Listening to Bobette Buster speak is like being privy to storytelling magic. Without skipping a beat, she moves effortlessly between pulling together history, philosophy, politics and her own well-informed perspective.
In the cool spring chill of her Hollywood home, she talks passionately about the social climate and the storytelling challenges of present times, in which ‘fake news’ has been blanketed over a shaky political divide in her home country of the United States.
“I feel that we’re in an extraordinarily emotionally cluttered time,” she says. “It’s a time of great chaos and upheaval in the world, where we are hunkering down and living in our own little silos.”
But Bobette is quick to add that not all is gloom and doom – and story has a role to play there too.
“I believe that truth shines in the darkness,” she adds. “There is extraordinary power in word of mouth. Truly, since the dawn of time, storytelling has the power to go viral.”
And Bobette would be the one to know. She is a storytelling guru, and she has both the chops and the cred to back up her title.
Bobette Buster: Author, Speaker, Lecturer, Guru
Raised in the southern states of ‘small-town America,’ Bobette traveled across the US to record the oral history of the last great ‘folk storytellers.’ The collection of these stories is now stored at the Kentucky Museum.
Afterwards, Bobette moved away from the South – and out to Hollywood – to deepen her craft in the business of storytelling and script development, and achieved much success doing so. She’s worked alongside Larry Gelbart, Tony Scott, and Gabriele Salvatores on projects involving stars such as John Malkovich.
Today, Bobette is a writer, producer and lecturer at the major studios and in top film programs, all over the globe, on how to create great stories well told.
Her international lecture series, Deconstructing Master Filmmakers, has opened up a spot for her as a Guest Faculty of Pixar, Disney Animation, Disney Channel, Sony Animation, and Twentieth Century Fox, to name just a handful.
She is also the author of DO STORY: How To Tell Your Story So The World Listens.
Great Storytelling Can Break Through a World Cluttered by Messaging – Just Give it Time
With the proliferation of online media, it has never been easier for audiences to ‘choose their own adventure,’ in essence, segmenting their media sources in a way that reinforces one point of view while ignoring another.
Nor has it ever been harder for those who are trying to amass an audience to gain attention.
“When something goes viral online, people say ‘how amazing,’” says Bobette. “But since the dawn of time, storytelling has been going viral, just by word of mouth.”
According to Bobette, a story’s ability to proliferate transcends the way it is packaged.
“The story of Harry Potter was passed on by American publishing houses and by British houses, until a small publishing company took it on,” she says. “Afterwards, it became a phenomenon on the playground, passed between kids and parents until it was a sensation.”
“But the same is true with films,” she says. “It’s easy to think that no one can compete with Hollywood because of their prowess, but in actual fact a great film will find its audience – it just takes longer.”
“And I believe this is the same with ideas,” she adds. “For instance, slavery was such a norm in the US and it took 300 years around the world for the abolitionists to raise awareness and get people to come out of their ignorance.”
“We see examples of a human call to rise-up and say what is true about our world through speaking engagements, and presenting thoughtful arguments. People like Harriet Tubman and other passionate speakers helped turn the tide on slavery – and we see this kind of movement holds true in history for all ideas.”
Stories Keep Us in a State of Wonder and Open-Heartedness
Bobette adds that while there is a downside to the power of storytelling, human beings are designed to seek out truth.
“It can also be scary, though, because of course – the wrong ideas can also take hold,” she says. “But we’re hardwired to seek light and truth. We’re meant to be in a state of wonder and open-heartedness. Being in a storytelling mode keeps our hearts and minds open,” she specifies.”
“We’ve all had the experience of meeting elders who seem younger than us, because they’re living in the present, in an open-minded curious state. They delight us by their sense of wonder and the way they’re attracted to life in a vivid and present way.”
“And although we all have fear that can put us in ‘darkness’ and shut us down – I have a fundamental believe that truth and light do not want to stay in darkness,’ she says.
It’s hard to be on Facebook and see other’s political views. I don’t want to unfriend them, but it’s equally very hard to just stay with the same group of people, replicating the same views. However, we are all very self-righteous and it can be hard when our viewpoint is attacked. So we must call on our better virtues, to be kinder and stronger, and seek open-mindedness.”
But Beware of Jumping on the Storytelling Bandwagon – it’s Harder than it Seems
According to Bobette, although storytelling has powerful and universal appeal – many brands are suffering from poor execution.
“For sure, storytelling itself has become a buzzword in business and advertising,” Bobette says. “Lately, it’s all about the story and I’ve had a lot of requests from corporate clients about how Hollywood does it and how they might tell their own story.”
“The thing is, people think they are all storytellers. Yes, we are all hardwired to love stories. But we are not all good storytellers. And so when some run into difficulties, they give up – or they make bad stories.”
Bobette is quick to add that this might be because companies hold themselves to an impossible standard – Hollywood.
“The whole fact is that in Hollywood, we have to spend a billion dollars a year to try to get the story right… To do it well and connect with your audience and to have an impact – it is a really difficult art form. But it’s all so absolutely worth it.”
How to Do Story: Think of it as a Transaction
Storytelling is a transaction, an exchange, where you always have to be thinking about who your audience is and asking yourself, ‘Who wants to hear this story? Who would be delighted by this?’” Bobette specifies.
“A big thing I’m seeing is that the stories are being produced and released that have no sense of audience – it’s just the story the storyteller wants to tell.”
“For instance,” she says, “In the 1960s, we saw the popularity the ‘auteur’ rise – that is when the director is the artist and assumes that you want to hear their voice. This almost decimated the industry in Europe. The narcissism simply drove the audience away.”
“So, whether we’re talking about movies that are 90 minutes to 2.5 hours long, or a TV series that will eventually become years of episodes, you have to build a foundation for characters that is believable and interesting. We have to be attracted to the complexities of the characters’ deep wants and needs.”
When You Have Character Loyalty – You’ve Nailed the Story
According to Bobette, you can use examples of different audiences to see the importance of building character loyalty.
“Take children,” she says, “They either laugh, cry or walk away. You better know what hooks them and keep them entertained. It’s not just cute images or gags – they get hooked into the character’s wants and needs. They have to identify with that character and want to own that character – as they often do, as a stuffed animal or toy.”
“Or – here’s another example of character loyalty,” she offers. “One of the greatest audiences in the world are the men that love James Bond. And because of that, there are certain values that you have to make sure you put in a James Bond film.”
“You have to think very carefully about who is your audience. What is the theme? Why will they come back?”
Pixar Shows Us Why Corporate Storytelling is so Difficult
“Pixar has instituted a golden age in excellence in storytelling because they take the time to iterate the story over and over, to get the themes right and the characters right,” Bobette says. “They go back to the storyboard.”
“Many of their starts are wretched but they’re allowed in that environment to fail and fail often, and so in the process of failing they keep moving and moving and moving. They find extraordinary stories that last for generations. It’s extremely demanding.”
“In contrast, corporations want to know how quickly they can make money in the next quarter.
Development of a story is the most tedious challenging stage. It takes a long time and people lose heart – so you have to have the will to keep going and accept that the effort doesn’t make money until it does make money, and then fortunes can be made.”
Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia Offer the Perfect Example of Corporate Storytelling
“One thing I’ve heard from a lot of advertising people is they say they’re going to create stories or put their brands in story environments like TV shows or movies – but the most success is found when brands tell their personal story.”
“A classic example is the outdoor clothing company Patagonia,” says Bobette. “The founder, Yvon Chouinard was a rock climber who found that the quality of tools he needed to climb weren’t available on the market, so he became an iron forger to create the tools and sold them to his friends, funding his escapades.”
“But his business spiraled into a way of life and earned a following through word of mouth. He and his outdoor groups were environmentalists first, and then he became aware of what kind of businessman he would be – which turned out to be the kind that “lets people go surfing.”
“His business model takes a whole different point of view with his staff. They have an open plan experience, supplied daycare and time off, along with organic gardens and great food and of course, the company is ethical in how they source the materials for the clothing they sell. Yvon is conscious of fair trade and green energy at all levels of the supply chain.”
“What I became attracted to was Yvon Chouinard’s thoughtfulness. He’s a great shepherd of his flock and felt a responsibility to give back.”
“I’m attracted to his story of how he runs his business and more inclined to buy his products because I feel part of his environment of excellence and care,” Bobette says, adding that “This is also true of Millennials – they want their choices to be informed by the story of what they’re buying.”
“The supply chain itself has a story that relates to well-being, and I take it seriously, but that’s because I have looked at it from a storytellers lens,” she specified. “However, I have the luxury of taking time to look at it that way and I know a lot of people would like to as well, but they’re too busy with just trying to keep up with other things in their life like their jobs and families.”
“But ultimately, when we once all lived in small towns we were tied to each other’s businesses,” she says. “We knew if the baker’s family was having a problem or if the farmers were having some sort of blight…We all helped to bring in the crops… We were a part and parcel of each other’s lives and there was an sense of well-being and connectedness.”
“People still crave that,” she says. “And we all still need stories.”
Learn more about Bobette Buster.