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October 2016

No amount of technology will make a bad story good

Toy_1-1When Toy Story opened in the US at the end of 1995, it was met with enthusiasm and great critical acclaim. The film would go on to be the highest-grossing film of the year. There was tremendous buzz (ahem) about the film before it arrived here in Japan a few months later. Much of the talk focused on the stunning 3-D animation and the remarkable technical achievements by Pixar to pull this movie off. I remember sitting in a movie theatre in the spring of 1996 in Osaka, Japan watching the film. I was a bit of a technology geek in those days so what propelled me to actually go see the film initially was the fact that it was the first truly digital animation feature film. And yet the thing that impressed me about the movie was that I soon forgot all about how the animation was created and just remembered being engaged by the story. I wanted to see the film again (and again). I thought it was perfect. Fast forward to today and I have seen every Pixar film ever made dozens of times. I have two small children who adore all the Pixar films and I don't mind watching along with them. If there was a degree given out for watching Pixar films, then I'd by working on my PhD by now.

I watch the films repeatedly because my kids ask to see them, and since our DVDs are in English the movies are more than mere entertainment. But truth be told, I love watching the Pixar films because I have learned so much about story structure, story elements, character, etc. simply by seeing them so many times and paying close attention. These films are designed for adults and kids to enjoy and you may not think there is much to learn from these animated features, but you'd be wrong. Lasseter has said that the first 18 months of working on Toy Story was spent laboring just on the script, that is, the story. The animation is awesome, but it's the story that hooks you, holds you, and rewards you at the end. And it is really, really hard to craft a good one.

There are many lessons from Pixar's prowess at storytelling that we can take and apply to other forms of storytelling, including the 21st-century short-form presentation format. At the end of this documentary on the making of Toy Story, filmed before the film was released, there is a great line by Pixar's now legendary John Lasseter:

"Everyone's going to talk about the fact that this is the very first computer animated feature film, but the computers are just tools [the computers] didn't create this picture, it's the people who created the picture." — John Lasseter

In spite of Pixar's amazing technology, there has always been a focus on the people creating the picture, the people in the audience, and above all, the commitment to the story and the story process.

Steve Jobs on Pixar, Hollywood, and Story
In this 2007 interview of Steve talking with Wall Street Journal columnists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, Jobs tells how the typical live action film will shoot between 10- to one 100-times more footage than will actually appear in the film. After shooting, the film is assembled in editing, which leaves most of what was shot on the cutting room floor. But animation is much too expensive to create a film in this way. Because animation is so expensive you have to edit the film before you actually make it, Jobs explains. This is where storyboarding comes in. The story team has sketches of each scene which follow the progression of the script. A film could have thousands of these.

"Basically we build our movie before we make it out of these story sketches, and we video them, put scratch music and scratch voices so that we can watch our movie. And invariably what you think is going to work crashes and burns when you see it in the reels." The key says Jobs is improving on what you see in the reels. "You iterate on these reels thousands of times, and only when it works in the reels do you then go animate it and actually produce [the movie].”
 
"In Hollywood one of the most popular sayings is 'The story is King' — but it turns out it really isn't. Because when push comes to shove and the movie is in production and there is a lot of mouths to feed and they're waiting for stuff to make and the story is not working, almost everybody says 'well, we just have to make the movie.'' — Steve Jobs 
 
Jobs talks about how Pixar had avoided having to go ahead and finish a movie that was not working. Pixar has a story crisis on every movie they make, says Jobs. When the story is not working, Jobs says, "we stop, we stop and we fix the story. Because John Lasseter really instilled a culture of story, story, story. Even though Pixar is the most technologically advanced studio in the world, John has a saying which has really stuck: No amount of technology will turn a bad story into a good story. That's one of the reasons why we have been so fortunate is that we get to look at our stories before we really make them and perfect them in reels, and then go make them."

Putting the story first is one of those things, Jobs said, that's easy to say but hard to do. "Everybody has to make their choice. You find out what people really care about when you are in a tough situation and the meter's running.Then you find out how important they think the story is."

In this short clip from 2009, John Lasseter talks about the importance of storyboarding and creating story reels to see if the story is working or not before starting production on a scene. "We will never let a sequence of a movie go into production until the story reel is working fantastically." If a story reel is working well then Lasseter says it gets a hundred times better once it's animated. "But if a story reel is not working, if the sequence is not working, it will never be improved by all this animation." This is a lesson for all storytellers. It is not about your visuals, and certainly not about the software tools you used to make those visuals. Visuals matter. Visuals are important. But no amount of stunning visualization is going to save a story with a bad design or a presentation that is poorly thought out. 

Scientifically Proven Ways to Persuade & Influence Others

The book on Amazon.com A good book I often recommend is: Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini et al. I first read the book when it came out in 2008. The book is designed for professionals who are interested in becoming better at understanding how to persuade or influence others. The book may also help you understand why you decide to do the things you do. Even if you are a researcher or teacher or a medical doctor, and so on, and not a business person, it's still important to understand how people are (or can be) influenced and persuaded by your words and behaviors. Each chapter focuses on a single question and is no more than 3-5 pages long. If you want to go deeper you can checkout the sources for each chapter in the Notes section.

"Yes!" is not a textbook, and it may not go deep enough for some, but for extremely busy professionals, this is a useful book with many clear, quick lessons that will get you thinking.

Yes_chapter35
Above: The book on my desk. Each chapter focuses on a question such as what common mistake causes messages to self-destruct, how sticky notes can make your messages stick, etc. Checkout the table of contents here to see all 50 chapters at a glance.

Influence-bookIf you want a little more depth, I suggest Cialdini's other huge bestsellers Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Influence: Science and Practice. These books have sold in the millions by now. Some people may be skeptical about the ethics of trying to persuade and influence others, but remember, it's not just about marketers trying to influence someone to buy something they do not need with money they do not have. Persuasion can be used for good just as it can be used for ignoble reasons. For example, a medical doctor often needs to be effective at persuading patients to comply with her recommendations. Facts, data, and argument are usually not enough to influence a change in behavior.

If you do not have enough time to read the Influence books yet, the 12-minute video below will give you a good idea as to the key findings in Cialdini's research. The video presentation covers the six universal principles of persuasion which are scientifically proven, according to the author, to make you more effective at influence and persuasion. (Watch below or on YouTube.)



Principles of Persuasion at a glance
In an ideal world people would use reliable information and sound logic to guide their thinking and decision making, but the reality is people use shortcuts or "rules of thumb" to make decisions. The six shortcuts below, according to the author, are universal rules of thumbs that guide human behavior. The key is to understand these shortcuts and use them in an ethical manner to persuade others. There are many examples in the books, but in the video they can only give one or two. Here are the six principles in brief.

(1) Reciprocity. The obligation to give back when you have previously received. The key takeaway: Be the first to give and make it personal and unexpected.

(2) Scarcity. People want more of those things which are perceived to be rare or in short supply. It's not enough to tell people about the benefits they will gain, you must also tell them what they stand to lose or miss out on if they do not adopt your idea (or buy your product, or choose your school, etc.).

(3) Authority. People will follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. In the presentation space, it's highly desirable to have someone give a short and concise introduction of yourself which highlights why you are an expert worth listening to.

(4) Consistency. Asking for small commitments that can easily be made. Then going back and asking for larger commitments later. Sometimes this is called "getting a lot by first asking for a little." People want to be consistent, according to the principle, so if they said yes to you previously they are more likely to do it again.

(5) Liking. People prefer to say yes to the people they like. There are three factors in determining whether we like someone (a presenter on stage, for example). We tend to like people (1) who are similar to us, (2) who pay us compliments, and (3) who cooperate with us. For presenters it's important to really know your audience so that you can touch immediately on something shared and personal with the audience.

(6) Consensus. People often look to the actions of others to determine their own. So rather than simply hitting people over the head with your logic and data trying to persuade them to accept your idea, you can also elaborate on all the other people who have already accepted your proposal.

www.influenceatwork.com