How Pixar’s Storytelling Rules Can Help Your Business

February 2023
February 2023

John Ashbrook

I'm a Senior Writer. I put words together to create sentences. Hey, I'm doing it now! If it needs words, the call goes out: "This is a job for John!" My red phone rings, I slide down my pole, switch my laptop batteries to 'power' and my turbines to 'speed' then I begin typing. What am I going to type this time, I wonder? Let's see ...

Once upon a time, after your kids decided they were too cool for story time, you thought you were done with storytelling, right? Wrong.

Storytelling is a major force in the way successful businesses market their brand. Let’s face it, every business person has a story to tell, right?

There’s the story about that final meeting with your old boss that finally made you decide to quit. Or, there’s that moment of epiphany when you realised where your real passion lay. That’s a great story.

Remember how it felt when you sold your first item to your first happy customer? Everyone loves that story!

Why do you do what you do? Why do you do it the way you do? What do you bring to the table that your competitors don’t? These are all stories worth telling.

Whether you use these principles in the blog posts on your website, in your social media posts, or when you’re talking to your clients – it’s all good. Storytelling is a powerful tool, however it is used!

And, believe it or not, Pixar’s rules for storytelling have real applications for your business!

Pixar’s Storytelling Rules

Pixar animation studio makes billions from its storytelling. If you laughed at Toy Story, cheered at Cars or wept at Finding Nemo, you’ll know just how powerful a Pixar story can be.

Back in 2011, a Pixar artist called Emma Coats tweeted the rules of storytelling that she had learned working on various projects and with various directors at the animation studio. This series of 22 tweets was quickly adopted as a storytelling playbook by creative writers the world over.

Well, since businesses also benefit from telling great stories, let’s apply the one to the other.

People love stories – we communicate with, entertain and educate each other through stories. If you’re pitching to clients, they will respond to a powerful story.

Storytelling is a great way of coating a selling message in sugar, so it’s easier for customers to swallow.

Terns of thousands of years ago, when we lived in caves like The Flintstones and wanted to warn our children about the dangers of playing with sabre-tooth tigers – we would gather them round our campfire and tell them a horror story about the time a sabre tooth tiger came for dinner.

Some anthropologists argue that we developed spoken and written language specifically to communicate important life lessons through storytelling. 

When you tell someone a story, they respond with identification and empathy, which greatly increases the chances that they will remember and respond.

So, use that to sell your products or services.

Let’s look at a few of Pizar’s  storytelling rules and see how they can boost your business’ storytelling.

And, don’t forget, you can see all of Pixar’s movies on Disney+. You’ll get a real insight in how these rules work in practice!

Right, are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then, we’ll begin…

Rule 1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes

CMA pixar storytelling rules - finding-dory

When you’re running a small business, it can sometimes feel like a fish out of water.

You’re lost, you have a long journey ahead of you, don’t know what challenges you’ll face and don’t even really know where you’re going.  At times, you’ll forget why you even started on this adventure!

But, as you continue to chart your course, you’re always trying new things, developing new ideas, finding new solutions – and that’s how you keep your business fresh and always moving forward. Try new directions, even if you don’t know where they lead … that’s the stuff that makes great stories!

Rule 2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience.

Never forget, you are not your customer. What fascinates you about what you do may not be of interest to the people who pay you to do it. Think about what your customer wants from you – what their pain points are – and tell stories that communicate that.

You may want customers to appreciate just how much work goes into running your business, how long the hours are, etc. But, do they care? No.

What they really care about is whether your product or service will solve their problem and take away their pain.

So, apply your own experiences. After all, you may not be your own customer, but you are someone else’s.

What do you expect from the businesses you buy from?  If they’re making you happy, do likewise to make your customers just as happy – then tell that story!

Rule 3: Rewrite.

Even professional writers rewrite.

So, don’t worry if you’re not really a great writer. No one expects you to get your stories right the first time. You might remember details as you go through and have to return to the beginning to add them in. That’s fine.

CMA pixar storytelling rules - turning red

Again, your customers don’t really care how long it takes you to create your story – they only read the finished version, anyway. And, don’t forget, you can always change your story later – so, if the first version doesn’t quite work but you know how to change it to make it better, go ahead and change it.

Rule 4: Once upon a time there was…

Every story needs a good structure, a beginning, a middle and an end – preferably in that order – and that story should be made up of a string of cause-and-effect events.

“And then this happened … So that happened … Which made this happen …”

So, when you create stories about your products or services, begin by creating a scenario your customers will identify with, a problem they will really experience, then show how you can help solve that problem. They will then feel motivated to hire you or buy your products. That, right there, is cause and effect!

Rule 5: Simplify. Focus.

When you tell a business story, know what point you want to make and ensure that you make that point clearly.

If your product has several features – tell a different story about each feature, don’t try to cram them all into one story.

One simple message, told well, is far more effective than a long-winded, convoluted story which covers every base.

You know those adverts for mobile phones that show you how simple a new feature is? Well, the next time you see one, read the smallprint at the bottom of the screen it will often say ‘sequence shortened’. That’s because they don’t want to have to show you the installation, setting up new accounts, opening endless menus, etc … They want to cut to the chase and show you the end result.

Do likewise! People respond to a clear, simple message.

In a complicated world where customers are constantly presented with confusing choices – simplicity sells!

Rule 6: What Challenges does your customer face?

Challenges are what make good customers. If your potential customer has a pain point, a problem they can’t solve, and you bravely swing in through the window in your cape and mask and sort it for them – you’re a superhero!

Such challenges also make for great stories. Describe the problems people face and have no solution for, then offer them the solution. Simple as!

People are most ready to buy a product or service when it answers a question for them, solves a problem or helps them out of a predicament. So, in your marketing, define those predicaments and how you can help overcome them. This particularly complements Rule 4.

Rule 15: Honesty lends credibility.

Yes, we’ve skipped over a few rules. But, that’s because we wanted to round-up our overview of Pixar’s storytelling rules by stressing the need for honesty.

When you’re telling stories to your clients they have to be true stories. Yes, you’re presenting the facts in a certain way, hopefully you’re making the story entertaining, maybe you’re exaggerating a few details for comedic effect. But, at its heart, it must be a true story.

Nothing is more powerful in storytelling than trust. So, be genuine.

People have a highly-evolved sense of insincerity, these days. If your stories relate to real situations and real emotions that real people have, real customers will respond.

And, with any luck, working for them will generate yet more stories.

ALL 22 of Pixar’s Storytelling Rules

CMA pixar storytelling rules - toy story 3

Because we knew you’d be curious, we’ve tipped open the toybox to have a good look at the full list of storytelling rules, here:

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  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.
  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.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  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.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth – get the obvious out of the way.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  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.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences aided and abetted by your characters’ choices don’t feel like coincidence.
  20. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it. If you know that, you can build out from there.
  21. You must identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the response you want from your audience? Hoping to see what will happen to YOUR characters? That’s empathy, that’s storytelling.

We think of them as a bit of a creative writing buffet. You don’t have to consume them all, just pick and choose the ones that appeal to you. Any of them will help you in your storytelling.

John Ashbrook

I'm a Senior Writer. I put words together to create sentences. Hey, I'm doing it now! If it needs words, the call goes out: "This is a job for John!" My red phone rings, I slide down my pole, switch my laptop batteries to 'power' and my turbines to 'speed' then I begin typing. What am I going to type this time, I wonder? Let's see ...
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john connor

But, whatever story you’re telling, it’s better with a cute, friendly robot! Or a cyborg.