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Author of The Best Story Wins

Interview: Matthew Luhn, Author of ‘The Best Story Wins’

Award-winning Pixar storyteller, artist, and writer Matthew Luhn has a message for CEOs, marketers, and business professionals: to capture your audience’s attention, you need to hook them with a great story. That’s the topic of Luhn’s new book, The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. We sat down recently to chat about what makes stories so enticing, why successful storytelling is crucial for businesses and brands, and how to structure a story anyone will relate to. Here is some of our conversation:

In your book, you write: “All people crave stories.” What makes stories so enticing?

Stories, when told well, are memorable, impactful, and personal. Strictly true or wildly made-up, great stories move people, regardless of age, gender, or culture. We are drawn to every kind of story, whether it is “You won’t believe what happened to me this weekend!” or “A priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a bar.”

Great stories intrigue us and entice us to listen. They put a voice to the things we want and believe in. We express our desires and our fears through storytelling. This telling is what gives us life and gives our lives meaning.

When we think of great stories, bestselling books or blockbuster films come to mind. But you stress that storytelling is crucial for businesses and brands. Could you expand on that

Whether for entertainment or business, stories help us retain information. When you share statistics, data, or information with people without a story, they only retain 5 percent or less of what they’ve seen or heard if you ask them about it ten minutes later. I’m not suggesting that you write a film script about your business or brand, but you should use all five senses to tell your brand’s story. And of all the five senses, visual storytelling is the most memorable.

Consider how the jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co. combines narrative, colors, typeface, and visuals to tell a memorable story. Their trademark robin-egg Tiffany blue creates the feeling of tranquility and escape, their typeface and logo feel elegant and sophisticated, and the photographs and images used in their stores, websites, and ads communicate love and romance. Altogether, these elements tell a memorable brand story that you know well—even if you have never shopped there.

When you embed your content in a story, as Tiffany & Co. has, the amount of information people retain instantly jumps from 5 percent to 65 percent. Not only do they retain it, they feel more connected to it.

What does science tell us about successful storytelling?

Along with being memorable, stories are impactful. Stories take us on a roller-coaster ride, a journey through high moments (happiness, exhilaration, surprise) and low moments (sadness, fear, anger, frustration) that actually affect our bodies on a chemical level.

Science has revealed that the chemicals in our tears produced by laughter are different than the chemicals in our tears produced by sadness. When we see or hear people—or even animated toys, robots, or rats—laughing or smiling, dopamine is released in our bodies; when we see or hear anything sad, cortisol is released.

When we place these sad and happy moments next to each other in a story, we build an amusement park ride for people’s hearts and minds. With ups and downs and tensions and releases, you’ve created a story that keeps an audience sitting on the edge of their seats.

All the decisions we make in life—from what shoes we wear, to whom we date, to what shows we watch—are based on who or what has made us feel something. Big or small, our decisions are made on the right side of our brain, which is triggered by our emotions, and the best way to make people feel something is through a great story.

Why is story structure important? What makes it universal?

From Homer to Shakespeare to Spielberg, great storytellers have all paid attention to story structure, and you should, too. Stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end are universal, crossing all borders and nationalities, ages, and genders, regardless of status or class. Why? It’s simply because everything in our world operates on a beginning, middle, and end cycle.

For example, the sun rises, gives light to the day, and then gives way to night. We are born, live, and die. We see flowers sprout, bloom, and one day fade. These cycles of a beginning, middle, and end are all around us and inspire the stories we tell.

It’s instinctive, and it’s an essential part of who we are. Every aspect of the human experience confirms it. Whether you are creating a ninety-minute film or a thirty-minute sales pitch, you need to incorporate a clear beginning, middle, and end, or you’ll run the risk of boring, confusing, or frustrating your audience.

You say that story heroes can drive sales and make personal connections with consumers. How do imaginary characters influence our real-life decisions?

Heroes have always been present in and central to storytelling, inspiring kids and grown-ups alike through their vision, bravery, and self-sacrifice. We find heroes in the first stories told by humans in every culture, location, and language. Heroes don’t have to be people; they can be animals, objects, or animated characters.

How many times do kids watch movies with an animated character or object and later want to buy everything connected to that character, like toys, cereal, or even shampoo? We see it happen all the time. When people connect with real or imaginary heroes, they want to drive the same car they drive, wear the same shoes they wear, eat the same food they eat, or live their lives differently.

To learn more about Matthew Luhn and his new book, The Best Story Wins, visit his website.

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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