Telling the story about storytelling in marketing

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Walt disney with snow white dwarfs
Walt Disney explains the dwarf's personalities
Walt disney with snow white dwarfs
Walt Disney explains the dwarf’s personalities

I can’t think of two concepts much more distant: The challenges of marketing architectural, engineering and construction services, and the Walt Disney’s creation of the 1937 animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Mark Matheis from the Disney Institute linked the two in a presentation at SMPS’s Build Business conference in Orlando last week. Here, the linkage becomes clearer. Disney resorts offer plenty of facilities for business conferences, and the Disney Institute sells the company’s pearls of wisdom about business and customer service practices. So Matheis naturally used his Disney repertoire to explain how storytelling can be effective for motivation, inspiration and change (and marketing).

His example: Snow White. Disney took big risks on this project in the Great Depression, producing the first full-length colour animated film. The animators didn’t have computers back then; each frame — more than a million of them — needed to be drawn by hand by a massive labour force at Disney’s Hollywood studios.

Matheis described how Disney set the stage for the project. He called his senior animators to a special evening meeting. Then he gave them each 50 cents to go out for dinner before the meeting. Now, back in 1937, people feared for their jobs — Disney was one of the few organizations hiring anyone. And he said you could get a perfectly adequate meal for a nickel, and a fancy meal might cost 25 cents, and top of the line would be maybe 35 cents. So 50 cents was right out in the stratosphere, according to his presentation.

(However, a little online research indicates Matheis may have been exaggerating things somewhat. Entrees at fancy restaurants would be $1.00 or more in 1937, so a complete meal in a really fancy place would cost at least $2.00, I think. Relatively speaking, a dollar in 1937 would purchase the equivalent of $16.00 today — though I think you could do more with 50 cents then for what you could buy today for $8.00 for a meal; I doubt you would get an over-the-top luxury experience, even in 1937.)

Disney’s printed material explains that sometimes truth can justifiably be bent in sharing the story.

Don’t muddle the point by fussing with statistics. Unless you are testifying, it really doesn’t matter whether an action happened on the 4th or the 6th of the month. It just matters that the action happened.

Disney set the stage for the announcement, by holding the event in a darkened soundstage, with one spotlight on him. This had two effects, Matheis said. It showed the animators that Disney didn’t want to waste money on excess stuff (like electricity) but also wanted true focus. As well, notably, Disney didn’t invite everyone in the crew to the meeting; just the leaders. They would carry the story forward, and he wouldn’t have to buy everyone dinner, as well.

Undoubtedly, Snow White was a success. And the Disney business has survived the death of its founders, and maintained its position as an entertainment organization that can demand premium prices. So, while our businesses are in different directions, we can still learn some lessons from the storytelling concept.

Here are some Disney story-telling techniques:

  • Adopt the persona of a storyteller. That is, realize that you are taking the listeners on a journey using your voice and facial expressions.  Make sure the pace at which you speak is comfortable to comprehend and that your facial expressions are open and inviting.
  • Remember that your listeners may have no frame of reference for what you are saying, so do what you can to make them comfortable  and be sure they have the opportunity to understand the details that are most important to the story.
  • Make eye contact with your listeners. This is as important as the words you use. Eye contact connects you with your listeners.
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