Can Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling be applied to your startup?

Much like a story, a business is a journey with a start, characters, turning points, ups and downs and hopefully if you have it right, a convincing plot.

The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar are quite compelling.  Can they be applied to a business context to produce insights?

See below what experienced startup and marketing specialists, Polly McGee, Oliver George and Tim Polmear think. Would love to hear any personal insights/experiences you’ve had in business that relate to these rules in the comments box.

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

Oliver – Standing for something matters. It’s something people can engage with and it gives your business focus. It can help you stake out a unique selling proposition and differentiates you from the crowd. (Also, see this article on Smashing Magazine about The Personality Layer).

Polly – Your business is more than your product or service. It in itself has to have a compelling narrative. That makes us love a brand, and want to follow and be part of the story. As customers we are all the audience and potential actors in the evolution of the product and the business.

#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 v. different.

 Oliver – This is a big challenge for people with a new business idea. Doing what’s fun or rather than doing something of value to your market requires discipline, it requires you to get out of the building and talk to customers.

Polly – While you might live some of the narrative, ultimately the customers/audience will be the ones who adopt it, or find they want something more their style. Ask them to write their own adventure and you can achieve a minimum viable product and also ensure future buy in.

#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.

Oliver – This could be used to argue for finding the core value proposition before trying to define what your business should look like and operate.

 Tim – It’s not uncommon to hear of entrepreneurs who thought they knew the best direction but needed to pivot along the way to adjust to market response.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

 Polly – The narrative of your business is important, as storytelling is a fundamental way to connect with humans, we all want to know what happens next.

 Oliver – Storytelling is a good technique for helping customers understand a problem. One effective marketing technique for engaging with customers is to start by describing a problem and then telling them you can solve it.

 #5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

 Polly – Every idea in business needs a rewrite, perhaps lots. Endless possibilities and endless idea combinations mean the need to be ruthless and unemotional with moving on to the next thing without hanging on too long.

 Oliver – Don’t hold on to preconceived conceptions of how things will play out when you’re exploring a new business idea. The right solution comes out of research and market testing, not initial concept you had at 3am.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Polly – This is the beginning of the pivot, when you have the capacity to take your character anywhere, then you begin to look for all kinds of angles.

Tim – You’ll need to step out of your own personal comfort zone and challenge yourself if you really want to achieve incredible results within business.

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Oliver – Have you worked out how you add value in a unique and compelling way? That’s the ending you’re looking for. Without that you can’t build the business which delivers it. 

Polly – You don’t have to get to the end in the way you thought you would, but you do need to know what the general direction is and who survives in the final reel.

 Tim – Think about goal setting, it’s important to have measurable goals and focus.

#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.

Oliver – Don’t skip on due diligence but with that caveat perhaps the lesson here is that you’ve got to be in it to win it. In the case of business you should be expecting to evolve and adapt as your learn more from customers and the market changes. Also, no plan survives contact with the enemy so how can your plan be perfect?

Polly – Failure is the scaffolding of success, m’kay.

Tim – At some point you need to let go of a business/idea/product/brand if it’s failing or distracting you from your focus. Move on and learn from it.

#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.

Oliver – Seems like a good lateral thinking technique. What won’t you do? What won’t your customers do?

Tim – Some of the best stories ever told have unexpected disruptive twists. The most effective marketing campaigns in business often work the same.  Escape the competitive herd by being different. Shock your audience with disruptive marketing.

#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. 

Polly – Look for the success others have created and adopt the parts that work, formulas work in films and stories for a reason, we resonate with them.

Oliver – Learning from other businesses is a great idea. I’ve enjoyed the process of trying to reverse engineer the business and marketing plans of businesses when exploring new markets. The bits you like might be your business plan.

#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.

Oliver – This is a big one. You’ve got to look at things critically. You’ve got to focus in on one specific value proposition. It’s more fun to imagine that you’ll have a variety of revenue streams and services but that takes time and effort. At the start you need something clear and communicable. How’s your elevator pitch looking? Could you communicate your offering in a 60 second explainer video?

Polly – Collaborate, communicate, corroborate and wear hammer pants. If you don’t open yourself up to sharing the idea and the chance of ridicule, you’ll never know if you are about to release a hit record.

Tim – You’ll never get anywhere in business without taking risks – take the leap. 

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

 Oliver – The obvious has been done.  Go looking for something which others might be missing.

Tim – In the early days, careful not to get caught up in all the features your product ‘needs’. Stay focused on delivering the minimal viable product and prove it works.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Oliver – Same goes for business.  Daring to have an opinion and staking a claim lets customers know your personality and what you’re passionate about.  I would pick a business with a clear passion over a generic vendor any day.

Polly – This is niche, and it works because it is very clear who’s team it’s on.

#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.

Polly – If you don’t rank it higher than sliced bread, why should anyone else. Show us the hero of your business story and why it matters. This is an essential element of the value proposition.

Oliver – Make sure you’re passionate about THIS.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Oliver – If you are doing something novel then customers will be skeptical.  You’ve got to build credibility and honest empathy and understanding of your customers situation and challenges will help.

Tim – Don’t be naive and ignore assumptions that might have a significant impact on your product/service offering. Put yourself in the consumers shoes, take a fresh look at your business and be honest with yourself.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Oliver – Is your brand and vision something people will root for?  Social media loves brands who stand for something which excites customers.

#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.

Oliver – You’re learning every day. Mistakes teach. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right. Don’t get stuck on one idea until you’ve proven it’s the right now.

Polly – Timing is everything. Some bits you can control, most you can’t. Work lean so when the timing isn’t with you, you can move to the next part. Some bit of the curve will be with you at some point and you can ride it on in.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Oliver – This is spot on. Ideas don’t get better in a vacuum. Get out there and get feedback!

Polly – Know what you are good at. Don’t try and be the sales guy if you can’t close a door. Get back to coding and let your cool extrovert buddy earn some commission.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Polly – Lets imagine coincidence is collaboration, so who are you likely to look for on the ice planet or in the crowded New York subway that is going to get you to the next action part of your plot – ie route to market or scale up.

Oliver – How likely was it that Kirk would run into the original Spock primitive ice planet? Total rookie mistake. Annoyed the hell out of me.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

Tim – People think the only way to create a successful startup is to think of a brand new innovative idea. Wrong. Rearrange the existing, add features, kill products, fine tune, provide what the market wants and you might just be onto the next big thing. Facebook didn’t invent social media, they tweaked existing offerings and destroyed them.

Oliver – It’s easy to find fault but how would you do things differently?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Oliver – Back to empathy. Clients need to empathise with you and your brand.

Polly – You are solving their problem, you are the solution, that makes you the good guy, not the self interested douchwallah.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Oliver – Can you boil your idea down to one solid concept?

Polly – It’s the pitch baby. One shot to communicate to your peeps what your value proposition is. Make every word alive and necessary.