Storytelling is universal. From ancient myths to contemporary novels, plays and film, stories are central to who we are and how we understand our world. But can companies harness the power of storytelling to achieve broader goals, such as building a stronger employer brand or attracting new talent?
To find out, we turned to Indeed Interactive 2021 keynote speaker and storytelling expert Matthew Luhn, a former Pixar story artist and animator. Luhn worked on some of the biggest animated films of recent history in his nearly two decades at the company, and his insights on the art of storytelling have applications far beyond the movie industry.
Whether it’s making an animated film or convincing candidates your company is a great place to work, everything has a story. For talent professionals and hiring managers, this makes storytelling an important part of your tool kit — and with Luhn’s tricks of the trade, anyone can master the art of storytelling.
From animation to storytelling
In hiring, a compelling story is what attracts candidates: they need to see what’s appealing about an employer, where the job might lead and why they’re a good fit. But you don’t have to have experience to tell a good story. Even Luhn didn’t set out to be a storyteller; the family business he was born into was owning and operating toy stores.
As a teen, Luhn became enthralled by animation and film, planting the seeds for later inspiration at Pixar: “I was making puppets, claymation, anything that was creative,” he recalls. His creative dedication won him acceptance into the prestigious animation program at California Institute of the Arts, the school started by Walt Disney to train future animators. He threw himself into the work, and by age 19, a short film he made in school earned him a dream job as an animator for “The Simpsons.”
Luhn’s time at “The Simpsons” proved transformative, although not in the way he expected. Instead of launching his career as an animator, working on the show inspired him to return to school and hone his storytelling skills through classes, practice and close attention to the craft. Again, his work paid off: Pixar offered him a job.
“I thought they loved the story and I was being hired for the story part,” Luhn recalls, but it was another role as an animator.
He started at Pixar as one of a dozen animators on the original “Toy Story” movie. At the same time, Luhn made sure to build connections with colleagues on the story side to learn how to transition into that arena. They told him to visit the story department regularly, asking questions and helping as needed: “If this film doesn't bomb, maybe we can help you get into a story position,” they said.
The rest is history: by the time “Toy Story 2” was in the works, Luhn was offered a role as a story artist and he later worked his way up to story supervisor. He continued crafting stories for Pixar for the next 20 years, working on hits such as “Cars,” “Ratatouille” and “Up.”
Luhn believes stories are just as important in the world of business as they are in film. So how do his experiences translate to the world of talent?
To craft a good story, know your audience
To craft compelling stories, you have to know your audience. Since recruiters are well versed in the importance of tailored messages, you should be ready to tackle this first step of storytelling. As always, do your homework and be mindful of what candidates know, need and want in order to share stories that resonate.
Another foundational element of storytelling is the theme, which Luhn defines as the key takeaway, or “what the characters end up learning on the journey.” What do you want your audience to learn about your company or the position? For instance, when hiring for a particular role, be sure you can explain what differentiates it from similar positions and why you believe it’s a good fit for your candidate.
When it comes to conveying the theme, the trick is to show it subtly rather than state it directly, Luhn says. This gets the audience on board, yet leaves them wanting more.
“Usually in the first ten minutes of a film or a story, someone in the story will state the theme,” he explains. “It's kind of hidden in there.”
He gives an example: If a film will focus on the transformative power of children, there might be an exchange at the beginning where a character says, “We’re just kids! We can’t change the world!” This plants the seed, stating something the audience might believe while opening a door for surprises — and, by the end, the film shows that kids are far more powerful than people might assume.
The power of the hook
According to Luhn, the most important element of a good story is the hook. It draws someone in, piques their curiosity and makes them want to learn what happens in the story. In recruiting, it’s what gets someone to respond to that initial email, making them want to hear more.
To find the hook, Luhn says the storyteller must ask, “What makes [this story] different and interesting?” It sounds simple, but Luhn maintains it’s the hardest part. A hook, like an elevator pitch, should be short, sweet and to the point.
“This is something that translates over from entertainment to business,” he explains. “Like when Steve Jobs made the pitch for the iPod: ‘What if you could have a thousand songs in your pocket?’”
According to Luhn, a good hook hinges on familiarity; if the audience understands the main characters or ideas from the outset, the story flows more easily and is more accessible.
“People know about superheroes, toys, monsters and robots,” says Luhn. “They already have a built-in real estate of what those characters are about, and that's very helpful because then you don't have to give a big explanation.”
Instead, the storyteller uses these familiar figures and adds a twist to make the story different. This gets their attention and keeps them wanting more.
What does this mean for recruiting? If you’re trying to hire for a role, the first task is to determine what talent might think they know about your company or position. Then ask yourself what makes it different, whether it ties to your employer brand, coveted perks like remote work or growth opportunities. Finally, combine all these elements to demonstrate what makes this opportunity stand out that the candidate might not have even considered.
Storytelling doesn’t have to be hard
From building a strong employer brand to recruiting new talent, powerful stories enable potential clients, hires or customers to connect with a company on a deeper level. It may feel challenging to know where to start, though, especially for people who aren’t trained in the art of storytelling.
“Storytelling makes information more memorable, impactful and personal,” explains Luhn. “I hope it becomes something that is part of their toolbox.”
Always keep your audience in mind and craft the story according to their needs and wants. Even a great story will flop if it’s for the wrong audience. Then find a compelling theme or lesson, and show it rather than stating it directly. Whether in film, business or hiring, a good hook is what sets your story apart, identifying something your audience thinks they know about, then surprising them with a twist.
Talent professionals are already experts in knowing their audience, but a good story can take hiring to the next level, and odds are, you already have the tools you need. When done right, your story will show candidates how this opportunity stands out and why they should make the leap.
After all, “You don't have to be Steven Spielberg to be a storyteller,” Luhn says.