Lessons In Storytelling From Pixar

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Everyone has a story—and, women, we really need to hear yours.

The world of business is far from equitable for women and men (not to mention for people of color). The stories that we have long been told don’t line up with our experiences. But so far, they are the only ones out there. If our stories remain untold, no one knows what we have gone through to get to where we are, no one cares and, it goes without saying, no one will feel motivated to create change.

Collectively, sharing our stories moves us toward solutions. If we bring together different stakeholders and people to listen to each other’s experiences of professional triumph and defeat, we build a base of commonality from which we can work together. And most importantly, the dialogue itself brings up new approaches as we piece together learnings from each of our experiences.

On a more personal level, telling your story and taking the time to reflect on the key moments of your career journey thus far will build your confidence and comfort in sharing with others. Storytelling is truly a leadership skill and is critical for building your credibility which extends through your personal brand and for influencing change across the company you work for.

Sharing your story— the good, the bad and the ugly—gives you the visibility to begin influencing your place of work. By simply telling a story that illuminates your experience as a woman in business, you can plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into your listeners’ brains around the barriers you have faced, the support you have received, and the systemic issues that need to be resolved to create a workplace that works for all. As Oprah Winfrey described it in her iconic 2018 Golden Globes Award Speech, “what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”

Think about a significant moment in your career that taught you a really valuable lesson or prompted a big change in your life. Use the tried-and-true story frameworks below to break it down and pinpoint key messages to share that are both memorable and can inspire action.

Framework #1: Once upon a time...

The four-step structure of a typical narrative that begins with “Once upon a time…” and ends with “And they lived happily ever after.” It forms a mental map that helps you take in new information. Try to make your Once Upon A Time story future-oriented so you land in a place where you can share where you are going and what could be.

  • Beginning (Once upon a time..)
    • What is the context or background for the story?
  • Problem
    • What issue arose that you had to deal with?
    • Why was it a problem and who was affected?
  • Resolution
    • How did you resolve it?
    • What personal strengths did you call on?
    • Who supported you or held you back?
  • Ending (And they lived happily ever after…)
    • What was the outcome?
    • What do you want to happen next?
    • Who do you want to help you?

Framework #2: The Pixar Way

The Pixar framework is a great way to tell a story because it goes beyond the solution and into the impact to truly add unique value. This approach is built around the concept that stories that are memorable will travel further and inspire greater action. Even Khan Academy uses the Pixar storytelling method to help younger kids learn the mechanics for telling a memorable story as storytelling helps improve their language skills, instills a love of reading and stirs their imagination.

The format goes like this:

  1. Once upon a time…
  2. Every day…
  3. One day…
  4. Because of that…
  5. Because of that…
  6. Until finally…

In his book, To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink uses Finding Nemo as an example for the Pixar pitch framework:

  • Once upon a time, there was a widowed fish named Marlin who was extremely protective of his only son, Nemo.
  • Every day, Marlin warned Nemo of the ocean’s dangers and implored him not to swim far away.
  • One day in an act of defiance, Nemo ignores his father’s warnings and swims into the open water.
  • Because of that, he is captured by a diver and ends up as a pet in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney.
  • Because of that, Marlin sets off on a journey to recover Nemo, enlisting the help of other sea creatures along the way.
  • Until finally Marlin and Nemo find each other, reunite, and learn that love depends on trust.

The beauty of the Pixar framework is in its simplicity and flexibility, allowing you to take any story and maximize its impact using this easy-to-follow format. In sharing the story of a Disney fish, I wanted to help make this framework as accessible as possible but in no way should this discount the potential this tool has for helping communicate human experiences and the instrumental moments that shape who we are. Researchers Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown followed girls from roughly age 9 through age 16 and identified the struggles for the girls in the study as they stopped expressing their opinions and began shutting down communication. These young girls essentially stopped using their voice. Women need and deserve more airtime as we also encourage young girls to continue to speak up for themselves.

Michelle Obama reinforces this all to be true in her new memoir, “Becoming” with the advice that "there is power in allowing yourself to be known and heard and owning your unique story and using your authentic voice" but then she continues with one of the most important lessons of all "... and there is grace in being willing to know and hear others." Let's all commit first to sharing our story then extend the grace and compassion to encourage everyone around us to share theirs with us.

In Part 2, I will share the stories of courageous women leading transformation in their workplaces fueled by their own stories.