With Matthew Luhn, Pixar animator and storyteller from films Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Up, Cars, & Ratatouille, Author of The Best Story Wins
We all make up stories to get the things we want in life from our parents, teachers, bosses, etc. But do we really know how to tell a story that gets the sale? To find out, Steve speaks with Matthew Luhn, who has shared story credits on popular films such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Up, Cars and Ratatouille, over his 25 years at Pixar Animation Studios. Luhn’s new book, The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond, shows us how to adapt Pixar-style storytelling to succeed as entrepreneurs, marketers, and business-minded storytellers.
Enter Steve Jobs
Luhn joined Pixar when he was about 21. Back then, it was called the Graphics Group and consisted of ten people who were testing out computer-generated animation at George Lucas’ studio. They had made a few animated commercials and had won an Academy Award for Luxo Jr.
Around that time, Steve Jobs was fired from Apple. Looking for something to do, Steve was intrigued by Lucas’ small group of engineers and artists and decided to buy it out in 1986. And that was the beginning of Pixar as we know it.
Jobs was a consummate storyteller. When he introduced the first iPhone in 2007, his presentation wove a story that enthralled his audience.
Storytelling For Success In Everyday Life
Matthew Luhn’s purpose behind writing The Best Story Wins was to show people how to adapt good storytelling techniques into everyday life. His book shows you how to make dry, analytical business data more interesting and memorable through better storytelling.
For instance, after Toy Story became the highest grossing movie in 1995, Pixar’s employees—artists, engineers, and technical people—wanted to know if Pixar was going to make a live action film, video games, or a TV show.
In responding, Jobs could have pulled out a chart or a whiteboard and tried to explain why over-leveraging would be bad for the young company. Instead, understanding that that would bore his creative audience, Jobs shared a story.
His story was about an excellent sandwich shop run by a husband-wife pair near Apple’s campus. Patrons would wait in line for as much as 45 minutes to get their hands on those handmade sandwiches. A few years later, the couple leased space next door and added a bakery and a coffee shop. Soon after, Jobs found that the sandwiches didn’t taste so great and the coffee was just mediocre. Gradually, the lines dwindled. A few months later, the business failed and the couple had to shut down the sandwich shop, the bakery, and the cafe.
Everybody at Pixar understood the lesson. Jobs did not have to talk until he was blue in the face, trying to convince people of facts and figures. He cleverly leveraged the power of storytelling.
The Story Spine
In The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond, Matthew Luhn says a story must have a spine with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The spine is like act one, act two, and act three in a film.
For example, Finding Nemo uses three acts to tell its story. In act one, a barracuda attacks Nemo’s family, leaving just Nemo and his dad as survivors. This makes Nemo’s dad overprotective of his only son, keeping Nemo from going to school or playing with other fish. In act two, Nemo defies his dad, swims to the top of the ocean and gets fish-napped by a scuba diver. Act three is about Nemo’s dad realizing, through a series of events, that his son is now capable of taking care of himself, so the dad learns to let go.
This well-developed spine keeps the audience engaged and keeps the presenter from rambling.
Steve Pomeranz’s Story
Steve tries this technique to tell his own story. In act one, young Steve worked for a stock brokerage company but was unhappy because his firm was focused on making money for itself, not for its clients.
In act two, the company decides to close Steve’s division and offered its brokers the chance to keep their clients. At this point, Steve had a decision to make that would either kill the story or make it, says Matthew Luhn.
Steve decides to start his own company where clients came first and there were no conflicts of interest. In act three, Steve develops his company, adds a radio show to spread his ideas, and tastes success. Steve’s clients are also happy to be with him.
Luhn lauds Steve’s storytelling as succinct and complete!
Universal Story Themes
In The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond, Luhn speaks of the universal story themes of love and belonging, safety and security, power and responsibility, fun and playfulness, and awareness and understanding. These are themes that people can relate to, and they help a movie succeed.
To illustrate, audiences of all ages, not just sci-fi fans, connected with a film like Wall-E. That’s because its core theme, about the last robot on Earth wanting to fall in love, is something everyone can relate to.
So, whenever you want to connect with people or give a talk or presentation, think about something your audience can relate to. To learn more, read Matthew Luhn’s book, The Best Story Wins. And to keep hearing interesting conversations that can help you succeed in life, tune in to the Steve Pomeranz show on the radio or online at StevePomeranz.com.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily of the radio show. Interviewee is not a representative of the radio show. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by the radio show.
Steve Pomeranz: As far as I’m concerned, we are all in the business of selling. As a matter of fact, if you want to get something in this life, you probably have to develop a compelling story in order to get it. You sell to your parents, you sell to your siblings, your teachers, your boss, your significant other, but do we really know how to tell the story that gets the sale? Well, I came across a wonderful book by Matthew Luhn, somebody who has been creating stories for some of the most popular films of the generation, Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Up, Cars, Ratatouille. Matthew Luhn has been sharing story credits on a whole range of films during his 25 years working at Pixar Animation Studios. Yes, Pixar. Obviously, he knows a little something about storytelling. Let’s meet him. Matthew, thanks for joining us.
Matthew Luhn: Oh, thank you, and thank you for that introduction. I usually just tell people I make them cry for a living ‘cause if anybody out there has seen a Pixar film, yes, I’m one of those story people responsible for making you cry in front of your children and your movie date when you see a Pixar film.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, listen I think I cried too, so-
Matthew Luhn: Yes.
Steve Pomeranz: I”m not unashamed. But wasn’t it one director, I think, was it Frank Capra who said he got it wrong when he was making movies? He thought it was about making the actors cry, but it was really about making the audience cry.
Matthew Luhn: Absolutely. I think we see that all the time when we’re watching a movie or a speaker, and we see them start to weep and get emotional. But we’re not feeling it, and then we feel manipulated, right? I think there’s a lot of truth in that Capra statement that it’s about making the audience cry.
Steve Pomeranz: You pack your advice into your new book. The book is The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling and Business and Beyond. I get the And Beyond thing here. When did you join Pixar?
Matthew Luhn: So I joined Pixar, I was about 21. This was before Toy Story got made. This was when Pixar was still, to be able to make a profit, were animating Gummy Saver commercials and mouthwash commercials. But they had a few animated shorts that they had made, one with a bouncing lamp and a ball.
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, we all know that one.
Matthew Luhn: That [LAUGH] Yeah, that had won an Academy Award. And they had the dream of making the very first computer-generated animated film, Toy Story. And I was brought in as one of the first 12 animators on that film.
Steve Pomeranz: Wow, was Steve Jobs part of that way back when?
Matthew Luhn: Oh, yeah, Steve, he was pretty much at the beginning. Not to bore the listeners too much but the company Pixar was actually created by George Lucas, the guy who created Star Wars. The Pixar department was just a department of about ten people at George Lucas’ studio that were testing out how to use CG animation in special effects. Steve Jobs, after he was fired from Apple, wanted to pursue what else could be done with computerism and he heard about George Lucas’ small group of engineers and artists and he basically purchased up all of the intellectual property, the employees, and that was the beginning of what we know of as Pixar.
Steve Pomeranz: So, Steve Jobs himself was a consummate storyteller. You describe in the book how he first introduced the iPhone. Tell us that story quickly.
Matthew Luhn: Sure. So absolutely, Steve was a great storyteller. And when he pitched the iPhone over ten years ago, he used the same principles of storytelling that keep you sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen next, by having these happy moments and then these kinds of low moments in his talk. And how he did that was sharing what was the ordinary world at the time, if you were to have a cell phone, a smartphone. And then how it can be extraordinary and happy if you purchased his. And the three points he hit on that made his phone better was that you’ll be able to go on the Internet on your phone, that you’ll be able to use multi-touch, to be able to swipe through your phone. And that you would be able to easily install apps, all things we take for granted now, but at the time, they were revolutionary. And when Steve ended up delivering that pitch, he did the same thing we do in a great movie which we take you through these highs and lows. Kind of releasing dopamine, then oxytocin, and back and forth and that’s what a great storyteller does.
Steve Pomeranz: All right, so we want to translate these ideas to everyday life because that’s the purpose of the book, you’re trying to help us understand how to be more convincing, how to get more of what we want through great storytelling. By the way, my guest is Matthew Lund, the book is The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. Matthew has worked for Pixar for about 25 years, and also before that, very quickly, you were working on The Simpsons as well as an animator, and that’s all in the book. Very interesting how you got started there. So you got an early start if you started at Pixar when you were in your early 20s. So congratulations on that.
Matthew Luhn: Yeah, I started working on The Simpsons when I was 19. I was the youngest animator on the show on the third season.
Steve Pomeranz: Incredible. Yeah, so let’s get into, where do you want to start on this? I mean, there’s common elements that all good stories share. There are universal story themes and other ways of approaching the idea of building your story for your product or your services of whatever. Why don’t you take it from here and tell us how to do that.
Matthew Luhn: Well, there’s many different ways that we can use storytelling in the world of business to be able to make better authentic connections with people and to be able to get people to remember information better, to make it more memorable. And so there’s going to be times when you want to use those storytelling principles to tell the story around your company, the founder, how you guys started, or there might be a time when you want to share a story around yourself, something you experienced that taught you about teamwork or innovation.
I think the most common way that we use storytelling in business is through metaphors. I think we all know the challenge of wanting to share information that may be too analytical and people don’t get it. Or if we’re on the receiving end and we’re at a keynote or a Powerpoint presentation and someone is talking to us for, oh gosh, who knows how many hours, and it’s so analytical and so dry that we’re just left remembering nothing, and we’re not impacted at all. And so, when you use storytelling, you can make information more memorable. You can make it more impactful, and you can make it more personal.
Steve Pomeranz: So give me an example of that.
Matthew Luhn: Sure, so when Toy Story came out, it was the highest grossing movie in 1995. This blew us all away at Pixar. But at our very next company meeting, when Steve Jobs, the owner of Pixar, came up on stage, and everyone was so hyped up and excited, Steve asked if anybody had any questions. Now remember, Pixar was full of artists, engineers, technical people, managers, and people had a lot of questions. And the questions were things like, are we going to make a live action film at Pixar? Are we going to make video games? Are we going to make a TV show?
Everybody wanted to immediately just go from one animated film to doing everything. And at this point, this is really what makes Steve and a great storyteller stand out: Is Steve could have then pulled out a chart, pulled out a whiteboard, and started explaining to everybody how over-leveraging is bad when you’ve just started a company, and you’re just new, and you’ve had just one success. But he didn’t because he knew the audience, and he knew it was probably going to bore us. So instead, he shared a metaphor, a story. And the story started off where Steve shared that when he used to work at the Apple company before he was fired that he used to go to the same sandwich shop every day that was run by a husband and wife in Silicon Valley because he loved the sandwiches and everybody in the area loved the sandwiches.
They would wait 45 minutes, they’d get a sandwich, gobble it down and then zip back to work. And then one day Steve came into the sandwich shop still run by just the husband and wife. And he saw that they had leased the building to the right and left of them. That they had also opened up a bakery and a coffee shop while still running the sandwich shop. And Steve went to get a sandwich, waited in the long line, and the sandwich didn’t taste so great. And then he went to the coffee shop; the coffee was mediocre. Then he went to the bake shop, and it wasn’t good either. And so Steve just, next time he was going for lunch, he just didn’t go. And then a couple months later, when he drove by the three buildings, they were all out of business.
Steve Pomeranz: The lesson of the story, the moral-
Matthew Luhn: Exactly, the moral of the story is don’t over-leverage when you are just starting off.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay.
Matthew Luhn: And everybody in the audience at Pixar, artists, engineers, technical people, no matter how analytical they were, or how abstract they were, everybody understood the lesson because of the story. And how many times do you talk till you’re blue in the face trying to convince people of the facts and the figures, but there’s a power in storytelling where everybody gets it.
Steve Pomeranz: We’re going to be back with Matthew Lund, the author of The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond, to find out more about the power of storytelling.
Steve Pomeranz: I’m back with Matthew Luhn. Matthew is the author of the new book, The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. Matthew Luhn spent 25 years with Pixar Animation Studios, and he’s back to talk about how to improve your storytelling to get what you want. Welcome back to the show, Matthew.
Matthew Luhn: Okay.
Steve Pomeranz: Good. So, in the book, you describe something that you called the story’s spine.
Matthew Luhn: Yes.
Steve Pomeranz: And you explain it pretty well. Would you take us through that, please?
Matthew Luhn: Sure, sure, you know, the story spine, I first heard of the story spine when I was taking improv classes, and when I started the improv class at Pixar called”The Improbables,” I started using the story spine. And the reason why we would use it in improv is because it was a simple exercise that prompted you to have a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, and you could make it up by the seat of your pants, and you would still have a story.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay.
Matthew Luhn: And I started seeing that the story spine, which is so familiar to us, it goes like this: Once upon a time and every day until one day and because of that because of that because of that until finally since that day…and those prompts you fill in the rest of the beginning of that sentence and, you know, we would do this in improv and be fine. But then I started to realize that those same steps in the story spine are act one, act two, and act three in a film.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Matthew Luhn: You know, the steps that we use, the story-structure steps that we use to make a film, and that have been used in storytelling for many years. All of that same story is fine. Let me give you an example. For example, the movie Finding Nemo—if there’s anybody out there who’s seen that movie, hopefully.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Matthew Luhn: Once upon a time there was a father fish that had just gotten married. He’s going to have a bunch of kids. He’s so excited. And they just got a new sea anemone house, a great view of the ocean, and a barracuda attacks, kills his wife, all of his babies, except for one, who’s left with a damaged fin. So I’ve just done the once upon a time.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay.
Matthew Luhn: And every day, years later, this father, being he just lost his entire family, is so overprotective, to protect his one last child, Nemo, he protects him so much he won’t let him go to school or play with his other friends. And then we hit the third part, until one day, Nemo defies his dad, swims to the top of the ocean and gets fish-napped by a scuba diver. So, you can see I just did the three parts, and then when you get to the and because of that, now you’re in act two and because of that, the father, this overprotective father, he ends up heading out to rescue his son with the help of a fish with a very bad memory. And after that, he ends up facing sharks, and anglerfish and all kinds of dangerous things in the ocean, and because of that, he finds his son in Sydney, in a dentist’s office, and sees that his son is dead in a plastic bag.
Steve Pomeranz: Mm-hm.
Matthew Luhn: And we as the audience know Nemo is pretending he’s dead to get flushed down the toilet to get to the ocean. For dad, he thinks that he’s responsible. He caused this. And so finally, the dad ends up just not even wanting to live anymore. But his friend Dory ends up telling him Nemo is not dead, he was just playing dead. But he’s in the net, and he’s caught, we need to help. And that’s when we find them all get caught in the net and Nemo knows, is the only one who knows, how to escape and dad needs to trust him. He does and since that day, now they’re back home, the father ends up letting Nemo go to school, Nemo’s happy, he’s immersed with the other kids and Dory, the secondary character, she has a home now. So I told you the whole story in about a minute.
Steve Pomeranz: Yes, right, right.
Matthew Luhn: With this story spine, and what the story spine is so great about is it keeps things simple. It’s when we tell stories, how often do we ramble?
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Matthew Luhn: You know?
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Matthew Luhn: I love my mom, but boy, when she would tell me a story, once she hit act two it could go on for who knows how long. And I’d just be all, Mom, get to the point.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay, so hang on, Matthew. So, let me try here. So-
Matthew Luhn: Okay.
Steve Pomeranz: Because I read the book, and I started to think about it. So my own career and the radio show and all of that basically started when I decided that no longer did I want to continue to do business as the stock brokerage business the way it existed 20, 25 years ago, and I needed a change. So that was the once upon a time, there was this young man who didn’t like the way things were. And every day I would go to work, and I would be very unhappy and I would see that clients were really not being served the way I thought they should. The accent was on the wrong thing. It was on the company making money, not the clients making money. Until one day I got an opportunity to change because the company I worked for decided to close their division outside of New York, and they said take your clients with you.
And I had a choice to either go back to the brokerage industry or to start my own company which I did the latter. And because of that I was able to develop a company that serves clients first, that did not have conflicts of interest with regards to compensation. And I was able to develop a radio show to further those ideas and to communicate those ideas. Until finally, well, the story still has to be told, but finally the business became extremely successful and since that day, clients and myself have been happy campers. How did I do?
Matthew Luhn: That was awesome. One of the things that I always love is that when you hit that until one day, that’s the part of the story where the journey can begin for the hero or they can quit. So at that point when the business said we’re closing up shop, you can take your clients and leave, you could’ve said, ah. I quit.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Matthew Luhn: I’m not going to do anything anymore, and that’s when a story dies. But a story ends up really heading forward when the hero decides to take that good or bad thing that’s come into their life and set off on a journey to do something new.
Steve Pomeranz: To do something new.
Matthew Luhn: And that’s what you did.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, that the incentive to change, has to be-
Matthew Luhn: Absolutely.
Steve Pomeranz: Has to be a force in the story. Now you say—we don’t have a lot of time—but you say there are six universal story themes, and I’m going to read through them, and I want you to pick one or two. Love and belonging, safety and security, power and responsibility, fun and playfulness, and awareness and understanding. Take one of those and-
Matthew Luhn: Sure. Sure.
Steve Pomeranz: Give us an idea of the story built around it.
Matthew Luhn: So those universal themes, whenever you want to connect with a lot, a lot of people, like a Pixar film, you want to use a universal theme that people can relate to. This is why if you don’t do this, you get a film that just doesn’t connect with people.
Steve Pomeranz: Mm-hm.
Matthew Luhn: And so, when you think of a film like Wall-E, usually, not everybody can connect with a sci-fi film. Star Wars, obviously, was very successful, but usually a sci-fi, space, kind of film doesn’t always land with everybody, but Wall-E did, and it’s because the universal theme is about the last robot on Earth that wants to fall in love. And that is something we can all relate to.
We have all, hopefully, at this point, have had our first kiss. We’ve all experienced love, we’ve also experienced what it feels like to have our heart broke. And so, whenever you want to connect, you’ve got to do a talk, you need to do a presentation in front of a lot of people, think about something that they can all relate to. Maybe it’s about being a parent or being a kid. And what it’s like when you want safety and security for your family. Isn’t that a great place to jump off from for anybody in the health insurance company or the financial institution about safety and security through health or finances. So, now all of the sudden you’re sharing a principle that’s, you know, something that’s important to your company, but you’re using a universal theme that makes it human…
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Matthew Luhn: …that makes it relatable. You know?
Steve Pomeranz: Beautiful, beautiful ideas. The book is The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. My guest is Matthew Luhn, former animator for Pixar. Now you’re a keynote speaker, quite active in that area. Are you working on any other animation projects?
Matthew Luhn: Yes, so I just finished working as a writer on an animated film that’s coming out soon, and then I’m working as a writer and a producer on another animated film that’s getting pitched around in Hollywood right now.
Steve Pomeranz: Mm, great, well-
Matthew Luhn: So oh, what I enjoy to do is, as an artist, as a writer, I need to keep creating.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Matthew Luhn: I need to keep writing, I need to keep drawing, I need to keep making things. But the thing I love to do is the people in the business world, how often did they get somebody from the film world or the entertainment world to share the secrets of making great stories?
Steve Pomeranz: Well, your specialty-
Matthew Luhn: And so I love to do that.
Steve Pomeranz: Your specialty is storytelling. And as I said in the opening of the segment, it’s life and getting what you want is all about storytelling. As a matter of fact, if you have a question about what we just discussed and want to hear some more stories to tell and other segments to hear, got a money issue on your mind, don’t forget to join the conversation by joining us through our website which is stevepomeranz.com.
And while you’re there, sign up for our weekly update, where we’ll give you a rundown of everything that we’ve been doing for that previous week, including Matthew’s segment will be on there as well. And we’ll have all the links for Matthew and, as a matter of fact, you can also get to Matthew at Matthewluhnstory.com. Hey, Matthew, thank you so much.
Matthew Luhn: My pleasure, thank you.