“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller,” proclaimed Steve Jobs.
As a book publicist, I couldn’t agree more. Success in today’s ‘tell-not-sell’ marketplace requires authors to become master storytellers. Whether blogging, tweeting, keynoting, or guesting on talk shows, authors must satisfy an almost insatiable demand for engaging new narratives. Only then can they take their business and book branding, together with a publicity campaign, to the highest level.
My client Matthew Luhn is a renowned writer, story-branding consultant, and keynote speaker. With over 25 years of experience at Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios, his story credits include Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Up — all box office sensations and celebrated Oscar winners.
Alongside his work in Hollywood, Matthew teaches CEOs, marketers, and other business and industry pros how to craft stories for corporate brands worldwide. His new book is The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond.
Recently I sat down with Matthew to ask him what makes the best stories, how to create them, and what advice he’d give to authors. Here’s some of our conversation.
CL: First, what was your earliest experience with storytelling?
ML: No one expects to stroll down a city street and run into a giant gorilla. But that’s exactly what my grandfather had in mind when he placed “Joe” in the window of our family’s small toy store.
Joe was a massive mechanical gorilla who playfully interacted with passers by. He literally stopped people in their tracks, flabbergasting some and delighting all, grown-ups and kids alike.
You see, my grandfather had been fed up with people walking by the store without stopping, let alone coming in. He needed something special to grab people’s attention, entice them to enter the store, and hopefully become a happy (and paying) customer while they were there.
The moral? A story at its best starts with a great hook — one that surprises, enchants, entertains, or intrigues.
Joe was a heckuva hook, and much to my grandfather’s delight, his strategy was a smashing success.
CL: You talk about the ‘8-second science’ in storytelling. What is it? And why does it matter?
ML: Research tells us that the average person’s attention span is eight seconds. For storytellers, then, that means you have mere seconds to hook people before they tune out. Be it a keynote, a new-business pitch, or a media interview, if you can’t grab your audience’s attention within eight seconds, you’ve already lost. So, how do you do that?
In Hollywood, we use some tried-and-true techniques — powerful, proven practices that capture people’s imagination with something unusual, unexpected, action-driven, or that creates a clear conflict.
CL: What are a couple of those Hollywood techniques?
ML: One is the what-if scenario. For example: “What if superheroes were banned from saving people?” That was the hook for The Incredibles — a story that took the well-known world of superheroes saving people and turned it on its head, into something surprising.
Stories that set up an intriguing question work like magic, and not just in movies or TV. When Steve Jobs, for instance, introduced the iPod in 2001, his hook was genius: “What if you could put a thousand songs in your pocket?” Needless to say, at the time, no one thought that was even remotely possible. It proved to be a story for the ages.
Then there’s the what-happened visual. A story hook can be an image, too. A woman who sells health insurance told me she uses her really banged-up laptop to capture prospects’ attention.
As she starts a sales pitch, she brings out the visibly damaged computer — begging prospects to ask what happened. Such curiosity sets up the saleswoman’s story. She shares how one day a car suddenly pulled out in front of hers, forcing her to slam on the brakes. The laptop, which had been lying on the dashboard, was thrown around the car and suffered some obvious injuries. Meanwhile, her own injuries sent her to the hospital, where her company’s health insurance turned what was an unnerving situation into an overwhelmingly positive one. She explains to prospects that the experience made her genuinely proud of her company’s product.
You may not have a banged-up laptop, but you probably have some visual that begs a story. What is it? And how can you use it in talks, TV interviews, and elsewhere?
CL: What’s a simple, systematic way that authors can leverage Hollywood storytelling?
ML: In the entertainment industry, people regularly use what’s called a ‘logline’ or elevator pitch, a device that can help them develop, transform, or express a story. (In business, they might call this a mission or values statement.) The point is, if you were to find yourself in an elevator with a studio head or famous director, you’d have just seconds — or maybe just even a single sentence — to pitch your story. What would you say?
A logline contains four key elements, which have been used in storytelling for thousands of years:
1. A hero
2. A goal
3. An obstacle (or villain)
4. A transformation
Whether the hero is an individual, an idea, a business, or a multinational brand, they must go on a journey to reach their goal. The goal might be to defeat a dragon, disrupt a market, or develop a better product or service. The hero must also face an obstacle in order to create tension or uncertainty in an audience. That keeps people engaged until the very end — or the transformation.
CL: Any parting thoughts?
ML: The most powerful person in the world is indeed the storyteller. This will always be true, whether you create stories at Pixar, run a company, or write a book. (Or even own a small family toy store.)