Storytelling Tips from Pixar: What We Can Learn from Hollywood’s Best Storytellers

Over the course of several weeks last year, story artist and filmmaker Emma Coats tweeted a list of storytelling tips that she’d learned in her tenure at Pixar. While technically aimed at aspiring film and TV writers, we can use many of these tips to improve our own brand and product stories.

Last week, Olga Kazakova shared some of the best brand stories ever, with lessons we can use to craft our own. Now that you’ve got your brand story figured out, it’s time to put it to use. And who better to learn from than one of the greatest collections of storytellers in Hollywood history.

Pixar Animation Studios has brought us some of the most memorable stories of all time, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Up and Brave. Working from Emma Coats’ list of 22 “story basics,” I’ve pulled a few that you can use to make your stories more meaningful and memorable.


#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be [very] different.

What’s interesting to you about your products or services may not be what’s the most meaningful to your customers. You may be drawn to technical specifications, little-known features or manufacturing processes, but your customers probably aren’t – at least not yet. Focus on what they’re interested in first, then support that with the details you find most important.


#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

Building on the previous point, I see the “theme” of your content as the core message, or what’s most important to your audience. Identifying what’s important to your audience can be hard. As you watch your traffic and conversion statistics (you are doing that, right?), see what content is the most successful. That’s a pretty good indication of what matters to your audience.


#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Give your web content, product descriptions and marketing materials a closer look. Look at each element closely and ask yourself, If I cut this would I really lose anything? Do you communicate the benefits clearly? Do you overly complicate descriptions? Are you providing new information, or simply rephrasing the same details and offers? Based on your answer, make an effort to provide clarity and remember that less can be more.


#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

This is exactly what Olga did in last week’s blog post. Take a look at the brand stories, advertisements and products that you or your customers are drawn to. What makes them work? Why do people love them? What’s unique about them? Identify themes that fit your brand, and see if you can apply them to your story.


#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Don’t settle for the obvious. Don’t try to make your writing sound like everyone else. When we write, it’s easy to fall into the styles we’re most familiar with – the generic, meaningless claims we hear every day about cutting-edge, premium, gourmet or designer products. No doubt you’ll think of these things first, but if you give yourself some time, better ideas will come.


#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

For the most part, people don’t mind vanilla, but it’s rarely anyone’s favorite flavor. Don’t be afraid to take a stand for your opinions, make bold claims about your work and tell the real stories about your products. But be careful. Try to avoid really contentious topics or inflammatory opinions, as they can often turn away more customers than they attract.


#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Put yourself in your customers’ position and think about their needs in the specific time or place that they’ll encounter your content. A customer who’s interested in learning more about a product has very different needs than one who wants to return that product – adjust your information and your tone accordingly.


#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

Not everything is going to work, but don’t be afraid to try. If your marketing ideas or product messaging isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change it up a little. Test out different offers or strategies in your marketing, and see if something sticks.


#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

This is a great exercise if you’re having trouble figuring out content for an ad, a blog post or even your brand story. Take a competitor’s work and break down the key elements. How can you change out or rearrange the information to fit your needs? I’m not saying to copy their work – in fact, I’m saying exactly the opposite. When you figure out exactly what makes up their story, it’s easier to tell yours better.


#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Once again, we come back to identifying the real story behind your products and your business. When you know who you are, when there’s a meaningful purpose deep down inside, the rest will come pretty easily.


Now, go out and start telling your story. If you get stuck, sit down and watch a Pixar film with your kids (or by yourself, we won’t tell). You’ll enjoy a great story, and you might just learn something.

To infinity, and beyond!
-Clay Delk


This post is part of our Method & Message series by Clay Delk.


Clay Delk writes about the intersection of copywriting, usability and design, and how it can help others create the best content to serve their users. Outside of work, Clay enjoys mantiquing, making furniture, homebrewing and doing things outside.

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