How to Sell through Storytelling

By Kyle Crocco

Imagine you’ve arrived at your big presentation. You’ve been preparing for weeks. All those countless spreadsheets have now been successfully turned into brightly colored PowerPoint slides. You grab the clicker and launch into your first point. Your customers lean forward, eager to hear what you have to say. As you click on the last slide, you arrive at one startling conclusion. You have put your customers into a coma. Not only have you failed to convince them, but not one person can remember what you just presented.

What did you do wrong?
You didn’t use a story to sell your ideas. If you want to sell your ideas, tell your ideas as a story. That’s the power of storytelling.

And this year’s NWFA Wood Flooring Expo’s keynote speaker, Matthew Luhn, has built his career on this very concept.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Crocco.

Luhn’s life story
Matthew Luhn, a former Pixar story artist and animator for 20 years who grew up in San Francisco, wasn’t born a storyteller.

Instead, he came from a long line of toy shop operators. His great-grandparents sold toys,
his grandparents sold toys, and his father decided toys were cool to sell, but being an animator at Disney would be cooler.

Matthew’s father drew and drew and drew – even while serving in Vietnam – but when he returned from duty, like a good soldier, he went back to work in the family toy store to carry on the tradition. And there, his father’s dream of animation died. Then, one day, he became sick, and Matthew, a 4-year-old, made a drawing of his father with a stomach ache.

Everything changed. Matthew’s budding talent inspired his father. His father made it his new goal to mentor Matthew to be the Disney artist he never had a chance to become. He showed Matthew how to draw, took him out of classes to see films, and even let him deface the Eiffel Tower with his drawings. Matthew became good enough to be accepted to the prestigious school of Cal Arts, which had been developed by Walt Disney to train future animators.

However, Matthew didn’t get hired as a Disney animator. Instead, he was hired to be a Simpsons animator. While he was there, he stumbled into the writer’s room and discovered his true desire was not to animate, but to create the stories. He also wanted to return to his hometown, San Francisco. So when Pixar called to offer him a job on the very first computer-animated film, Toy Story, he lept at the chance to move to San Francisco to work for Pixar.

Matthew was one of the first 12 animators at Pixar – but he still ached to be a storyteller.
So after he finished animating the toy soldiers for Toy Story each day, he would stay late to help create characters and draw storyboards for the story artists. Everything seemed on track for achieving his dream and entering the story department. Then Disney took one look at the first version of Toy Story, hated it, and pulled the plug on the film. With no film to produce, all the animators were let go.

Undaunted by this setback, Matthew found a job with a small animation company doing storyboarding for commercials and animated TV shows. He struggled to pay the bills, working in the family toy store like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him. But anybody who has fallen in love with Woody and Buzz knows that’s not the end to his story.

When Pixar called to say Toy Story was back in production and wanted him as an animator again, Matthew boldly asked to come back as a story artist. Pixar said no, that they didn’t need people in the story department at this time, but that they would keep Matthew in mind if things changed.

Matthew didn’t want to give up on his dream of being a storyteller. In the meantime, to pay his bills, he moved back in with his parents and even borrowed money from a friend to fix his car. Just when all seemed bleak, Pixar called again. This time, it was for Toy Story 2, and they wanted Matthew to work on the story team. The rest is a 20-year story of success working on films like Toy Story 3, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, UP, and Cars, among many others.

The best story wins in business
If you liked Matthew’s life story, it’s not just because it’s a good story; it’s because he follows successful storytelling patterns that he teaches in his new book, The Best Story Wins: hook, transformation, universal themes, and the three-part structure of setup, build, and payoff.
His life story begins with a hook, where he develops his character by establishing his desire for storytelling and showing the complications along the way that interfere with his dream – which get ever more dire – until finally the character reaches a climax and achieves his goal of being a storyteller for Pixar.

Along the way, the audience is captivated and moved as he loses his job and has to move home, but sticks to his passion for storytelling despite having no money. We all feel relief and happiness when he’s finally rewarded for his passion by getting the job in the end. However, it’s not just autobiographers who can use these storytelling techniques. Companies can use stories to increase sales, improve their marketing, and boost their brand. Leaders can use stories to become better leaders.

Steve Jobs used story when he introduced the iPhone. He hooked the Apple audience by saying this was a day he had been looking forward to for 2.5 years – he was finally going to introduce the iPhone. But then he brought everyone down by saying all smartphones before this were dumb, emphasizing the struggles of using outdated technology. Then he brought the audience up again by highlighting all the advanced features of this intelligent iPhone. And he continued to bring the audience up and down, showing the obstacles and how they were overcome, connecting with his audience through story – until he finally unveiled the phone, making an event so memorable, we still talk about it to this day.

And you can do the same. Join Matthew for the Opening General Session, May 1, at 4:30 p.m., where he will share how storytelling can help build your company’s brand. He will provide insight into creating new ideas, great stories, memorable characters, and stronger connections with your customers. If you follow the methods suggested from Matthew’s 20 years of experience helping create hit films for Pixar, you will truly make your mark in the industry.

Kyle Crocco is the Content Marketing Coordinator at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, and the lead singer of Duh Professors. He regularly publishes business book reviews and thought leadership articles on Medium, Business 2 Community, and Born 2 Invest.

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