Well-known storytellers, Jason Katz – Chief Storyteller @ Pixar, and Peter Arvai – Co-Founder & CEO @ Prezi, held a powerful session on all things storytelling at SaaStr Annual 2018. Are you struggling with telling your founder story or pitching to VCs? These two provide valuable insights into actionable ways to improve your storytelling skills.
Also, don’t miss out on discounted prices for SaaStr Annual 2019 tickets.
Peter Arvai: Hello everyone. Great to see you all and thanks for joining this session on visual stories that. My name is Peter Arvai. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Prezi. Our users have created the world’s largest database of publicly available presentations. We’re the only company that’s competing with PowerPoint and Google and Apple version of slides and we do something completely different where you can put all your images on one canvas and show the relationships between the ideas and we work with people like sales force Tadd. And we’ve also seen that among the 85 million people who have started to create presentations like this one of the biggest trends in telling effective presentations is telling stories and through that I’ve gotten to know a lot of other people who tell stories. One of the most exciting conversations I had a few months back was Jason. So I’m really excited now to be talking to you guys together with Jason and showing you how simular the storytelling techniques were at Pixar is to how our users also are finding their way into storytelling and about Jason. Well he has he’s spent the last 23 years creating some of the most famous movies of our generation. So he’s been with Toy Story Finding Nemo most recently he co-created Coco. And so you may have not recognized his face but I’m sure you’ve seen several movies where his name was in the credits. So this is super exciting to be doing this joint session. What am I missing?
Jason Katz: Oh that’s good yeah. Yeah. OK.
Peter Arvai: And if you want to tell a really great story it’s all about the preparation really. And so we have three things that we want to give you guys today that can help you in being well prepared. First of all you need to focus your story on a takeaway message or a central idea that you want to leave people with. Second you need to build a structure that’s going to convey this idea structure that has things in a certain order and then last but not least you of course have to take advantage of that one opportunity that you have to make an emotional impact. So those are three things we wanted to cover with you. We believe that all of you can do this and why don’t we just get into it let’s do it.
Jason Katz: I’m trying to figure out how to sit in this chair because it’s it you can’t really do this. These are way too high. So I’m just going to awkwardly do this all talk I hope that’s all right. And that’s the takeaway message by better furniture. You just created so much body awareness. OK.
Peter Arvai: So yes so the first part here finding your takeaway message is really similar to creating a blueprint for a house. This is where you need to identify the purpose of the story that you’re about to tell if you do this well you can really focus your entire creative work around this thing. Maybe you could share a little bit about how it is that you guys got into Finding Nemo.
Jason Katz: Yeah absolutely well and when we’re creating our films at Pixar This is central to us being able to start crafting a story we’re searching for. We call it a thematic sometimes or a controlling idea of what we’re searching for.
Jason Katz: I mean it’s basic that that’s what the movie’s about. It’s quite often what your main character is trying to figure out. That’s what the main character learns through the journey of the film. And it’s it’s essential for us to build it so for Finding Nemo our director and writer Andrew Stanton he was developing the film and he knew we wanted to do a film set underwater. He wanted to have fish be part of it it was something he felt the technology that we had at the time could do quite well but he didn’t really know what the story was going to be about. And at the time he was a new father he had a son and his son was about five and he would go off. With his son and would notice that he wasn’t quite the parent he wanted to be. He wasn’t kind of the calm fun you know just go with the flow type of parent.
Jason Katz: He envisioned himself he was frightened he was scared all the time you know they’d walking down the sidewalk on the street and you know get over and hold my hand and they go to the park and he’s like don’t climb there or don’t put that in your mouth.
Jason Katz: And he started asking himself know is this fear keeping me from being a good parent.
Jason Katz: And I think good theme’s good central ideas usually start with a question like that a question that deserves to be answered. And so that’s what Andrew thought about Nick kind of stuck with him and he brought it into the story room and he’s like All right here’s what I think this movie is going to be about.
Jason Katz: And he pitched a film about a parent albeit a fish father who is ruled by fear and his relationship with his son is threatened and he goes on this massive journey because of this fear and he has to learn to battle the central battle between fear and faith and and ultimately that’s the theme of the middle that’s the mark of Nemo.
Jason Katz: And once we had that then we could start structuring a story around it.
Peter Arvai: I remember you telling me you sort of even made it a part of the actual space where you were.
Jason Katz: Absolutely.
Jason Katz: I mean you try to keep this it’s a mantra it becomes this north star that you follow. Andrew actually would come in and he wrote it in big letters on our whiteboard in our story room. You know does fear keep a parent from being a good one and fear versus faith and that was our every scene in the movie became about that.
Peter Arvai: So that sounds great in a multiyear multimillion dollar production on them. Can this be translated into a business context? Well, I want to introduce you guys to Chris Bennett.
Peter Arvai: He’s in an industry that’s not really known for its great storytelling because he works with concrete but you actually see that in the way Chris thinks about his service and the offering he provides. He very much has a deep emotional connection to what he does. In fact, Chris has told me about how when he was a child he would spend a lot of time with his father hiking in the Northwest mountains and how his father would tell him that we should leave nature in a better off way than what we found it. And this became a mantra in his life and really a theme that has provoked him to think a lot about things like this. This bridge is maybe just 30 years or something already falling apart. And this is definitely something that he thinks he can solve by having more sustainable concrete that’s longer term in its thinking and leaves our cities off more pretty. So that’s how Chris finds his controlling idea and again that emotional connection whether it is through your own family or your own heritage I think is really important actually to build an emotional connection later with audiences.
Peter Arvai: That’s not enough though.
Peter Arvai: You need to also build a structure to deliver this idea. And we are back at the house metaphor and if you have the blueprint of course that’s not enough you have to create more detailed sketches. How are people going to go from room to room. How are the different parts going to fit together? If you don’t do this well we all know the structure can fall apart so what can we learn about structure from Finding Nemo.
Jason Katz: Well again structures is essential for us to build a movie around and so we have our Thematic we have our controlling idea for Nemo. It’s fear versus faith and we know that’s going to define the movie.
Jason Katz: And so we use a simple tool you probably heard of it a bunch of times beginning middle and end and that is how we craft our films and so the beginning middle end of Nemo is an argument about fear versus faith in the beginning of the movie. Fear is winning. And it sets our character off on his journey and the middle of the movie is an argument one scenes about fear one scenes about faith. You know and you’re back-back-back and forth back and forth until the end of the movie is the resolution and most of our movies you’ll have at the end of Nemo again I’m ruining Nemo for all of you guys and I’m sorry the end of the movie.
Jason Katz: Faith wins and so most of our films this question is present most of our films will start with one side winning the resolution as the other side winning. And that’s how we use our beginning middle and end. Now that structure holds true for each scene each scene we have a beginning middle and end. And so this is a scene we just pulled out when we were talking about our examples. This is the opening of the film. And so the opening of the film starts off we meet Marlon and his wife Coral and they are new parents and they have all these eggs and they’re living out the drop off and Marlon at this time.
Jason Katz: He’s a kind of nervous guy but his wife Coral is full of faith and you know he is going along with her and he wants to protect his new life. But he asks the central question in the scene to his wife he’s like is this safe. It should we should we live here should we be afraid here. And she said no it’s OK don’t worry. And then the middle of this sequence. Well we start to try to have this argument between fear and faith. And sadly this Barracuda comes and kills his wife kills his kids. It’s a Pixar movie sorry.
Jason Katz: And he wakes up and he goes to his ransacked home and he sees buried in the sand this one egg and the egg is alive.
Jason Katz: And one child survive and it’s got a little dent in it. And Marlon looks at this egg and says I will never let anything happen to you Nemo and what that is saying is fear won that scene.
Jason Katz: It started out where faith was winning and the middle forced some sort of conversation conflict.
Jason Katz: And now our fear is now the prevailing fanatical emotion at this point. And that kicks us off in the movie. Now that helps us understand who he is. But that pattern of starting with fear and ending with faith or starting with faith and ending with fear that is present in every scene of Nemo. And so if you want to go back and watch it or purchase a DVD or get it on iTunes
Jason Katz: You’ll see that that is present in our structure. We also are using tools to help push us through that. Obviously, we have a protagonist that’s Marlon the clownfish. He is the individual quite often being forced to deal with this fear versus faith. He has to make a choice. He has to decide one way or another. We have protagonists or force and are antagonistic forces. We have a villain. We have this Barracuda but in the movie, the villain is really the ocean.
Jason Katz: There’s sharks there’s jellyfish there’s everything to be afraid of. I mean again our main character has a point. It’s a scary place and we kind of beat him up through the course of the film. But we’re using those tools. To help tell these stories as well we’re using a bunch of other tools. This is what I love to talk about. I mean this is just a tool about visual contrast if you’re trying to tell your story visually. We’ve got a bunch of things you can use this as a baseball player he’s up at the plate. Something we’ve seen a bunch of times but if I put something in front of him I’m going to elicit a completely different emotional response from that normal thing.This guy’s gonna beat up a puppy. Right.
Jason Katz: But if I change that simple object same image. Now it’s a totally different emotional experience it’s the power of visuals it’s the power you can use. There’s other things we do as well. Now this is the single image I’m trying to tell the theme of the movie in one image. This is a scene I boarded on Ratatouille and it’s Remy’s up staring at the world he wants to be a part of. And he’s obviously outside looking in but it’s staged in a way where Remy size in this frame he’s exactly the same size as those chefs below.
Jason Katz: He’s not a small little rat who doesn’t belong in there. He’s one of them is equal. And so again scale is something we’re using to help tell that thematic story to just underline the point of the movie.
Peter Arvai: Chris actually uses very similar techniques to convey his story. So what you see here is an opening middle and end and you can see that actually in the case of Chris we have a little bit of a different type of here or we have a concrete building that’s been standing beautifully for over 2000 years. Over in Rome and then we have a villain in this case cold weather that cracks the concrete and does all sorts of nasty things. And he by the way follows a very typical pattern that we recommend for people to do when they do a customer presentation in the form of a story because in the beginning it’s really good to establish some sort of empathy with your customer. So we know it’s hard for you in this bad weather to make things make things work and then you have to deliver some sort of insight or unique insight that only you have. Like why is this building in Rome still standing. And then at the very end you need to get to that new and improved world where all of these things are combined. That’s delivering the vision really and speaking of capturing the entire central message or takeaway messaging one picture Chris does this beautifully. So in this particular project that we looked at he was working on Liberty Island a project on Liberty Island which is where the Statue of Liberty stands.
Peter Arvai: And he was very smart in choosing the right perspective just like you guys were choosing the right perspective. He’s chosen a perspective where you can see the Statue of Liberty there. Why. Because of course this is the most iconic symbol that we have in this country perhaps he wants to elicit all of those positive emotions associated with this statue freedom opportunity that’s captured now and then he proceeds to lay out his story on this scene. So by going through different parts of this visual you can really deep that message that you’re trying to send. In fact you know by opening up at the foot of the statue which is actually part of where his work is happening them panning over to sort of seeing a little bit of the city and ending on the statue itself. You can really get that high emotional response. We’re looking for in our in our story and by the way there’s some very interesting research on this that just came out last year from Harvard researchers that when you managed to summarize your main takeaway message like this in one picture and then drilling two different parts to keep reinforcing that same message well then you are 25 percent more effective than than comparables current usual presentation visualizations that we use. I’m not naming any brands.
Peter Arvai: Well what I can say this is I mean this is this is a really could be a boggling number.
Peter Arvai: I’m I’m thinking that you might be wondering how could that actually happen. And so in order to understand that maybe you should think about it a little bit like this. We know now today that if you go to a meeting and you show up with a bunch of bullet points and text on your slide people are actually going to understand you less than if you had shown nothing at all. So I show a bunch of bullet points over here where a bunch of techs. You’re now going to all of a sudden understand me less than if I had shown you nothing at all. How many of you are guilty of that mistake. I think there’s plenty more. Anyway the important thing to realize here is why doesn’t that work. Well if you do that then we can sort of track what people in the audience do and what they end up doing is they end up skipping back and forth between your text and you presenting. Why is that. Well text processing is so hard for our brains that you can literally read the text and listen to the presenter at the same time so you keep getting half of it all and so you kind of miss half of it.
Peter Arvai: And it’s sort of like forcing you to try to read a book and listen to the radio at the same time. Impossible right. That is how we end up making people listen to a lot of presentations nowadays so what we need to be thinking about is how do we support this story through strong visuals which by the way doesn’t take away anything from the message. In fact it enhances it as we can see from research and we need to be thinking about how we serve the best interests at heart for the audiences rather than you know keeping our notes. I mean often bullet points are good because it helps us to keep track of our notes about what we’re going to say but it actually doesn’t help audiences OK. So we’ve identified the main takeaway message that we want to get across. We’ve built some structure around it. Now comes really the time that’s the most decisive part glitches. I mean you only get one chance to deliver your idea. And you guys consistently show great success in this. How do you do it.
Peter Arvai: That’s a great question. You know I think a big part of it is is we iterate and we we really take this idea to heart of trying to craft something clearly that is elicits an emotional impact. We’re asking a question ideally that that deserves to be answered and that we’re curious about but again you’re right. I mean we only have one chance for someone to sit in a movie theater and watch our movie and to connect with our movie and so we take that extremely seriously. It’s it’s you know again it’s something that you really have to plan on. And I worked on Coco for six years and probably four of those years we were hammering on the story and changing it and refining it and really trying to make sure that our message was powerful and clear.
Peter Arvai: So I think often at least for me before I started to learn about how your industry works I mean you kind of have the feeling that you guys have some sort of alchemy going there. You know Steve Jobs was involved somehow and then you guys just touch it and then it gets really really how it happens and I don’t we.
Jason Katz: Yeah. Now we just have a bunch of fairies that are contained just sprinkled.
Peter Arvai: And you guys are obviously very talented but you know you told me that you did like eight different cuts of Nemo.
Jason Katz: Yeah on average will screener movies nine times and the ninth one tends to be for a general audience and an audience preview. But eight of those are internal at our studio and we are putting our movie up there. There are drawings there are storyboards so it’s what I would I do I’m an artist and Luddite by training and so we create the movie that way but yeah we will screen it. We will be vulnerable in front of the company. We will get notes and we will ask people. Do you understand what our theme was? Do you care about our theme? Were we executing it in a way that that made you feel something. And and we will refine and to really try to put together the strongest version of that idea possible.
Peter Arvai: The most important thing that I see among our most successful storytellers over at Prezi is the same idea of this sort of humbleness to the fact that you you can improve and you have to be willing to receive sometimes some harsh criticism in order to do it but to make something constructive out of it.
Jason Katz: Yeah you can’t you can’t wing an animated movie.
Peter Arvai: And you know I think having the mindset that you know our stories can be improved constantly every every presentation situation that science actually gives you an opportunity to improve it. Until next time. And what we’re seeing with many of our customers is that actually this is a really under invested area for for being humble and improving because nowadays it is actually harder and harder to get that one chance meeting. So our correspondent is obviously people getting into a meeting room and sitting down and talking but you know people are investing in social media to then nurture some leads and then end up in that final meeting where all counts and that’s not the place to show up with those bullet points again. Right. So if you if you want to take seriously all of that investment that you’re already doing to get to that meeting you need to honor the meeting itself with a great story. And the only way we know how you can do that is by being humble and intuitive and keep improving it.
Peter Arvai: While so maybe wish round off here.
Jason Katz: So delivery so obviously this is this is the home for us. I’m going to show you again I’m ruining the movie. I’m going to show you. We started talking about the beginning of Finding Nemo. Now I want to show you a scene from the end of Finding Nemo. And again to remind you are our theme was fear versus faith. And at this point in the movie, Marlon is gone on this journey and he has learned the importance of faith in one’s life. He’s got his son back. And that was because he listened to this crazy fish named Dory and and all of these amazing coincidences that you just accepted as an audience happened to get him to reunite with his son and he’s never wanting to let him go. But he’s learned. But the thing that we haven’t done yet is tested yes.
Jason Katz: And so this scene again is the climax of the movie and it’s got to be getting middle and an end. The beginning obviously is a Marlon now who believes in faith. But he’s still a little fearful but he believes in faith and we have a middle where we’re going to throw something at him to test him and then we have an ending and the ending now will finally decide who wins this argument in the movie. So we’ll just play this for you. But you keep an eye see see where we’re playing with those dramatic shifts or that thematic battle between fear versus faith.
Jason Katz: All right. SPOILER they swim down. But if you’re looking for it now it doesn’t seem so subtle and we’re intentionally doing that. I mean this really again is the only time in the movie where we had a character who he believed in faith and we ended the scene where faith won. But he needed to do this. He really needed to do this. We needed to have a legitimate moment where he doesn’t know if Nemo is going to survive this. It needed to be something that was honest and emotional for you to buy that shift.
Peter Arvai: It’s hard to go after that scene.
Peter Arvai: But for Chris he’s you know he’s not in a movie theater. But he has actually a really inspiring message to tell and he’s bringing his iPad with him so he can be on the side and talk to people about it. I want to give you guys a peek on how that looks for him.
Chris: The new museum at Liberty Island is dedicated to the legacy and the history not just of the statue but a story of America itself we’re in an era where construction resiliency sustainability carbon footprint for everything we do on a job site matters. When you’re communicating new technology new ideas new solutions. The synergy of work is there. The 11000 people that are in my organization the professionals that are learning the craft can now take the prezis that I give them and use the same tool all the way down the chain. In my line of work if you’re not innovating. You’re falling behind. Concrete doesn’t need to have an expiration date. That’s not sustainable. That’s not resilience. Likewise, the way you communicate should mirror the way you approach your business. Prezi is something that dances with yours. I think this is a great project. I love how Chris you take innovation and apply it to a large scale project like the Liberty Project and we could actually see with things that scientists chemists are doing in the lab. It acted in real life and to see that whole process and to think that it all came around came about through a common vision that we share you know on a tablet. That’s really something
Peter Arvai: So hopefully you’ve seen that visual stories matter for your bottom line whether it’s theater tickets or if you’re converting people at the sales moment if you guys want to learn more about how to do this you can just follow this link. There’s plenty of material there not just for yourselves but how you can transform entire organizations to think big about great storytelling and I think that’s all we are today.
Jason Katz: Thank you.