There are two basic elements that have shown up in storytelling for thousands of years: a hero and a journey. The best storytellers know how to use these elements to impact the way their audience feels. This according to professional storyteller, Matthew Luhn, who shared his experiences as an animator with the Simpsons and a story artist at Pixar during Entrata’s 2019 Summit in Park City, Utah. Understanding storytelling, he explained, provides insight into leadership, sales, branding, and running a business.
Luhn posited that storytelling, at its essence, is about forming connections with an audience. The principles are universally effective, whether your audience is the people you work with, your clients, or those with whom we share personal relationships. The hero is someone we relate to, and the journey provides an emotional roller coaster, with alternating tension and release that engages our emotions.
And emotions are important, in storytelling, business, and life, because people make decisions with the part of our brain that is all about emotion. Luhn broke down the need for engaging both happy and sad feelings by discussing the physiological impacts of those emotions. Dopamine is released with feelings of happiness and anticipation, impacting focus, memory, and bonding, while oxytocin is released during sad and somber moments, influencing empathy, generosity, and trust. Effective leaders manage to use both effectively, timing one then the other to elicit powerful emotions in their audience. And they also take advantage of humor, with and understanding that laughter releases endorphins which are tied to creativity, ease, and focus.
Luhn identified five traits that are found in all great heroes in stories, and great leaders in real life as well:
The first trait of a great hero is likability. Making a hero likable often comes down to something as simple as an act of kindness. We also find ourselves rooting for the underdog…which leads to the second trait: Vulnerability. We often tell ourselves that people only want to hear the good news, but the greatest creators in entertainment and business are people who take chances and don’t always succeed. Their weakness makes them more human. Sharing our hopes, fears, and even mistakes can build trust and connection.
The third trait is vision. People need to know what their heroes want; what drives them. If our audience doesn’t know our goals, they lose interest. Without a clearly communicated vision, we’re often left with confusion, mixed messages, or a tendency to just copy what everyone else is doing. But vision helps you stand out.
The fourth trait is storytelling. The most effective leaders, marketers, and salespeople are storytellers who know how to use metaphors to make their point more relatable. Audiences don’t remember dry data, but turning data into something visual and using it to evoke feelings can translate information into a memorable and personal experience.
Finally, a hero must have perseverance. While it’s OK to share our weaknesses or mistakes with the audience, it’s not OK to quit. We admire heroes and leaders who refuse to give up or give in. And we believe that they are the kind of people who will make it work in the end. We find ourselves cheering them on.
There is great power in good storytelling, the power to evoke an emotional response. When we understand its principles and use them to connect with people, we become able to deliver messages that stick. Because, according to Luhn, people don’t remember what you say or do during a presentation, they remember how you made them feel. “And the best way to do that,” said Luhn, “is with a story with a hero on a journey.”