Presentation Tips: Pixar’s Andrew Stanton on Storytelling

One of the great–but frequently ignored–truths about presentations is that they require you to entertain your audience. That doesn’t mean that your presentations should be frivolous, that you have to sing, tell jokes or do magic tricks. But it does mean that you have to engage your audience enough to hold their attention, to give them a good reason to keep listening to you. And there’s no better way to do that than by telling them a story.

Storytelling and presentations are a natural fit. They’re the best way to connect with your audience and help them understand what you’re talking about. And they don’t even have to be that complicated. The simplest way to create a story for your presentation is just to ask yourself “why should my audience care about this?” If you can’t quickly come up with that story you really need to reconsider your whole presentation. But there are lots of ways to construct a story for your presentations. I’m always looking for a “hook” for my presentations? What will make my talk different enough for it to be memorable to an audience? How would they describe it to someone who wasn’t there? That’s a story, too.

If you want to learn more about storytelling, there may be no better place to spend 20 minutes of your time than this TED talk from Pixar’s Andrew Stanton. Pixar, of course, is one of the best and most successful storytellers of our time. The silent montage at the beginning of Up is one the best examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen. The first time I watched it I kept having to wipe the tears from my 3-D glasses. And Stanton has played a leadership role in Pixar’s films since the beginning, including as the director of WALL-E and Finding Nemo.

Just a warning, though. The joke he uses as an icebreaker to open the talk is not something you would find in a Pixar film. Kids and delicate souls may want to stay away. Everyone else can learn a lot here. Most of the examples of storytelling techniques he uses come from films, but everything he says about connecting with an audience and creating a successful story applies to presentations as well. Here’s a brief summary of some of the key ideas that link the two:

Storytelling is joke telling: There’s a good reason that Stanton begins with a joke. Storytelling, he says, is joke telling. They both engage an audience in an immediate way, and they both require you to know the ending you’re working toward. A joke moves towards its punchline and the stories you use in your presentations need to work toward achieving your goals.

Stories give meaning: The stories that we tell each other confirm deeper truths and help us understand who we are as human beings. Because of this people love stories and are inherently drawn in and entertained by them. I’d also add that stories are effective in presentations because they help you be more persuasive. Studies show that people are more likely to believe something you tell them in story format than they are when you simply provide them with facts. Storytelling causes an audience to suspend much of their critical thinking and simply absorb what you say as true.

Stories are what connect us to others: If you want people to care about something, tell them a story that illustrates why they should. Stories activate our emotions in powerful ways that are hard to duplicate otherwise. Stanton tells a story about how Mr. Rogers carried around a quote that said “there isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” In the TED talk this is illustrated in the slide (which you can see in the video preview about) that says, “Make me care.” You need to show why every audience should care, whether you’re trying to get them engaged with your movie, your characters, or the projects you’re involved with at work. The minute they decide they don’t care you lose them and they start changing channels in their heads.

Stories have to lead an audience somewhere: This should be obvious in presentations, but it isn’t always. You have to demonstrate that what you’re telling them is going to lead somewhere, that there will be a payoff and you’re not just wasting their time. Stanton calls this the “promise” of a story and says that “a well-told promise is like a pebble pulled back in a slingshot” that propels your story forward. What “promise” can you make to your audience to keep them interested? Have you created anticipation? Made them wonder what’s going to happen next? Will we find Nemo? Solve our IT problem? Creating this kind of tension is the surest way to make sure that they’re still paying attention.

Stories should require something of their audience: Audiences are much more likely to actually do what you ask them if they feel like they have a stake in what you’re talking about. In my own presentations, I like to involve the audience by asking them lots of questions and having having them come up with the answers themselves. That way they actually become part of the presentation and want it to succeed. Stanton talks about this in the context of the wordless sections of WALL-E, where the audience has to pay attention, figure out what’s going on. We’re born problem solvers, he says. “Audiences want to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. Your job as a storyteller is to hide that you’re making them work. Give them two plus two, but make them come up with four.”

Stories must be about change: There needs to be a primary driver for characters, and there needs to be a goal, an objective, for your presentations. Change is the force that propels all stories, and it should be the driver for your presentations. Otherwise, why are you there? One of the simplest kinds of stories, one that can be as simple as two pictures, is “before” and “after.” The basic story behind many presentations can be as elegant as “here’s the current situation, here’s where we want to get to, and here’s how we’re going to do it.”

“Wonder” is the secret sauce of storytelling: Stanton uses the example of the scene of Bambi and Thumper sliding across the frozen pond to illustrate the profound power of storytelling, the feeling of wonder that another human being can create in us simply by telling a story. Chances are that most of the presentations you attend (or give) don’t provoke that kind of emotion. But why not? Connecting with an audience in a meaningful way, telling them something that makes them feel like they know or understand you can be incredibly powerful and make it much easier to win them over to your cause. Making them laugh is a good start. Making them cry isn’t always appropriate, but it would be amazing!

Stanton himself tells a story about how he was born prematurely, which can’t help but make an audience empathize with him, then shows the clip from Finding Nemo where Marlin the clownfish finds the egg that will grow to be his son and promises to always protect him. Stanton says that this is an example of “using what you know” in storytelling. I think it’s even better as an example of using your own story to bond with and influence an audience.

The next time you have to give an important presentation, start by asking yourself “what story do I want to tell?” Then figure out how you can incorporate some of the terrific ideas from this talk.

Andrew Stanton on Storytelling

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