How To Turn “Once Upon a Time” Into A Secret Storytelling Weapon For Your Business

I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Matthew after he gave his speech at the combined stage of Filmteractive and UX Poland in Warsaw last year. In his lecture “The Power of Story,” he talked about how we can use storytelling in business in order to build better brand communication and influence the brand’s audiences, as well as how to combine two seemingly separate worlds – fantasy and business—to win over the hearts of clients and engage them in a dialogue with a firm. I have further explored this topic during my interview with Matthew Luhn—writer, story consultant, and speaker.

Filmteractive Matthew Luhn
Source: Filmteractive press kit

Matthew Luhn: So we’re going to talk about story for business.

Edyta Kowal: Yeah, exactly. First of all, thank you for your speech because it was really cool and I’ve heard from my friends that they loved it, and I loved it too. I’m really impressed by the way you tell stories.

ML: I better do that or I’d be in trouble [laughs].

EK: It’s really cool, because Polish speakers often can’t do that, I think. And it’s sad. But that brings me to the first question: how to become a famous keynote speaker? You started as a Disney animator, and now you’re this guy who teaches people all over the world about storytelling. Does it take some special exercises, or…?

ML: Well, you know, it’s funny because I haven’t been called a famous speaker before, uhm… I would say that I… I’ve always been someone who kind of speaks from my heart and I did grow up with a family that were definitely good at being storytellers and sharing some funny and sad moments that were happening in their lives. So, I think I was surrounded by people who were comfortable with telling stories. So that’s the first thing. But I would say that when I was a kid, you see, my mom was in Germany, right? And so when my mom came to the States, she did not speak any English. This was early 1970s; everyone in Germany speaks English right now. When I was a little kid I had speech problems. By the time I was in school and I was 10 years old, I had to go to speech therapy, because I was at difficult time speaking in front of people, and I would get words mixed up, and then I became very insecure, so whenever I was asked to go up in front of class to talk or do a report I would turn right red. And it was even worse because my cheeks were very “German-red,” you know, the red things here [pointing to his cheeks]. It probably was because when I started working at Pixar, on Toy Story, you have to go in front of everybody and you have to pitch a story to people at the company. You have the director, Steve Jobs, the ambassador… And then on top of that I had all those pimples—I had really bad acne… But you know what? You do that a thousand times, you end up stopping fearing. And then, when I would be asked to do things like this, I first off get to know the topic well. And when you do anything thousands and thousands of times, you start to become more comfortable, and then you start to really, let’s say… You test out certain things on the audience to see how they react. And then you’re like, “Oh, I’m not going to do that next time,” or “I’m going to add something new this time.” And so, yes, the answer is—practice.

EK: Okay, but how many times, I’m curious, you repeat your speech before going in front of the audience?

ML: I’ve given this talk a couple of times, so when I first started giving these kinds of talks, I would sit in the hotel bathroom and I would put a chair in front of the mirror where the sink is, and I would put a timer on the sink and I time myself. Like yesterday, there was no clock, they told me I had 45 minutes and when I walked off stage and I looked on the clock in the back of the stage—it was 45 minutes. Because I’ve done it so many times, practiced it. But the thing is that while I give it, I know that sometimes the audiences are different so I may have to talk about something, to elaborate on something, or leave something out. So I always have to change it a little bit, also to make it greater for me. But I do realize that there are certain stories out there that would connect to the people all around the world. That no matter what culture, age or gender, it’s universal. So, those are my little tricks.

EK: Do you think that everybody can learn how to tell a great story—as good as you do?

ML: I think you can get better at it. And, you see, when we were all little kids, like when we were all five years old, everybody (for the most part) was comfortable being an artist and being a storyteller, and singing and dancing. When we were about 4–5 years old. There’s something that happens that once we get into school, things start to become competitive. And you start to see that someone else draws better than you, or writes better then you. And so you say “I’m not an artist, I’m not a writer,” and then you stop. It’s because of the fear of failure that you start shutting down your natural gift of being a greater person. So I feel that everybody has a natural gift inside, but there are people that never gave it up, and so they’ve had all these years to practice.

But one of the things I do is I have this little tool that I use that helps people to be able to get better at storytelling. And it takes them back to how they told stories when they were kids with “Once upon a time…,” and “every day…,” and “and then one day…,” and what I do is I say that everyone’s a storyteller, you just have to follow these, right? And so, you can end up creating a story, and all you have to do is just answer each one of these questions and continue it. Each one of these little statements forces us to have a beginning and an end. You see, “Once upon a time,” and “Every day” and “Until one day,” that’s Act One. And because of that because of Act One there is an Act Two, and then “Until finally,” and “Since that day” and there’s Act Three, and the moral of the story is the theme.

The back of Matthew Luhn's business card
The back of Matthew Luhn’s business card

EK: Okay, so here we have the perfect structure of a story.

ML: Right there. And it doesn’t scare a person, because they’re like, “I remember, this is like when you tell a story when you’re a kid.”

EK: You’re a consultant for filmmakers, but also for businesspeople. Do you teach them in the same way as filmmakers?

ML: So, then when you use this and you say, “OK, how can we tell the story of our company?” And you say, “Once upon a time there was an athlete whose name was Adi Dassler, and every day he would love to do sports and compete, until one day he was trying to help another athlete who wanted to run faster. So he figured out a way to put spikes on the bottom of his running shoes, and because of that other athletes came to Adi Dassler—“How can you help me to perform better in my sport, not just running—perhaps football?” And because of that, Adi Dassler continued. He started a company that helped build products to make people perform better at sports. And because of that he ended up partnering with his brother, who was very passionate about fashion, until finally they created their company—Adidas. And since that day, they have made shoes and products for people to be creative on and off the field. And the moral of the story is “When you follow something you’re passionate about, you can make a great company.”

EK: Is it the story you’ve came up with for Adidas?

ML: I do work for them a lot. So what I do is I will use this and companies should use this to be able to tell the story of their founder and how the company was started. You could also use this to tell a story around the product, let’s say a shoe. Well, how can you tell a story about a shoe? When you look at a shoe you want to connect it to a person, because the shoe is a tool that should be able to help a person to become a better athlete or feel more confident about themselves. So, I’ll tell you one more story: “Once upon a time, there was a 20-year old girl in the U.S. called Katherine Switzer. And every day she loved to run. Until one day, she wanted to win a race that women were banned to run in, it’s called the Boston Marathon. Because of that in 1967, she decided, ‘I’m going to sneak into the Boston Marathon race.’ And because of that the referees and the judges tried to push her out—physically push her out of the race. And because of that she continued to run it, she had some of the other people who were running in the race that were her friends pushing the judges and the referees away until finally she finished the race. And since that day the Boston Marathon race is for all genders, and also the races in the United States and in other parts of the world are not just for men. They can be for anybody. And the moral of the story is that competitive sports should be for everybody. And the shoes that she wore during that race were her favorite shoes, a pair of Adidas shoes. See? That’s what I do.

Matthew Luhn Interview
Source: Filmteractive press kit

EK: You said that once upon a time your father wanted to become a Disney animator but then he saw you make a couple of drawings of him and so he decided that you will live his dreams and become a Disney animator. How did this animation adventure help you become this guy you are today?

ML: Well, you know what, I started off with a family that was all about business. We sold toys, but it was about business. And then I was this kid who wanted to make movies and draw, I still am, but through working in film and TV I realized this could be for anybody, not just for entertainment but for business. My family had toy stores, which they still do. Another one just opened up this month. And so my job in the toy store is to create the experience, the feeling. How to get people into the store when they walk down the street. What’s the hook? What do they see in the window, the sign, what music do they hear coming out of the store so they’d go, “Let’s go in this store,” right? And then, once they get in the store, what kind of experience do you create in the store, from the things they see, the music they’re listening to, what they smell, what they get to touch, to what stories they get to read on the walls. To make them think: “Oh, I though all stores are the same, like Toys’R’Us, but this is making me feel different about what a toy store could be like.” And it’s authentic because up on the wall is the story of Jeffrey’s Toys, all the way back to the 1940s, and they’re making a connection with the toys because they’re like, “I used to have that toy,” and then they feel good because we have a popcorn machine, and it’s making popcorn (everybody loves the smell of popcorn). And they love the music because the music is like Pixar music and cartoon music playing, and all of the sudden they feel good, and when you feel good you buy things. It’s not a trick.

EK: You did it again, you used some patterns to tell another story and here is my next question for you – can you use these patterns with businesspeople and brands too?

ML: Absolutely. You know, when you decide which shoes to buy, and you’re looking at different shoe brands like Nike, Adidas, Under Armor, or New Balance. They’re all, you know, about the same amount, and then the reason why you buy a particular pair of shoes is because they make you feel a certain way. Either I like all the history of the company, I like the sports figures that are behind it, or the entertainers that are advertising the shoe. The main reason why you buy a product is because it makes you feel a certain way. That feeling is a story. A story being told through the history of the shoe, the brand, the people who made it. And people, especially from Europe, when they see a Nike shoe, they’re like, “That’s United States, that’s like Michael Jordan, it’s basketball which is very much from the States—If I wear that, I’m walking around with a little bit of the good parts of the U.S.” There’s a story being told. And with Adidas, the story being told is—it’s multigenerational, it’s the oldest shoe, sports shoe, right? It’s not just for sport, it’s for entertainment. It’s like everything from Run-D.M.C. to Kanye West, Thrill Williams. This is the same thing that happens when you buy a car, same thing that happens when you buy a computer, or if you’re a businessperson and you want to get people to give you money to make your startup company. And you go to a meeting with investors and you’re one of twenty different companies that are going to come and ask for money. Where are you going to make yourself memorable from the twenty other companies that are going to pitch? It’s going to be your story, your company story, your brand story that is going to be memorable. And if you just share with them how much money they’re going to make, that would be forgettable. You want to be able to seal the deal by making a personal connection with them. Personal touch. And we all know that we like to work with people that we like, we like working at a company that we feel proud about – that’s important to us. And when they also end up paying you well, it’s the bonus. But that is what great storytelling does. Can you tell about your journey? Why did you want to start the company? Like Adi Dassler? Can you tell how your product is going to change people’s lives? Like with Katherine Switzer and the Boston Marathon? And then the final thing I use storytelling for is to paint a picture of what a person’s life would be like if they decided to invest in your company or buy your product. What will their life be like? How will they be changed? And that’s when you end up sharing with them how much better their lives are going to be, how they will be more successful, happier, everything, if they end up investing in your company or you as a person if they hire you.

EK: Can I get a better job by being a better storyteller?

ML: Absolutely you can. I mean, storytelling is about educating people with information, it’s about entertaining people, but most importantly is about inspiring. And when you tell a memorable personal story you end up inspiring people and they want you around. They want to be a part of that story.

EK: You mentioned being proud of your company. Imagine you’re a great company with a great story behind, and you hire Matthew Luhn to learn how to tell that story better to the world. And you have employees, you have people working with you. How to engage other people in the company in telling that story together with you?

ML: Well, the first thing you need to do is you have got to make sure that everybody knows what the company is about. In eight seconds, can you describe what the company is doing? Take Tesla for example. What they’re doing, in eight seconds, is that they’re trying to create fossil fuel-free vehicles that look cool, and I think that’s it. What if a company could create fossil fuel-free vehicles that looked cool? That’s what the company is all about. Can you describe in eight seconds what is your company all about? And if you can do that then everybody at the company will be like, “I know what my company is about.” And then the next step is, can you describe what your job is within the company? See, a lot of times people feel disconnected from where they work because they don’t really know what their company is doing, they’re big-purpose and making the world a better place. They don’t really know what their job is within the company. They’re like, “I know I do human resources,” or “I’m a programmer,” but what they don’t know is how to answer a simple question of “Why am I really here?” And if you don’t know what your company story is or you don’t know your story within the company, or how your things are changing people, then all of the sudden you’re just coming in to get a paycheck. And then all of the sudden your heart is not into the job, and when you have a bunch of employees like that, your company has no direction and no heart. So what I do is, when I’m trying to get all the employees to be working together and be productive and happy, I make sure that everybody knows what the story of the company is, why they’re there and how they’re going to change the world. I know it sounds very simple, but it does take a storyteller sometimes to help remind them. And so I would go to a lot of companies to help clarify what their company does, what people do at the company, and how they’re going to change the world.

EK: Have you ever had a tough case, a company that you weren’t able to help or that one that didn’t end up using your advice on how to tell their story?

ML: A lot of times companies call me in to help them, and I’ll work all day with them or a couple of weeks with them to help them do this, then it’s up to them if they decide to stick to it. Or they have me come in to make sure they’re on the right track. Adidas has done a great job. I came in and started to work with them a year and a half ago and their stock just doubled last year. It’s because their story, of their company and their products, is starting to resonate with people. They’re just not trying to be Nike, what their story is, in eight seconds, that what if there was a shoe and apparel company that helped you to be the most creative you can be on and off the field. Not just a as sports person, but in all aspects of life. That’s what their story is now. And now everybody knows that and they can have better time understating what their job is at Adidas.

EK: And that was an example of a success story.

ML: Now, I would say that a lot of times, companies – especially the ones that have been around for a long time—have a little bit of a harder time saying, “Let’s do something new.” Like BMW. They’ve been around a long time, they’re very successful, so they are thinking, “Why should we change?” But the thing is that technologies change, the environment changes, things change in our social environment, and you need to make sure that you are adapting, that you’re innovating. So you just say to yourself, “We’re going to keep making diesel vehicles.” And now Germany is like banning diesel. And now BMW is like having to figure out, “Do we make electric cars when they’ve been laughing at Tesla; that will never pay off!” And now they are kind of shitting their pants. When you get to this place where you start saying, “No, we’ve never done it that way before”—that’s bad. You need to constantly be adapting and innovating. And to be able to do that you need to be constantly coming back and asking yourself, “What is the story of our company? What is our vision? What is the story of our people within the company? What is the story behind our product (even a car)?

EK: When you run a company, what is the right moment to think about this kind of strategy? About storytelling?

ML: I’d say that definitely before people start asking for it, this is when you want to innovate. You want to start seeing if you’re starting to get locked in to certain patterns. So, at Pixar Toy Story was very successful. It’s a “buddy” story. You must have seen some buddy stories: two characters that hate each other at the beginning of the story, they get stuck with each other in Act Two and have to work together and then in Act Three they become best friends. Like half of the movies every year in the whole world are buddy stories, right? So Toy Story was successful, but then there were another buddy story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo, and Cars. And at the Studio we were like, “We are starting to make a formula, we are making almost all buddy stories. We better do something different before people start saying to us, “Guys, all your films are the same.” So that’s when we started making films like The Incredibles, which was not a buddy story. Or we started doing things like Inside Out where there was no traditional villain. You have to constantly be forcing yourself to take chances, to take risks that may fail in order to be a truly creative company. And this is not just for entertainment, it’s for business as well. So when Adidas decided, “We are going to end up making shoes that are not going to be connected to an athlete,” like Kanye West with the yeezy shoe which is the most popular shoe this year, people would say this is crazy: “Who’s going to buy a shoe for like a thousand bucks?” But the thing is that, to be a truly creative company, you need to be disruptive. And when you just say, “I’m going to copy what other companies are doing; I’m just going to blend in”—you are not being disruptive, you are just doing what everybody else is doing. You need to take risks. Risks are scary, especially for big companies. They don’t want to lose their image that they’ve worked so hard building. Or all of their money stored in their treasure pile. But if you don’t do this, slowly your company is going to go from successful to just now doing this, a slow death. You need to constantly be reinventing yourself.

EK: Speaking about image and about my target group, PR professionals. Polish PR pros are now speaking very loudly about how they’ve engaged in content marketing. They want to be closer to it, but I have an impression that they’re not creating any content at all. But they’re trying to show that content marketing is what they’ve been doing all the time. Would you have any tips for them?.

ML: Well, I would say, going back to the roots of storytelling, of what makes a great story, and I would imagine that even in a newsmagazine, you always want to make sure that you have a hero and a goal, and a set of obstacles, and how they were changed. I’d imagine you need that in every news story. I know people want to sell magazines and all that but you still need to put a good story in it. I would imagine everybody working at a newspaper or magazine should have a good sense of storytelling and know the basics of not just writing and dialoguing and that stuff but how to craft a good story, I imagine that would be important. You guys can always call me up if you’d like [laughs]. You know, some of my favorite instructors and teachers that I have learned from about storytelling are people like Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell is great in a way that he has put together all the universal themes of stories people have been telling to each other for thousands of years. He’s great. Also looking at not just great directors and writers but at people who are great at teaching it, like David Mamet. He has written a lot of great books on how to write. Those are the people that I’m always learning from. But there does come a point where you just need to write and to learn from your mistakes. Just know that practice will make you better.

EK: In one of your interviews you said you felt like a “story prophet.” What is the most difficult thing about being a story prophet?

ML: Well, I would say that it’s important in every industry to make sure that you’re sharing what you have learned to be able to help people. I think it’s very bad when, as an artist or an inventor, or someone in business, you learn things and you just keep it to yourself. Pixar has done very well and The Simpsons have done very well, especially the early part of both of those companies, and I want to share what I’ve learned with people. To be able to help them be able to do whatever job they do better, for entertainment or business. The difficult thing with that is that everybody wants me to come out and do talks and share all that and I need to make sure that I still give myself time to continue to create. It’s important that I’m teaching and sharing it with people, but I don’t want to stop creating myself. I want to still continue to do things, the only problem is that there’s only so many hours in a day and I’m working on a couple of movies with studios that I’m a part creator of and I also have three children and a wife, so the biggest challenge for me is time.

EK: But you don’t drink four bottles of wine every night…

ML: No, I’m a very busy, very “German-work-ethic” kind of person so I’m very smart about using the time I have. So I do most of my writing on scripts in airplanes, I use that as my writing time, so then when I’m with my family it’s just family time. So, that’s the challenge for me.

EK: I’m glad that you said that you’re still doing a lot of animation work and staying on top of things in your field because I think that many people who are experts at the beginning and then become keynote speakers finally stop doing what they’ve been all along. And people end up hearing speeches from the same Coca-Cola guy about all the cool things he was doing in the 1960s.

ML: Yeah, that could be a dangerous thing because it can make you rest on your laurels, just talking about the things that you’ve done. I think for me, that’s why I’m trying to do both of them: I’m working on films that are going to come out and teaching still, because I do love to travel, I won’t lie. I love going to new places and meeting new people. But I’m still an artist, I’m still a creative person, I can’t stop doing that or a part of me would die.

EK: What will you be doing in 10 years?

ML: What I think I would like to do is I want to continue to be working in film or TV, I want to continue working on things that have a good story, I don’t know if they’re going to be family entertainment or if it would be more selective but I do know that whatever I’ll be doing in 10 years, it’s going to be something creative. And I will be working until the day I die. I will never be retiring because that sounds really boring. And I hope that I will be able to do this with my family somehow, that I can work them into that.

EK: So a family-run creative business then…

ML: Well, my wife is still at Pixar, she’s been there 10 years and she’s also a writer and a story artist. We do the same job. And it would be fun if we ended up creating something together as a team. That could be fun.

EK: Can’t wait for the results. Fingers crossed! Thank you very much.

ML: My pleasure.