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Story Teller

Become a Better Storyteller: Tips from the Pixar Braintrust

Noah Nehlich on Dec 11, 2014 1:00:00 AM

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right. —Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the advice to tell a story about your brand, or to use stories to sell more to your customers. The advice is sound, based on solid research, but how can you be certain that the story you’re telling is worth both your time and your customer’s time?

If you’re interested in becoming a better storyteller, Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc., is a fantastic resource. He tells the story of how Pixar became what it is today, sharing leadership advice, marketing advice, and storytelling advice from his experience that is useful for anyone trying to grow their business.

What makes for a great story? At Pixar, Braintrust Meetings are one of the most important ways the team works together to improve their stories.

What is a Braintrust?

Catmull is blunt about the need for the Braintrust: "Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so.” How? "Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process— reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul."

Here are three suggestions you can use to make your own team more creative and successful:

  • Focus on putting together the right team.More than anything else, the right team is the key to success: "Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key.”

    Catmull emphasizes this throughout his analysis, finding that it’s not enough to just add high-performing stars to your team. You have to build a culture in which the fantastic people you’ve hired can work together: "The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.”

  • Be open to ideas from everyone.Catmull tells the story of the beautiful conference table that was unintentionally impeding the success of their Braintrust meetings. Because the meetings were held at a traditional conference table, long and narrow, “ideas didn’t flow”: the shape of the table in the conference room reinforced the traditional hierarchical structure. It didn’t matter that Catmull said everyone was free to speak up, because the structure of the meetings proved otherwise: "We might as well have been at a formal dinner party."

    This is a problem many team leaders have: even if you say that you’re open to suggestions, your office culture might not genuinely invite and encourage everyone on your team to participate. As Catmull reiterates: "When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.” It took switching to a square table and eliminating place cards before they could actually achieve “unhindered communication.”

  • Encourage candor.It’s easy to say that you want everyone to speak up, but that doesn’t guarantee you results. The "most essential element is candor. This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea — without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible."

    A Braintrust meeting isn’t just for keeping everyone up to date, or explaining what has been done. In order to be successful, participants have to avoid worrying about their own egos or getting credit: "we rely upon [these meetings] to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity.” In order to give and share useful feedback, it’s important that everyone shares the same goal: "supporting and helping each other as we try to make better movies."

    And for that feedback to be valuable, it needs to be constructive: "You’re building as you’re breaking down, making new pieces to work with out of the stuff you’ve just ripped apart.” Instead of just pointing out negatives, a meeting should offer a challenge: let’s make this the best we can achieve.

Want to start your own Braintrust?

A Braintrust is a great strategy for anyone who wants to improve the stories that they share: "Every creative person, no matter their field, can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace.”

If you’re ready to start your own group, consider Catmull’s tips for putting together the right people:

"The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.”

You can listen to him talk about how the Braintrust began in this video:

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