Insight From A Hollywood Movie Writer

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I conduct a lot of interviews. Every now and then, I come across somebody whose knowledge of and perspective on a certain topic I find fascinating. When this happens, I often conduct a number of interviews over time.

This happened when I connected with Matthew Luhn, a Hollywood insider who has written a book entitled The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. With nearly 20 years of experience at Pixar Animation Studios (story credits include Toy Story 2 and 3Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Up), I found both his book and our discussions fascinating.

This is the next part of a series I’m writing based on his insight. The first article provided insight on five ads that tell great stories. The second was about the power of storytelling, and the third was about overcoming the superhero fallacy. Although Luhn indicates that the superhero should almost never be your product (it is actually the audience), he does admit that there are exceptions. Below, Luhn provides advice regarding when marketers should make the CEO the hero of the story.

Whitler: Are there ever any times when the CEO should be the hero?

Luhn: Typically, the audience is the hero. Not you (see article here). But there are going to be times when you do want to share a story where you are the hero. In these cases, you will want to share a metaphor. You do this typically because the story is anchored on a dry piece of information.

Let me give you an example. Assume that you are the CMO for a data analytics company. Dry. Boring. Complicated. People fall asleep. Talking about technical nuances of analysis is largely boring and not compelling. The same thing happens when you are trying to teach your kids not to lie. Kids don’t understand these types of concepts. So you try to tell them about the 10 Commandments. Don’t lie. Don’t lie. They don’t get it. Then you tell the metaphor about the little boy who cried wolf. Or the kids who wander into the woods and almost get cooked by a wicked witch. The first stories we were told as kids were metaphors and they were designed to take complicated concepts and educate us. We do this because when you take complicated information and humanize it, it tends to make the abstract concrete, vivid, and accessible. When you do this well, it is more memorable, impactful, and personal.

So the mistake that marketers and business leaders make is that they share a story about something that happened to them—for example, how powerful and useful it was to collect a lot of data to reach people. To make your metaphor strong, take a moment from your life that didn’t happen to you and that was not business related. When you watch a Ted talk, you notice that when they talk about the statistics and data, we fall asleep. But when they talk about a story or situation that happened to them when they were 12 years old, the audience listens. It’s authentic. The retention of information when told with a story is 22 times higher.

When you look at the best business leaders, they tend to be able to do this. Think back to Steve Jobs. He could take technical and boring content and turn it into something interesting and personal—even aspirational. Like many great comedians or teachers, Jobs had a Rolodex of stories stored in his head. He had them organized into different categories: teamwork, overleveraging, innovation. If you watched him speak, you’d see a pattern. When he felt like the material was too technical or he was losing the audience, he would pause, scroll through his Rolodex of stories, and then share the best metaphor to help communicate his point.

Let me give you an example: After the success of Toy Story, Jobs shared with us a cautionary tale that kept us safe from potentially going bankrupt. Job’s story went like this: “When Apple was just getting started, the team and I loved to go eat at one particular sandwich shop in Silicon Valley. Although it was a small shop, owned and operated by a family, it served the very best sandwiches in town. The sandwiches were so delicious, we would even wait forty-five minutes in line just to get one. But as the sandwich shop grew in popularity, the owners began to serve coffee and pastries to compete with Starbucks and Krispy Kreme. Unfortunately, their coffee and pastries were mediocre, and the attention to detail on their trademark sandwiches lapsed. So we stopped eating there. Months later, I discovered the sandwich shop was gone. They had spread themselves too thin, and they went out of business.” Job’s story drove home the point loud and clear: Don’t overleverage yourself. Even though Toy Story was a wild success, if we spread ourselves too thin, too fast, we could risk losing it all.

Jobs knew the best way to communicate the risk of overleveraging was to share a story about characters facing change and learning a lesson. This is what great storytellers and great stories do.

So there are times when you want to tell a story about your company or CEO or founder, but you want to really understand why. If it’s possible to set the audience up as the hero—it’s stronger.

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