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Andrew Gordon: Story Is King

May 08, 2019 | By Drew Zalucky

  • At SiriusDecisions Summit 2019, animator Andrew Gordon spoke about how his journey to Pixar and animating some of the most popular characters of all time
  • He also focused much of his talk on how to tell a good story and how to give effective and constructive feedback
  • He emphasized that his advice applies to organizations of all kinds, not just those in the entertainment industry

In b-to-b, you need to tell a good story.

This is obvious for salespeople, as every pitch, cold call, follow-up and client visit requires a rep to recite and back up the organization’s grand narrative. But this extends to marketing and product as well. If you’re a marketer, you need to speak to audiences effectively in ways that connect with their needs. Product management is responsible for building the core story behind an offering: the value proposition. And last but certainly not least, customer engagement teams need to tell and maintain the story of the organization by preserving and enhancing the relationship with customers.

This is why master storyteller and Pixar animator Andrew Gordon’s talk at Summit 2019 in Austin resonated so well with the audience. Besides providing a bit of levity and contrast for the event, he gave attendees of all stripes something thought provoking and useful to take back to the office. In addition to animation, Andrew now works with global companies to help them tell their stories, but he spent more than 20 years at Pixar, where he worked with the studio’s animation team to create A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and many other films.

Andrew began his talk in awe of the scale of Summit: “I’ve never seen a screen like this before. Incredible. Wish I could play a movie on this!” He then presented his key point up front: that all success in business (any business) is about understanding the necessity of story and character.

He then provided his own backstory, tying in nicely with his advice to establish empathy in a way that makes the audience care about what happens to your characters. He spoke about what drove his fascination with telling a story through animation: playing the game King’s Quest on his first computer. He liked that the game wasn’t just an assemblage of graphics (such as they were in the 1980s) meant to be flashy and impressive – it had a story that made you care about the character.

This led to Andrew’s winding path to becoming an animator at Pixar, one which involved plenty of challenges, rejections, fits and starts. Again, this played into another major theme of his talk: the classic story spine. In this construct, you see a character in the status quo state, then an inciting action occurs, which leads to other actions until a transformation takes place. After this transformation, the character can come to a resolution.

Andrew was originally rejected by Pixar when the company decided – in an inexplicable stroke of irony – that his work was “too cartoony.” But eventually his work caught the eye of Warner Brothers, and he was later approached by Pixar to work on A Bug’s Life, which would go on to become a smash hit.

Many writing courses often teach aspiring storytellers to “show, don’t tell.” Andrew provided a clever variation of this: “At the point of resolution, you don’t want to give the audience four, you want to give them two plus two.” This brilliantly illustrates what makes for a good story that transcends time and place. You don’t want the end of your story to be preachy or pedantic. You want the viewer to walk away drawing his or her own conclusions: “We often want to end children’s story with ‘And the moral of the story is … ‘ but it’s really important that we don’t do this for adults.”

Beyond his own story, Andrew explained to the audience why the culture and feedback process was so critical to Pixar’s success. He laid out a series of core principles behind great feedback. The first is candor. When giving feedback, you should be honest, but in a way that helps the person listening to you. There should be no malicious intent or selfish agenda involved, just a commitment to the truth driven by respect. He also stressed the importance of brevity – you don’t have to go on and on; focus on what needs to be heard. It should also be timely, considerate and provide inspiration for the whole team.

This led to Andrew’s discussion of a brain trust: a group of people meeting just to have an open, honest discussion about an idea, a work or a storyboard. The goal of the brain trust is to make a story better, not to jockey for status or assert some position of authority. In fact, Andrew strongly asserted that, within the brain trust, film directors aren’t there to take orders from others. The power structure should be removed from the room completely so that everyone has a share in other’s success.

Finally, Andrew talked about culture more broadly and how the office culture developed at Pixar: “Don’t ask for permission; ask for forgiveness.” He gave colorful examples of how the staff at Pixar walked into their plain, spartan cubicles and redesigned them completely – some people even building sheds around them! It was this culture of creative risk taking that allowed Pixar to become the animation powerhouse it is today.

In closing, Andrew told everyone in the audience to “Tell each other a story and listen to feedback. Try it out, and see if you can find out, ‘What was the big idea?’ ‘What was memorable?’”

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Drew Zalucky

Drew Zalucky is an Editor at SiriusDecisions and has nearly 10 years of professional experience in editorial, publishing, management consulting roles and independent journalism.

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