Story Telling In Business – Insights From Pixar

For thousands of years, story telling has been the backbone of successful business growth. Now with digital marketing, sharing your businesses story has never been easier. So what makes a good story that your customers will relate to? Matthew Luhn has spent the last 20 years creating stories and characters at Pixar, in this video, he shares his secrets to creating an incredible story for your business and on-going marketing.

Video Transcript Below

We forgot one thing, guy who makes people cry that’s really my job title right because if you’ve seen a Pixar film yes. I’m one of those people that makes you cry and laugh and make you feel something. That’s what I’ve been doing for all these years creating stories. That’s what I love to do.

I love creating stories and I love telling stories and I love helping people be better storytellers. It makes sense that I should start off with my story which as weird as this may seem yes begins in the toy store. Geoffrey’s toy store, because when I was born my parents own the largest chain of family run toy stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, how much of a bummer is that. Instantly I was set on toys for the rest of my life, it’s your birthday go into the store just get whatever you want. The only trouble was later on trying to figure out who your real friends are in life. I think I said I still have a pretty good collection of toys, I still deal with this but my mom and dad were not the ones who started the toy store chain. My grandparents they own and operated Geoffrey’s toys before my parents, before my grandparents my great grandparents own and operated the toy stores and then my great great grandfather, yes. Charlie the guy with a cigar in his mouth, he actually hated toys and he hated kids. He actually owns a cigar shop in San Francisco, we don’t talk about Charlie much but its OK but over here we have my dad with the (unclear) and my grandfather who I’m very happy to say is ninety two years old.

I know he’s turning ninety two this month, he was a Marine in World War two and he could still beat me up today if he wants to. But my dad he actually didn’t want to start and continue running the toy stores. Not the smurf, the other guy. When my dad volunteered to go to Vietnam and he came back home, he told his dad the Marine. Dad I want to be an animator, I want to work for Walt Disney and be a Disney animator. This is what my dad has always wanted to do ever since he was a kid. He was that kid who always loved to draw cartoons, loved to write stories. Is just that’s who he is, but when he came back from Vietnam and he told his dad the Marine I want to be a Disney animator, you can probably guess how that story ended.

First, artist’s don’t make money, second we’ve got the family business. You need to help me. So I just think about the first Star Wars movie, Luke saying I want to be a fighter pilot Uncle Owen and Perugia saying no you need to work on the farm. Except my dad’s not a jet I, that’s pretty much what the story turned out and my dad continued running the family businesses, the toy stores and he still does that today in San Francisco and in Berkeley, eighty percent discount for anybody today. You have time you can make it.

Then when I was about three years old I should also mention my mom is from Germany, hence the girl leader hose in here. When I was about three years old, my dad was home from the toy stores with a sick stomach and to be able to cheer him up I did a drawing for him. It was a drawing of him with a stomach ache and you can see from the swirls inside, it’s a very good rendering of my dad.


When my dad saw this drawing he instantly was like you are going to be that animator you are going to live that dream whether you want to or not this is your future.

Fortunately, I did like to draw and my dad would do the regular things that other parents would do like take your kids to animated films, take them to museums, try to give them some Coulter. But my dad took it to the next level, when my mom would drop me off at school in the morning, elementary school. My dad at least once a week would pick me up around eleven A.M. to go take me to the movie of the week, because I was his movie buddy. Now, sometimes they were animated but for most of the time they were just what he felt were really good movies we needed to see, like Poltergeist when you’re five years old.

But all of this love of movies in animation it rubbed off on me and by the time I was eighteen years old. Maybe I was seventeen, I knew I wanted to go to this specific animation school called Cow Laertes in L.A.. That was the animation school at the time in all of the US. It was the school that Walt Disney started before he passed away to be able to train the next generation of animators. Your teachers would be the guys who animated on Bambi and on Pinocchio, it’s crazy I wasn’t the only one who wanted to go to the school, everybody who had a love for animation wanted to get into this school and our animation department number was a one one three. These three guys here are three guys I worked with for a long time John Lasseter director of Toy Story cars you maybe see in those. (unclear) stand here director of WALL-E. anybody see Wall-E. and finding me oh and then Pete over there, the director of Inside Out Monsters Inc.

We all went to this school and the Pixar culture comes from cow wars, it comes from our animation department a one one three, which if you’re a Pixar nerd like me. Take a look at those movies again, because a one one three isn’t every single one of them and we’re not the only one who does this, everybody else who has gone to the animation department at Cal Arts like Tim Burton They sneak that in every film as well and while I was going to Cal Arts Thank God I got accepted. I made a student film, it was called Stuart Schuyler saves the big No it’s not on the Internet. It was a four minute animated film I made, I painted it on cells, I put music, I did voices and a small animation company saw it called The Simpsons. they had only been on the air for two years they were my favorite T.V. show and they offered me a job to be an animator on the third season of The Simpsons which is a very good season. I was only nineteen years old when I took the job. I did what was totally logical. I quit school and I stayed in Hollywood and I started working on The Simpsons and I was animating every day. At this point I had reached in a way my dad’s goal. And then I stumbled into the story room.

This was the room where the writers were writing an episode once a week. Do you recognize that guy in the back with a Coke can? Yes it’s CONAN. And there was a comic strip artists in there, there were comedians in there, and as a team just like Saturday Night Live, they were writing down writing a different episode every week. I fell in love with this I was like this is why a boy’s love animated movies and those live action movies I went to see with my dad. It was the big picture; it was the story that’s what really interested me. But I thought I this is not possible, they won’t, I can’t go join these guys, they’ll never invite me in. I stayed the course, I kept animating and I knew one thing. I clicked a little quicker on that frame there. I know one thing, I wanted to get out of Hollywood, I wanted to go back to the San Francisco Bay area and that’s when there was a little studio of eighty people that saw another film I made called starship space hustle, No it’s not on the Internet.

And they thought it was really funny and they said we have a dream to make the very first computer generated animated film and guess what there’s going to be no princes or Prince in the movie. There’s going to be no musical, no happy fairy tale Villa. And nobody’s saying their I want song and I’m like I’m in.

I took the job, I was one of the first twelve animators on this movie that was sure to bomb. Because it wasn’t the regular animated film and the very first thing I got to animate on the film was these little guys the little army men that would be able to get this animation as affected as possible, I threw my shoes into a board, I filmed myself around the studio crawling on the floor, jumping off desks, everyone thought I was completely insane. I was collecting data in a way right and that is how I went about animating the Army man. It was great but once again the part that really interested me was the story and as an animator you’re given a couple things when the animate, you’re given the script hopefully and you’re given the storyboards. These are the storyboards for the scenes I got to animate. That was the part I was like; I was drooling over that part. I would animate my army men during the day this is before I was married and had any kids essentially I had a wife and I would then go into the story room after I was done animating and on the weekend and I would help the story team out with whatever they needed, I would shade the green, I come up with gags and eventually they said we get it Matthew you want to be a story guy.

So on Toy Story two, I got moved into the role of a story guy. What does a story guy do? I help figure out what the movie’s going to be about, what’s the heart of the story, what’s the plot of the story, who are the character’s? Story structure, everything on ten movies at Pixar. For over twenty years. Just doing the story stuff and I realized through all these years creating these films which I didn’t know in the very beginning were having such an effect on people.

That the reason why our films were so great was not because of the animation necessarily or because of the music or the voices, because other companies were doing that. The reason why people kept coming back to Pixar films and loving them was because of the story, the story was really meaningful. It was beyond just the plots. But there was heart in the story and I also started realizing that the same techniques we were using to create great films about toys were the same techniques that my family had been using for years on how to sell toys, which was using a great story, the story of Jeffrey’s toys. Having being able to connect with the people that came in the store. Because all those years with those toy stores, it was beyond just selling toys, we were selling an experience. And that’s when I realized that what makes a great movie or makes a great business is a great story, you guys have heard this before.

Why is it that stories are so meaningful, well first because they’re memorable. Of all the images that we are bombarded with every day from a billboard to T.V. to something on our phone, you’re only going to remember certain images at the end of the day of all the information that you guys are going to hear every day you’re only going to retain some of it, because of all the data and statistics that we get bombarded with every day, the truth is the depressing truth is ten minutes later you will only remember five percent of that information, I know. But that’s the truth I learned this on inside out; remember all the memories go to the memory dump. But the certain memories that stick with you even for Riley and inside out where the memories that were wrapped around an event, a moment a story an experience. When you can wrap your statistics and data around that kind of experience people will remember it and I’m not just talking about the written story, I’m talking even more about the visual story because visual storytelling is really how we communicate today. Everything from typeface, to color, to an image, will tell a story you know in the States the IOS uses the same font every year when they’re asking us for money for taxes and when people accidentally use that same font to advertise their company, you’re just pissing people off and they don’t even know why they’re getting pissed off. Why I don’t want to look at this. It’s because even visuals tell a story and when you use story to be able to communicate information. You make your chances go up twenty two times now the information you shared ten minutes later people are going to remember sixty five percent of it simply because you told a silly story about your family who owned a toy store or whatever story anecdote you want to share and when you tell a story and you want people to sit on the edge of their seats. You want to impact their chemicals. One of the things I always try to do when I’m crafting a story for entertainment or business is I want to get people to sit on the edge of their seats I want them to be excited about what is going to happen next in the story, that anticipation. How do I do this, by impacting people’s chemicals in their body because when you tell a great story and you see a character laughing or being happy you’re changing people’s chemicals, you laugh with the characters, you feel good, your door fans go up, and then when you see characters on the screen sad. Your chemicals go down cortisol kicks in right. You know how you tell a great story not by just having happy happy happy happy moments the whole movie or sad sad sad during the whole commercial. What makes a great story is when you go from one chemical to the next one up and down. Anybody see that very emotional beginning of the movie up. This is how we impacted your chemicals, at the very beginning we released all those happy chemicals in you by showing two people fall in love, get married build a house, work together and as they’re looking up at the sky looking at the clouds the man points up and he’s he says Look at that cloud it looks like a baby and the girl looks up at the sky, she goes look at all the clouds look like babies and we laugh. But then the very next image we see them in a hospital and we see that the woman is never going to be able to have any kids and now the chemicals that were going straight up switch and go straight down when you change the chemicals in people’s bodies this quickly you will make grown adults cry. It just happens. And then you take people up and you go wait wait wait, it’s not so bad they’re going to go on an adventure one day, they’re going to go to South America, they’re going to save up money. They’re going to go on to South America Paradise Falls and then we see they can never earn enough money and then we take you back up. And he sells his pocket watch, he buys those tickets, he takes her up to their favorite place up on the hill with a tree and then we take you down when you see I’m going to blow for you right now if you’ve never seen the movie. She passes away. And this is a kids’ film as well.

This up and down tension and release of changing the chemicals is what makes a story great. How many times have you heard that what makes a great story is a roller coaster ride, that’s what great speakers do. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone ten years ago, he came out he said I have something revolutionary is going to change the world we’re all excited he says it’s a Smartphone. We’re like yeah, and then he takes you down and says smart phones exist and they’re stupid. Why are you telling us this? Because when he goes to the next high point it’s going to be twice as fun and he says but mine is smarter than your computer at home and then he takes you down and says, but all those smart phones that are out there they have a stylus pen they’re really hard to use, awkward, ugly, like oh. But then he takes you up. Let me introduce you to Malta ITouch and then apps are hard to get, I can make them easy. This ups and down release tension and release, this is what impacts people chemicals and makes them sit on the edge of their seat wanting to hear more and when you do this, if the character in the in the movie like Woody is the character taking us through this journey, then we get personally connected to a toy. If it’s a C.E.O. like Steve Jobs, we get personally connected to that C.E.O. Who ever tells that impactful memorable story, we become personally connected with them and we believe them if they tell us we should go buy that new thing, we do it. If they say go see that next movie, we do it. Because we’re personally connected.

Anecdotes, is one of the greatest tools you guys have in the world of marketing, in the world of being storytellers. Sharing personal and professional moments of where you’ve had success or people who have used your product or use your company have had a positive experience. When you share that, you impact people, you make it memorable and you make it personal. We use anecdotes all the time in our movies. Woody who is all about being there for his owner, when he gets toy mapped into a story two, and taken to this toy collectors weird apartment and is told, you are the woody from the Woody’s round up. All he wants to do is, go home he wants to get back to his best friend. But then when Jesse the cowgirl shares with him that she once used to have an owner who abandoned her, the anecdote is so powerful that he decides I don’t want to go back home, I don’t want to go back to my best friend boss.

An anecdote, a story can be so powerful you can change the way people feel. Great leaders do this all the time. Working with Steve was one of the highlights of being at Pixar, because he was a great storyteller, that made a personal connection with people. I’m very short on time already but I want to go through a few steps here.

Some of the ways to be able to be a better storyteller is first you’ve got to have a great hook. If you can hook people in within eight seconds, you’ve already blown it but how do you hook people, what is it, shock value, what do you do?

From my experience, it’s creating something unusual, or unexpected, or has some sort of action or conflict at the very beginning in those first eight seconds.

Whether it’s what if superheroes were banned from saving people, that’s within eight seconds, or what if a rat wanted to be a French chef, that’s less than eight seconds, or even what if you could put a thousand songs in your pocket. When Steve Jobs introduced the IPod, that’s when there was just Walkmans. You know ten twenty songs on a cassette tape. This was a great hook. A hook that is unusual, unexpected, or creates a conflict or action gets our attention. But you know what, once you hook people, you want to keep them; you want to keep them sitting in the movie right. I know that when people go to a movie, they want to go pee, they want to eat. I want to keep them from that. They want to go on their phones; I want to keep them from that. But after I hook them, the next thing is I have to make a promise to them that what you’re about to watch for ninety minutes is going to change your life. That’s a big promise, but that’s what people want, people want to go through a transformation. People don’t like to change personally, but we like to go through a transformation. Been through a hero on a journey. You can do this one on one with the clients, by sharing with them how you were changed through an experience right, or how somebody that you know was been changed through an experience. But the next thing people want to know once you hook them is how is the thing you’re talking to me about going to make me richer, happier, faster or in a Pixar movie case make me remember how wonderful it is to fall in love or that no matter how bad life ever gets there’s always there’s always a way to have a zest for life again and adventure. That’s what makes those Pixar films great. It’s not just the special effects, its characters changing, It’s a monster who’s the number one scare or in the monster world discovering, he doesn’t want to scare anymore it’s about a car who’s so focused on winning the piston cup, so arrogant.

Learning about friendship and compassion. It’s that change and change whether it’s in a movie or in the real world, catches our attention. I know you guys know this but don’t we hate it so much when companies all just kind of create ads that all look the same, all the images look the same whether its health industry, car industry, shoes. But the ads that stand out, the images that stand out are ones that create change. Like when Uber came about, they created change, that’s the next thing you want to promise to people.

But the problem is that a lot of times, we create a great story that has a great hook. A great change but we totally connect with the wrong audience. When you’re planning a fundraiser, you’re wanted to get an investor for your company. You could totally miss the mark if you read the audience the wrong way. If you’re telling a story that doesn’t speak to them on their level. Are they teenagers, are they young adults, are they retired. You want to make sure; you’re connecting with the right audience. For me though, it’s tricky. Who is my audience? It’s everybody not just in this room but the whole world we call that the four quadrants, man woman young old it’s a broad audience.

What do people have in common with a rat. What people have common with France, or cooking. I hate cooking, I hate rats. But you know what we have in common. This guy has a dream to do something, that his dad, his family his culture, his species say you cannot do that’s why we love that movie because everybody can relate to the passions and struggles of somebody who wants to do something and is told no you cannot do it because of your gender, because of your color, culture, whatever it’s relatable.

But if I want to make sure I’m connecting with a specific audience then I want to make sure that whatever ads I’m doing, connect to that group. For me, I have three kids I also one of them is only three weeks old what the heck am I doing here right now. I think I left the baby in the car, thank you.

Moms don’t take sick days; they take it day quill and night quill. Dads don’t take sick days, they take both at the same time, and it’s great.

You’ve got to make sure you’re connecting with the right audience. Know their passions, know their struggles ,know their weaknesses, even people in the animation movie industry we collect data and I’m not just talking about going out and having people watch your movie and give you feedback. We want to know our audience. With all of this though, you can create a great story and it has no heart people watching and they just feel like you’re just tricking me to buy more little metal cars, you need to create a story with heart. You need to be authentic. How do we do this, how we’ve done this for so many movies? It’s because we make sure that every story we create is personal that means every one of these stories is something that personally happened to us, they come from our hearts. On finding Nemo, what inspired the whole idea of the Father in the Son, is because every one of us in the story department who worked on that film we had all had our first kids and they were all boys and we were that parent that was doing this, the helicopter parent. On inside out Pete Docter, the director the tallest animator I’ve ever met and also the most happiest, sickening happiest animator I’ve ever met, his whole family is happy. Until his daughter turned twelve years old and Pete didn’t know what to do. She was just like so emotionally sad all the time. Pete’s reaction is, I’m going to be super happy all the time and you can imagine that turned into a train wreck.

But through the experience people realized, you need all the emotions in life. His daughter just needed to cry, she need to get pissed, she had to be disgusted with him, she needed to be scared and he wanted to share with the world that experience to be able to help others. He is joy and his daughter is sadness. That’s what the story’s about.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, has been don’t be clever, don’t try to create a story thinking that this is what people want to hear. Speak from your heart, I know it’s hard. We’re programmed at an early age that if we take chances if we speak from our heart we’re going to fail. But you know what, the best leaders, the best directors are the ones who are storytellers that speak from the heart they’re authentic.

You know we will never save the theme of our movie ever you would hate us if we told you the theme of our movies, because it wouldn’t be authentic, you want people to feel the theme, you want people to feel the, if you never let anything happen to Nemo, nothing will ever happen to him, you don’t want to say it. You don’t want to ever say the mission statement to your clients or potential clients, that’s for you. You want people to feel the mission statement you want to be authentic.

And then you want to make sure that you wrap all of these great story tools in a way that’s going to have good pacing and timing, so that when you deliver the information, when you do the pitch, when you do the presentation at the board meeting, that you do it in a way that has set up a build and a payoff. I can’t tell you how many times people have wonderful content they have a great way to connect. But the delivery was awful because for thousands and thousands of years we have been delivering stories the same way with a beginning middle and end. Why do we do this because this is the way the world has been a beginning of the day, a middle of the day, an end of the day. A cycle of life, that’s why we love act one act two and three the hero’s journey.

You want to make sure that when you share stories. Whether they’re three minutes, whether they’re ninety minutes, they have a beginning. Where you set up the ordinary worlds and then you set up a problem, right? For example, Woody favorite toy in the room problem (unclear) toy arrives, middle of the room, woody tries to get rid of buzz, but it causes both of them to get kidnapped by Sid, a kid that likes to torture toys for fun.

Woody and Buzz hate each other but they have to work together and by the end what he has learned to be less selfish, buzz has learned that even though he’s not the real buzz, why he’s still an important toy and they get back to their owner. A beginning, middle and end.

And you know what a great story does; a great story makes you feel something. Because we are way beyond marketing to sell people stuff. We’re selling a feeling, we’re selling a story, and we want people to feel something.

I want to leave you guys with one video and then we’re going to wrap it up here.

Dad I’m ready.

Did you look at outside?

Take care.

When the rains flowing in and the whole world is upon you.

Just calm down.

She’ll be there.

I could hold on for you longer.

To make you feel my love.

And the evening shadow in the star appear

There is no one there to dry your tears.

I could hold you for a million years.

To make you feel my love.

Go to the ends of the earth for you

To make you feel my love

Mercedes Benz the best or nothing


You know a story works when you get teary eyed, you get goose bumps even watching a Mercedes commercial, because in the end. People aren’t going to remember what you said, people are not going to remember what you did, but they are going to remember how you made them feel.

Thanks guys.

Christian Thomson

Christian is a British-born entrepreneur and founder of Marwick. For over 19 years, Christian has successfully helped businesses excel in digital marketing. Founded in 2012, Marwick has grown from a start-up to the 11th Fastest Growing Company in Canada in 2020 and expanded into the UK in 2019.

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