4 Lessons in Storytelling From Walt Disney

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

It’s no secret that we love stories at Museum Hack.

From the behind-the-scenes secrets and shocking tales told by guides on our signature tours to the engaging and unique stories shared on our blog, we believe that storytelling is the best way to fulfill our company’s mission: to teach people that museums (and history and science and art and architecture and mythology and and and) are f***ing awesome.

Google tells us that storytelling is “the activity of writing or telling stories,” but in reality, it’s so much more. Storytelling is a cultural and social activity, one that stimulates the imagination and builds a sense of wonder and community between teller and listener(s). Storytelling is also a powerful tool that can empower you to convey a message in the strongest way possible.

Like all mediums, storytelling has a G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) and, in our humble opinion, that 🐐 is Walt Disney.

Walt Disney’s (and, by extension, the Disney company’s) prowess for storytelling should be pretty obvious: anyone who’s watched a parent drag a screaming child past a Frozen toy display (or been the parent themselves) knows how deeply ingrained Disney stories are in our cultural landscape.

It wasn’t luck that led Walt to create the most enduring tales as old as time: it was a conscious, dedicated effort to learn and employ storytelling best practices. Today, we take a look at what those best practices are and how we can implement them in a corporate setting.

**Note: For the purposes of this post, “Walt” will refer to Walt Disney and “Disney” will refer to the Disney company as a whole.

#1: Stories Are a Powerful Investment Tool

Walt Disney didn’t just employ storytelling in his creative endeavors. He used storytelling as a tool to lead and inspire his employees.1

Take, for instance, the classic tale of Walt pitching the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to his animation team. In case you didn’t know, Snow White was the Disney company’s first ever feature film. And people were pretty skeptical about it: animation just hadn’t been done on that scale before and it would require a lot of work. Like, years and years of work.2 Walt had to not only convince people to fund his film, he had to convince the animators to actually make it.

So what did he do?

On an evening in 1934, Walt assembled a group of his best animators together and got up on stage in front of them. For the next four (yes, four) hours, Walt acted out the entire story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, selling his animators on the story of the Evil Queen and fairytale princess.3 By the end of the night, the animators’ butts were sore and their hearts were full: they would go on to devote more than four years to the project.

The animators who made Snow White were invested in the project because of Walt’s storytelling abilities: he wove a narrative that convinced them of the movie’s value, even though it seemed like a wild and crazy proposition. In a corporate context, storytelling can do the same thing: it can invest your employees in your next undertaking, or your clients in the value of your product. By crafting a narrative that makes people think, “Holy crap, I am so into this thing,” you are selling them on the value of what you’re trying to bring to the world.

#2: Focus on Shared Desires

Walt Disney wasn’t just great at inspiring his team; his stories inspired billions of people around the world. Over the years, the Disney company has become expert at crafting stories that tug at your heartstrings and stay with you long past the point when you peel yourself out of your reclining theater seat (personally, I’m still not over the first ten minutes of Up).

Why are Disney stories so memorable?

Because they focus on shared desires.

Walt Disney knew a lot about people: he recognized that there were certain common struggles and desires that all humans experience. And I’m not just talking about the longing for more money or a better job. Walt knew that it was the deeper, more hidden desires that resonated with people the most.4 I’m talking about the desire for belonging, or for true love, or for discovering you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. These are the desires that truly get people invested in your story.

Walt Disney and the Disney company craft stories that specifically focus on shared human experiences. Think of Remy, the rat in Ratatouille, who has a dream that seems so far out of his reach. Or Hercules, who literally sings, “I will go most anywhere to find where I belong.” These characters provide a mouthpiece to the thoughts and feelings we all have. Watching Disney movies isn’t just entertaining, it’s cathartic.

You can apply this message to storytelling in your company, too. When you’re communicating with your customers, you should focus on the shared experiences and desires that make your product so valuable.

#3: Suspend Reality

Walt Disney wasn’t afraid to take a shared desire and move it into a fantastical world. Even Disney stories that take place in the “real world” have elements of mystery and magic added to them, like liquids that defy gravity or plates with feelings. Disney stories invite you to put aside the confines of the real world and live in a place where normal laws no longer exist.

Suspending reality is a powerful storytelling technique in two important ways. First, it creates a safe, magical world in which to contend with powerful emotions and themes, and second, it allows the viewer or listener to be transported and associate that escape from reality with the story you’re telling.

Stories make people forget about their troubles for awhile: they believe, even for just an hour or two, that candlesticks can get into sass-offs with tiny grandfather clocks or that pumpkins can turn into horse-drawn carriages. This suspension of reality opens the imagination and creates a world in which truly anything is possible.

When you suspend reality, you wrap your audience up in your world and in that world, anything is possible. Your product can really change lives. Your team can really hit an impossible deadline. Your company can really 10X its growth. That feeling of possibility then turns into inspiration to achieve desired goals.

#4: Bring People Into Your World

Our fourth and final lesson from Walt Disney ties into what we discussed in lesson #3: suspend reality. Walt ended up taking suspension of reality a step further: he built theme parks that literally brought people into his world.

As you’re reading this article, there’s someone crying as they see Cinderella’s castle for the first time. There’s someone flying high above the circus with Dumbo. There’s someone ducking in terror as animatronic puppets proclaim, “It’s a small world after all.”

There’s a lot of power in bringing people into your world: you make real what was only fantasy at one point.

Now, you don’t need to build a theme park to bring people into your world. You totally can, but that’s an expensive and potentially disastrous investment. You can bring people into your world through storytelling and brand activation.

Brand activation is when you combine storytelling with unique experiences to increase awareness and engagement with your company. A great example of brand activation is Warby Parker’s class trip, during which Warby Parker sponsored a retrofitted school bus to drive around the country and allow new customers to try on their glasses. The school bus was designed to look like a professor’s office, so new customers would get the feeling that their new glasses allowed them to live a certain kind of life. In this example, Warby Parker is telling a story and coupling it with a live experience that truly drives home their value to their customers.

And they didn’t even have to use a log flume to do so.

A Dream Is A Wish The Heart Makes…

…and a story is a way to give a voice to that dream.

Storytelling is an incredibly powerful way to promote your company and invest your people and your customers in your vision. The next time you’re looking for an idea for sharing your brand’s message, log off Google Drive and into Netflix. You might be surprised at what inspiration you find.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Jones, B. (2014, November 4). Leadership Lessons From Walt Disney: The Power of Storytelling. Retrieved from https://disneyinstitute.com/blog/2014/11/leadership-lessons-from-walt-disney-the-power-of-storytelling/
  2. Lambie, R. (2014, November 25). Disney’s Snow White: the risk that changed filmmaking forever. Retrieved from http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/snow-white/241629/disneys-snow-white-the-risk-that-changed-filmmaking-forever 
  3. Lambie, R. (2014, November 25). Disney’s Snow White: the risk that changed filmmaking forever. Retrieved from http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/snow-white/241629/disneys-snow-white-the-risk-that-changed-filmmaking-forever 
  4. Cermack, L. (Accessed April 3 2018). Walt Disney’s Storytelling Secrets. Retrieved from https://ed.ted.com/on/5qau2M5z 

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