Why We Need Stories
Henry Smith with Bobette Buster
I have been privileged to know Bobette Buster for a number of years now after memorably being the only person to confess having not seen Star Wars in one of Bobette’s story classes in Australia (I have since rectified the issue, thank you for asking).
Now residing in Los Angeles, it was my delight to spend some time with Bobette discussing all things storytelling in Hollywood, society and the corporate world.
Bobette you’re a story guru, tell me a little about your story.
Well, I’m from a small town in Kentucky in the middle of the United States. It’s a region renowned for its storytellers; Muhammad Ali was from nearby and Abraham Lincoln was very nearby — and that is just the cream of the crop!
My family lived in this idyllic, remote valley that meant for 150 years they were cut off from the rest of the world except by steamboat, and so the primary form of entertainment was storytelling.
I later left to attend university in Chicago where people would say, “Why are you telling stories all the time?” I didn’t realise that it was very much a Southern heritage kind of thing. This didn’t stop me from telling stories, but it did make me very appreciative of the times I would go back home. And I didn’t know it then, but I was mourning the nuances and the importance of storytelling.
Storytelling creates empathy and wonder and community.
Because of this I quickly discovered that storytelling was a connective tissue; it created empathy and wonder and community.
And so this was why you were brought into Pixar, right?
Right, so I worked at Pixar with some of the major storytellers there. As Pixar became more and more successful, they were hiring talent in all areas; software, animation, design. These were people who were experts in their field, but perhaps weren’t trained in narrative storytelling.
So Pixar wanted me to come in and really fill in the gaps! And that led to me being discovered by Disney and Sony Animation to help the animation teams, such as the team that created ‘Frozen’, to discover the story and know how to structure it.
In Hollywood, story is obviously the heart of the industry, but is there a role for storytelling in society?
My belief is that we are hardwired to be storytellers. That’s how we learn, that’s how we interact with each other; we tell stories. Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.”
I know for me personally, I always remember someone’s story more than I remember their name. We are hardwired to tell stories. It comes from sitting around a campfire; it creates community and connection, it breaks down ignorance and walls. It allows us to feel empathy, to understand something about someone that we would have otherwise never have known.
And this is what some of the greatest business leaders get; they tell a story about why you should engage with their product or their service.
So how do you see businesses using storytelling?
There is so much competition in the marketplace. Audiences want to know, ‘why should I care?’ And you see, ‘why should I care’ is the fundamental principle to storytelling.
So I personally care about a brand or service because of their quality and they are decent to their employees, and they are aware of environmental issues etc. Those things matter to me, and that’s the story I want to hear. I will choose a product, even pay more money, if I believe I am supporting a brand with that kind of attention to detail. I call this the story behind the story.
People want to know the story behind the story.
It’s not enough for me to buy a product or a service without a relationship to that product. And I think today’s consumers, particularly Millennials are very concerned about the relationship; they want to know the story behind the story.
Also I think telling your story creates a connection and loyalty. That’s the gold that you want; you want people to come back to you time and time again — and bring more people with them! You want them to trust you and give a good buzz about you.
Is this what you would see ‘viral’ as?
Oh yeah. Hollywood has understood this notion of things going viral since day one. The only way of a film truly succeeding is if people see it en masse. You can throw all sorts of money at social media or PR, but if the story is bad, it wont reach your audience.
So if not throwing money at PR, how do you reach an audience, and hold their attention?
First of all tell a story that is authentic, and it has to fresh. I use the term ‘audacity’ — it has to have something daring about it!
There are plenty of examples in the marketplace of how businesses are using storytelling to create connection and empathy. And storytelling creates this amazing thing; it creates a state of wonder and imagination — to be able to see yourself doing something better, or being better yourself.
What’s one practical way of doing this?
One area of storytelling that is so important is the willingness to be vulnerable; to be able to discuss weaknesses.
Who doesn’t know the story of Steve Jobs and Apple? He was fired from his own company because of his blazing arrogance. He went into a long wilderness and that is extremely important to understanding how he came back and then was able to make Apple the world-changing business that it is today.
Very similar happened in Hollywood to Walt Disney. He declared bankruptcy three times and had some incredible emotional upsets along the way. At the time of producing ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, no-one believed he could make it. No one believed you could have a feature length animated film. It took them years to finish and a lot of ups and downs, but he made it. And today it’s still one of the most wonderful films!
It is the ability to weather the storm through the long haul that it takes to achieve something. This is life itself. And this is what people are looking for in storytelling. Every business has had to go through challenges, and you have learned some powerful lessons along the way. People want to hear these lessons.
And how do you tell them? Through story.
For further reading, Bobette’s fantastic book (I can highly recommend!), ‘Do Story’ is available in paperback and eBook.
Whether you have a product to sell, a company mission to share or an audience to entertain, this book is jam-packed with principles of storytelling that will turn your story from good… to great.