4 storytelling lessons from Pixar

The animation colossus has cranked out hit after hit, and another movie is set for release for in June. Here’s what communicators can learn from the free storytelling class by the master of narrative.

Whether you’re shooting a company video or writing up a press release, one word sums up today’s communications: storytelling.

How best to craft your beginning, middle and ending? Who would know better than the makers of megahits such as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Monsters University“?

This year Pixar, partnering with the online education provider Khan Academy, began offering a free video series on the art of storytelling. Even those of us who don’t sit in the director’s chair can find plenty of takeaways.

“There are few organizations in the world that can claim more expertise when it comes to storytelling than Pixar,” TechCrunch noted. “The Disney-owned animation studio is known for its ability to consistently create world-class movies with gripping narrative alongside stunning visuals.

As Pixar prepares to release “Cars 3” this summer, here are a few storytelling lessons from the studio:

Ask ‘What if…?’

Movies, Pixar notes, involve hundreds of people and take years to make. Few non-entertainment organizations produce video that ambitious.

Still, a simple question lies at the heart of storytelling: “What if…?” What if toys were sentient? What if a rat cooked haute cuisine? What if a Polish Roman Catholic novitiate discovered that she’s a Jewish Holocaust survivor?

The question invites the imagination into a story we want to explore, Pixar says. The best “what ifs” unlock a door, one Pixar director says.

“It really shuts down the logic part of your brain, and it lets you engage the dream part of your brain, and somehow it opens up the doors to imagination,” says director and animator Sanjay Patel.

Sure, but how does that relate to corporate storytelling?

Easy. A “what if” lies at the heart of Corning’s video series, “A Day Made of Glass” (26 million views since it aired in 2011). Or how about the Hamilton Health Sciences videos that answer the question, “What if the CEO had to learn your job?

Don’t just push messages; explore settings and characters.

Early in my reporting career, I sometimes did man-on-the-street interviews for a small Oregon newspaper. The assignments the editors wanted were important issues, but they didn’t always have great storytelling potential: sewer upgrades, city council (yawn) zoning decisions.

Two things made these stories come alive: an interesting character to quote and a visually stimulating setting. A street worker jackhammering asphalt and grumbling about taxes worked better than a guy at a desk. Quotes about a high school sports team were more savory from a dreadlocked restaurant chef who swatted a dinner roll across the kitchen with a baguette. Plus, in both cases the photos were better.

I had stumbled across a lesson from Pixar: “World” (the setting) and character matter. Think of WALL-E, a story of a robot romance. Combine a garbage planet and a robot devoted to the Sisyphean task of cleaning it up.

Character is the aspect of storytelling that most inspires Pixar story artist Domee Shi.

“A blind person forgetting his pants and going to work will have a completely different story than a seeing-eyed person forgetting his pants and going to work,” she says.

Others say it all begins with setting. Either way, it takes both a “world” and a character to tell a story.

Do you consider these elements when you shoot a video or write a story for the brand journalism site? Or do you fall back on wooden, talking-head interviews that give us little idea of your subject and the setting?

Tell it with pictures.

Filmmakers know must tell a story in pictures; narration should be used sparingly. Avoid excessive exposition in dialogue or (worse) a monologue from a talking head. Every image develops character and moves the plot.

In one lesson, Patel notes the powerful use of silence in the movie “The Killing Fields” (though you wouldn’t know if from the voluble trailer).

“It was a war movie, and there’s this whole section of this movie where the protagonist has to escape from bad guys, and it goes silent for like 30 minutes—it felt like 20, 30 minutes,” he says.

There are limits, of course. In a piece from our archives, PR Daily contributor Alek Irvin, draws the opposite lesson from silence. In horror movies, he warns, “Silence is never a good thing.”

Dead silence almost always indicates that paranormal activity will begin. He goes on, “Silence does not bode well in a crisis, either. A company’s silence insinuates the worst and gives critics a chance to control the media messaging.”

Learn from Michelangelo: Don’t sweat the early mistakes.

It’s not just people trying to dream up movies about robots and rat chefs. All storytellers are susceptible to writer’s block and frustration over awful early drafts.

The internet is full of advice for PRs and other communicators hoping to overcome writer’s block at a moment’s notice (paste an old story of yours on the page so it doesn’t look so blank) or kick writer’s block to the curb (go to clown class).

Pixar suggest that you not judge yourself too harshly during the rough draft stages. Check out the sketches of Michelangelo. Patel says a high school art teacher pointed out the drawings of Michelangelo. Mini sketches clutter the page—and the great Italian artist didn’t seem to feel ashamed of them, nor did he erase them. The genius lay in exploring and struggling to get it right, as we all do.

“It’s actually part of the process,” Patel says. “Get rid of your erasers; in fact, use your eraser to draw, not to get rid of something, because if you’re messing up, then at least you’re sure that you’re actually making progress.”

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