling patterns that he teaches in his new book The Best Story Wins: hook, transformation, universal themes, and the three-part structure of setup, build, and payoff.
His life story begins with a hook, where he develops his character, establishing his desire for storytelling, shows the complications along the way that interfere with his dream—which get ever more dire—until he finally reaches a climax and achieves his goal of being a storyteller for Pixar.
Along the way, the audience is captivated and moved as he loses his job and has to move home, but sticks to his passion for storytelling despite having no money. We all feel relief and happiness when he’s finally rewarded for his passion by getting the job in the end. However, it’s not just autobiographers who can use these storytelling techniques. Companies can use stories to increase sales, improve their marketing, and boost their brand. Leaders can use stories to become better leaders.
Steve Jobs used story when he introduced the iPhone. He hooked the Apple audience by saying this was a day he had been looking forward to for 2.5 years—he was finally going to introduce the iPhone. But then he brought everyone down saying all smartphones before this were dumb, emphasizing the struggles of using outdated technology. Then he brought the audience up again highlighting all the advanced features of this intelligent iPhone. And he continued to bring the audience up and down, showing the obstacles and how they were overcome, connecting with his audience through story—until he finally unveiled the phone, making an event so memorable, we still talk about it to this day.
And you can do the same. If you follow the methods suggested from Matthew’s 20 years of experience helping create hit films for Pixar, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll be telling your story someday to some random person at the bus stop because the story is that good.