30 Seconds to Killer Storytelling Anytime, Anywhere

Posted on March 2, 2017 · Posted in Change Management, Marketing, Storytelling

March 2, 2017

by Carla Johnson

I’ve written about how high-quality storytelling can take companies out of the commodity conundrum and actually help raise prices.

“That’s great!” readers tell me. “But how do I actually tell a story?”

I’d like to share the easiest and quickest storytelling formula ever, courtesy of former Disney Pixar writer Emma Coates.

Story, story everywhere.

Storytelling is for getting and keeping anyone’s attention anytime, anywhere. You know, when you’re…

  • Struggling to get your boss to green light a new idea.
  • Frustrated with trying to get the CFO to budge on a bigger budget.
  • Trying to build collaboration across your entire marketing organization.
  • Excited about moving a new, bold idea forward throughout your company.

For stories to work, they need to make your audience relate emotionally to the people you talk about. They also need to convey a change that’s happened.

Here’s the formula that Emma created for Pixar…

Once upon a time _______________. And every day _______________. Until one day _______________.

Because of that _______________. Because of that _______________. Until Finally _______________. And ever since that day _______________.

Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Here’s what it looks like in action for Pixar’s Cars movie.

Once upon a time, there was a cocky, rookie race car named Lightening McQueen. And every day he knew he would become the world’s greatest racecar. Until one day when he was on his way to California to compete in the tie-breaker race with The King and Chick Hicks. Unknowingly to Mac, his semi-truck driver, Lightening McQueen slid out of the back of the truck and found himself stranded in Radiator Springs. Fearful of missing the race, he got angry and tore up the road through town. Because of that, he was sentenced to community work which involved fixing the road before he was allowed to leave town. And because of that Lightening McQueen was forced to interact with locals who had different priorities than him. Until finally Lightening was allowed to leave and compete in the big race. When he won, he realized he no longer wanted to be a self-centered jerk. Lightening McQueen wanted to be nice to people, especially his friends, and take the time to enjoy life. And ever since that day he realized that life is about the journey, not crossing the finish line first.

The Pixar storytelling structure works for three reasons.

  1. The structure pulls us along and makes us want to know what happens next
  2. We have an emotional connection to the main character. That makes us want to re-tell and re-share this story because we love the emotion in it.
  3. We see a better way because of the story.

Do you think this sounds hokey? It may, but think about this. Pixar is in the business of storytelling. And they wouldn’t tell stories if they didn’t make money.

For this first Cars movie, they made $461 million. But that was just the beginning. The movie is the seed that drives all of the merchandising, which brought in a whopping $10 billion in the five years after the film was released. That broke the record for merchandise sales based on a Disney/Pixar film.

So, when I say that Pixar tells stories because they connect with audiences and drive behavior, I mean it. Because, ultimately, we want to drive revenue.

And that’s why you need to be telling stories, too.

Anatomy of the Pixar story

Let’s break this formula down. Here’s how and why each fill-in-the-blank statement works and why they’re in this particular order…

  • Once upon a time – While you’ll need to rephrase this for your situation, this opening introduces the characters of your story.
  • And every day – This phrase gives your audience context for your character.
  • Until one day – We’re introducing conflict and tension.
  • Because of that – We now see the hero of our story begin to change behavior because of the challenge.
  • Because of that – Using a second one is optional and depends on the complexity of your story.
  • Until finally – Now we show how far our hero has come. What change actually took place?
  • And ever since that day – This is how we reveal our “ta-dah!” This is where you share the outcome, ROI or morale of the story.

B2B marketers completely skip introducing a hero. Instead, we start telling stories toward the end of the equation. Usually with the “until finally” moment. And we give the big reveal up front, taking anyway and suspense that inspires people to keep reading. That makes our stories sound like this…

We’ve provided more options to give our customers better flexibility. As a result, we increased the network performance of one customer by 27%. This customer now experiences higher revenues, lower downtime and greater reliability.

It may feel overwhelming to think about completely overhauling your entire approach to how content gets written, so let me show you how to transition from where you are today into the Pixar format. I’ve highlighted where I’ve added the copy for each step in blue.

Step 1

First, we’ll add a hero to the story.

Before
We’ve provided more options to give our customers better flexibility. As a result, we increased the network performance of one customer by 27%. This customer now experiences higher revenues, lower downtime and greater reliability.

After
Kelly’s the CIO of a healthcare network. We’ve been able to increase the performance of her network by 27%. Now her company is experiencing higher revenues, increased reliability and greater confidence

By adding a hero, the audience now has someone to whom they can “attach” the story. They’ve created a mental picture of Kelly and have begun at least a subconscious connection to her.

Step 2

Now, we’ll add the “Everyday…” portion of the formula.

Before
We’ve provided more options to give our customers better flexibility. As a result, we increased the network performance of one customer by 27%. This customer now experiences higher revenues, lower downtime and greater reliability.

After
Kelly’s the CIO of a healthcare network. And every day she worried about whether or not she needed to upgrade her company’s network. She wanted to be able to bring more satellite sites on, but wasn’t sure if the investment was worth it. Kelly didn’t know how the additional demand would affect overall quality. In working with her, we’ve been able to help increase the performance of Kelly’s network by 27%. Now her company is experiencing higher revenues, increased reliability and greater confidence.

If you do nothing else but add the “Once upon a time…” and “Everyday…” sections to your story, you’ve already improved things dramatically. These first two statements fix your story in time and space and your audience will now feel “grounded.” They have a point of reference for everything else that happens.

Step 3

Here’s where things get interesting because, with the “Until one day…” statement, we’re adding the struggle that your hero has to overcome. In other words, we’re adding interest through tension.

Before
We’ve provided more options to give our customers better flexibility. As a result, we increased the network performance of one customer by 27%. This customer now experiences higher revenues, lower downtime and greater reliability.

After
Kelly’s the CIO of a healthcare network. And every day she worried about whether or not she needed to upgrade her company’s network. She wanted to be able to bring more satellite sites on, but wasn’t sure if the investment was worth it. Kelly didn’t know how the additional demand would affect overall quality. Until one day when a utility construction crew accidently cut the fiber and half of the hospital satellite locations were offline. Clinics weren’t able to connect with specialists in the main hospital and they had to cancel appointments with patients. This hurt them because of lost revenue from having to cancel appointments with patients. Patients and healthcare staff also lost confidence in the hospital as a brand. And they were concerned about the reliability of the technology and whether it was something that deserved further investment. In working with her, we’ve been able to help increase the performance of Kelly’s network by 27%. Now her company is experiencing higher revenues, increased reliability and greater confidence.

Conflict is something companies do their best to avoid. They don’t want to be the bearer of bad news because no one wants to hear bad news. Marketers think that talking about something that went wrong implies that something could go wrong for their customer, too. But that’s not the case.

By introducing tension, you show the reader the challenge that your hero faced. This also conveys vulnerability. Could your audience also be vulnerable to a network that’s not redundant and could leave satellite locations high and dry? That’s what begins to move buyers off dead center and begin momentum toward taking action. That’s what prompts people to begin their journey as a customer.

Step 4

At this point, we want to describe what our hero did because of their struggle. That’s where the “Because of that…” statement comes into play. For Kelly, our story evolves to look like this…

Before
We’ve provided more options to give our customers better flexibility. As a result, we increased the network performance of one customer by 27%. This customer now experiences higher revenues, lower downtime and greater reliability.

After
Kelly’s the CIO of a healthcare network. And every day she worried about whether or not she needed to upgrade her company’s network. She wanted to be able to bring more satellite sites on, but wasn’t sure if the investment was worth it. Kelly didn’t know how the additional demand would affect overall quality. Until one day when a utility construction crew accidently cut the fiber and half of the hospital satellite locations were offline. Clinics weren’t able to connect with specialists in the main hospital and they had to cancel appointments with patients. This hurt them because of lost revenue from having to cancel appointments with patients. Patients and healthcare staff also lost confidence in the hospital as a brand. And they were concerned about the reliability of the technology and whether it was something that deserved further investment.

Because of that, Kelly took a step back. She wanted to understand the true picture of what had happened with the accident, the current quality of the network and what her options were. She worked with us to help her determine her options, what potential financial investments may look like, how it would affect her short- and long-term capital planning, and what other healthcare systems like her’s were doing. In working with her, we’ve been able to help increase the performance of Kelly’s network by 27%. Now her company is experiencing higher revenues, increased reliability and greater confidence.

Step 5

We’re back to where B2B marketers start with storytelling, the “Until finally…” statement. Now that we’ve added richness at the beginning, our readers are ready to – and want to – know more.  Let’s look at how we add richness to this part of the story now…

Before
We’ve provided more options to give our customers better flexibility. As a result, we increased the network performance of one customer by 27%. This customer now experiences higher revenues, lower downtime and greater reliability.

After
Kelly’s the CIO of a healthcare network. And every day she worried about whether or not she needed to upgrade their network. She wanted to be able to bring more satellite sites on, but wasn’t sure if the investment was worth it. Kelly didn’t know how the additional demand would affect overall quality. Until one day when a utility construction crew accidently cut the fiber and half of the hospital satellite locations were offline. Clinics weren’t able to connect with specialists in the main hospital and they had to cancel appointments with patients. This hurt them because of lost revenue from having to cancel appointments with patients. Patients and healthcare staff also lost confidence in the hospital as a brand. And they were concerned about the reliability of the technology and whether it was something that deserved further investment.

Because of that, Kelly took a step back. She wanted to understand the true picture of what had happened with the accident, the current quality of the network and what her options were. She worked with us to help her determine her options, what potential financial investments may look like, how it would affect her short- and long-term capital planning, and what other healthcare systems like her’s were doing.

Kelly was open to a blend of options. Part involved upgrading her existing network. She then chose to connect to a second network so she had 100% redundancy and greater capacity. By working together, we’ve helped Kelly see that she has many options from which to choose. What worked best in her situation increased the performance of her healthcare network by 27%. Now her company is experiencing higher revenues, increased reliability and greater confidence.

We’re at the point when it feels natural and not the least bit pushy to mention a product or service. We’ve brought the reader along. Told them Kelly’s story. And now we’re simply telling them how she solved her problem. It’s important that we still don’t deluge the audience with product specifics. What we’re doing here is setting the stage and making people hungry for more. We still don’t want to force feed them product information.

Step 6

And now it’s time for the big reveal with the “Ever since that day…” phrase.

Before
We’ve increased network performance by 27%. Our customers how experience higher revenues, lower downtown and greater reliability.

After
Kelly’s the CIO of a healthcare network. And every day she worried about whether or not she needed to upgrade their network. She wanted to be able to bring more satellite sites on but wasn’t sure if the investment was worth it. Kelly didn’t know how the additional demand would affect overall quality. Until one day when a utility construction crew accidently cut the fiber and half of the hospital satellite locations were offline. Clinics weren’t able to connect with specialists in the main hospital and they had to cancel appointments with patients. This hurt them because of lost revenue from having to cancel appointments with patients. Patients and healthcare staff also lost confidence in the hospital as a brand. And they were concerned about the reliability of the technology and whether it was something that deserved further investment.

Because of that, Kelly took a step back. She wanted to understand the true picture of what had happened with the accident, the current quality of the network and what her options were. She worked with us to help her determine her options, what potential financial investments may look like, how it would affect her short- and long-term capital planning, and what other healthcare systems like her’s were doing.

Kelly was open to a blend of options. Part involved upgrading her existing network. She then chose to connect to a second network so she had 100% redundancy and greater capacity. By working together, we’ve helped Kelly see that she has many options from which to choose. What worked best in her situation increased the performance of her healthcare network by 27%. Now her company CEO looks to her to use technology to drive higher revenues and put them on the map for being a cutting-edge healthcare system. The redundant network increased reliability by 2%. Most importantly, with Kelly’s leadership everyone has greater confidence in being able to serve the needs of patients and make them feel comfortable in their choice of providers.

When we give away the secret at the beginning, by talking about the outcome right away, people don’t have any reason to keep reading. They know the results and make an immediate decision about whether or not they need to keep going. Is this the outcome I want? If yes they may keep reading. But if no, they won’t waste their time.

By giving readers context and setting up the story through a formula that’s proven to work, we help them understand that it’s the process of solving customer problems that matters most. And that even if the story doesn’t wrap up with an ending exactly like the one they’re looking for, they’re more likely to believe that you understand their situation. That’s the first, and most important, step in building trust with a prospect and keeping an existing customer.

Pixar storytelling formula in action

Storytelling works because it connects with people emotionally. It makes our audience empathize with our hero, and root for him or her. People connect their own struggles with that of our hero. They don’t just engage with their head, they connect with their heart. And where people’s hearts lead, their heads will follow.

Give it a try and let me know in the comments below how it works for you.

Are you interested in creating a stronger brand story that you can turn into stellar customer experiences? Contact me and let’s talk about how we can help. Or follow me on LinkedIn, and  Twitter, and if you like what you see, Subscribe here for regular updates.

Photo credit: Flickr user Luigi Mengato

About Carla Johnson

Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands hasn’t gone unnoticed and the latest of her seven books, Experiences, sets the benchmark for a new era in marketing. Named one of the top 50 women in marketing and the incoming chair of the ANA’s Business Marketing Association, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking.

Today, Carla travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.