Using a good story to make connections

Matthew Luhn believes all decisions, big and small, are based on how we feel. A good story is a powerful way to connect with those emotions.

He went from reading cartoons to writing and illustrating them. Now, former Pixar story supervisor Matthew Luhn is helping the likes of Google and Adidas tell their story and create a better connection with their customers.

Think of some of the best animation you’ve seen in the past 20 years, and chances are Matthew Luhn had a big hand in it. His family has owned a toy store in San Francisco for three generations, and the young Matthew was inundated with comic books, films and cartoons from an early age. It was no surprise that years later the son of a toy-store owner was the youngest ever animator for The Simpsons, and later worked as both an animator and writer for Pixar classics Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, among many others.

In the past couple of years, Luhn has managed to successfully cross the divide from entertainment into the world of business, and is in heavy demand as a storytelling mentor to some of the world’s biggest companies – Google, Charles Schwab and Adidas among them. 

For Luhn, stories are not about pure entertainment. They are a key business proposition. Thus far, he says, some of the world’s biggest corporations have yet to clearly articulate theirs. Stories need to be clear and authentic, and they need to stir our emotions. Businesses ahead of the curve will not be those with the best statistics or even the best products, but those that can bring their own emotional value to the fore.

In a world ever more confused by opinion and counter opinion, emotional power will become the great stand-out. Feelings, not logic, will guide everything from product choices to politics. There’s only one performance indicator that will matter, he says: “He who has the best story wins”, as he told INTHEBLACK. 

Alex Malley: Matthew, tell me a little about your childhood and early life at home.

Matthew Luhn: Most people are told they have to be a dentist or own a business. For me it was different. I loved to write and draw, and my family encouraged me. My family had toy stores and I had a pretty awesome childhood surrounded by toys, comic books and lots of movies. 

Malley: It sounds wonderful. Was your mother involved in the business as well?

Luhn: My dad was in Vietnam but was stationed in Germany for about six months, where he met my mom, who is German. They came to the States, got married, and they worked in my father’s toy store together. Unfortunately she passed away around nine years ago. My dad remarried and he and [his new wife] Rosie run the toy store now.

“New technology always inspires new art but art will always inspire the technology.”

Malley: Vietnam ... did he ever recount his experiences to you?

Luhn: It definitely wasn’t a pleasure cruise. He kept a journal through the whole war and shared the stories with me. My grandfather, who is 93, served in the Pacific. My great-grandfather was in World War I and, going back two more generations, my family was in the Civil War. As for me, the only thing I did was work as an animator on The Simpsons and at Pixar. I never fought in any battles!

Malley: At 19, you were studying at the Californian Institute of the Arts [CalArts] and an opportunity came up to work on The Simpsons. Take me through those early moments.

Luhn: As a senior [at school] my whole world revolved around watching movies, and then I heard about an animation school, CalArts, started by Walt Disney. I got accepted into the school because of the films I made in high school. Coming from a family that owns businesses and my mom from Germany, I had a pretty serious work ethic. I worked really hard that first year and made a student film that was seen by The Simpsons. When they offered me a job as an animator I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was the youngest animator ever and their youngest employee. I was kind of everybody’s little brother.

Malley: Did you realise what you had at that time, being only 19?

Luhn: These days I ask why wasn’t I going to parties, dating every girl and going crazy? But I was just a kid covered in pimples who loved to draw cartoons and read comic books. I soaked in everything I could from the studio. I’d even come in on the weekends to watch all the episodes to get to know the characters. I wanted to learn everything I could about The Simpsons.

From animator to storyteller

Malley: Your work with Pixar is legendary, but how did you move from illustration to being part of the storytelling crew?

Luhn: I didn’t realise that to make an animated film, you needed more than just animators. You needed someone to write the script, someone to storyboard it, to design the characters, edit and colour it. I soon realised I wasn’t the only one there on weekends. The writing team was there seven days a week. These guys were comic book artists and comedians. I thought the episodes were written by somebody behind a typewriter smoking cigarettes, just churning these things out. My revelation was that I wasn’t getting interested in the best animation, but the best stories.

Pixar's animators used behavioural science to bring characters to life.I also realised something else. After working in LA for a year, I couldn’t live in a city that was so devoid of trees. Everything is covered in concrete and there is so much traffic. Being from the San Francisco Bay area I had to figure out a way to get back home. Pixar was in the San Francisco Bay area and going to do something completely different. I knew some of the animated shorts that Pixar had made and the stories were really good. When they offered me a job as one of the first 12 animators on Toy Story I took the job.

Malley: You drew the scene in Toy Story with the little green soldiers doing their manoeuvres, and there were all these war stories your dad and your grandfather told you. How much of that was enveloped in your thinking on that scene?

Luhn: You’re right. When I was animating those characters I was thinking of my grandfather the marine and my dad the army guy. When I was thinking about the seriousness of soldiers – you know, “never leave a man behind or never leave a toy behind” – in a subconscious way all of that was working its way into the animation.

Malley: I’m also interested in your research on emotions. You talk about Pixar studying people’s pupils and consulting with psychologists. What have you learnt about evoking people’s emotions?

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Luhn: We all operate on feelings. That goes for our big and small decisions, what movie we want to watch, what car we want to buy, what financial institution we invest in. 

When you make an authentic connection with people and tell a powerful story, you end up increasing your chances of making them want to sit through that movie for 90 minutes; no matter how bad they need to pee or how hungry they are. Whatever the deal, you need to make the same authentic emotional connection with them.

In traditional 2D animation, they never had that data on the language of people’s faces and eyes. On Toy Story we had that knowledge; the subtle acting of the pupils was another way to connect with the audience. Even though they were toys, cars and robots, they were acting like people. Our brains would connect with the characters as real people, not just animations. It was a powerful tool.

Malley: What influence has technology had on the art, has it pushed the medium forward?

Luhn: When it was announced that Toy Story would be computer graphics (CG) animated a lot of people freaked. They thought you could just log on, press a button and animate. CG actually created more jobs. Finding Nemo would never have existed without the technology to make under water appear realistic. It made all kinds of new art possible. We artists would come up with, say, a rainstorm and the technical guys would be freaking out but they would always find a way to do it. New technology always inspires new art but art will always inspire the technology.

Storytelling in business

Malley: You’ve taken storytelling to the business world. Tell me about that transition and about the impacts you’ve had in the corporate sector.

Luhn: From day one working on Toy Story, I had one goal in mind: transitioning into the story department. I would animate during the day but spend all other free moments helping the people in the story department. When they saw my passion and desire, it led to work on Toy Story 2 as a story guy. I was involved in the characters and the themes, the plot and how it was all going to translate visually. I did 10 movies and two more specials as a writer and story artist at Pixar.

People began to request my help with live action, documentaries and TV shows, and that soon turned into “can you help us tell the story of our company?” My family had been doing that for over 60 years with their toy stores. 

I started working with companies like Adidas, Charles Schwab and Google. Lots of people had come in to help them with storytelling and marketing, but never someone who would share the tips and tricks we used at Pixar and how that could be applied to the world of business.

Malley: You’ve done a lot of work with Adidas. 

Luhn: They needed to rebrand themselves and, over a year-and-a-half, I worked with all the senior people, as well as every business unit of the company, to get them on the same page with their story. Now they are telling the story not just internally but in their stores, on their website, through their products and on anything going out on social media. In the last year, their stock has gone up 67 per cent. Something has radically changed for the company – they’re telling their company story correctly.

Malley: I guess you’re saying that storytelling leads you into believing what your journey is going to be. It is going to give you consistency and perhaps encourage innovation as well?

Luhn was thinking of his father and grandfather when he animated the soldiers in Toy Story.Luhn: You can tell the story of your company and its founders, as well as the challenges, obstacles and successes you’ve gone through. But you also need to train your sales people to share it. What led them to working at the company? Who are the people in their lives that respected them, which could be relatable to what they are sharing with clients? What about the client’s story? You can help tell their story, too. It helps seal the deal.

Malley: You have mentioned that you think the Mercedes-Benz commercial Snow Date is a great example of corporate storytelling. 

Luhn: When Mercedes put out that commercial about a boy waiting for a girl to show up for a date, there was that uncertainty: “Is she going to be there?” There is a little bit of love lost, this fear of abandonment, but then there’s also the surprise twist ending. Through the whole thing you end up seeing this Mercedes driving through the snow performing with excellence. You get the data and statistics through this compelling story. 
Other companies are tapping into our primal emotions to connect us to their product, their brand and their message. It’s about providing the information in a more subtle way.

Malley: There has probably never been a more interesting time in the US for politics. Do you think the art of storytelling is beyond the grasp of politicians, and is that why we are less inclined to believe people anymore?

Luhn: There used to be people who were authorities, but the internet has made everybody pretend to be an authority. We cannot decipher what is true or not anymore, when everybody has an opinion. That’s why I believe we will begin to make decisions through information that moves us. This can be used for good or bad, but we are going to base our big and small decisions on how we feel, even beyond logic. 

The best way to make people feel something is through a great story. We’ve seen this in US politics in the last year. In every great story you have a hero, you have a villain; the hero wants something and the hero goes through a change. It’s happening in politics, in business, in everything.

Malley: So what does the future hold for you? 

Luhn: I am putting all this into a book to come out in 2018. I might call it The Best Story Wins, or Toy Stores, The Toy Story! I am working on three films as a co-director and co-writer, and helping different organisations to be better storytellers and make emotional connections with people. 

Matthew Luhn will speak at CPA Congress 2017 in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth and Adelaide.

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