Jeremey Donovan was the last person you’d expect to become an expert on public speaking.
But Donovan did more than tell his story. He used it to illustrate a simple but powerful story structure known as the Pixar Pitch.
The Pixar Pitch is a classic three-act hero’s journey – with each act broken into two parts. Linked together sequentially, they form a kind of genetic code, the narrative DNA that’s built into every Pixar movie.
Here’s Jeremey Donovan’s story as he told it, in the form of the Pixar Pitch:
1. Once upon a time there was …
(In the beginning the world is a safe place, ordinary and familiar.)
Donovan knows from an early age exactly what he wants to do with his life – be an electrical engineer. He takes all the right classes, studies hard, gets the right degrees, and after grad school lands a job in a Silicon Valley semiconductor firm. He’s happy as a clam.
One reason he’s so content is because he’s painfully withdrawn, a social introvert, and the job requires very little human interaction. “I had a really hard time communicating with anybody,” Donovan says.
2. Every day …
(Life goes on as usual, with action unfolding according to plan.)
Donovan’s job feels safe and secure. He functions well in this environment because he’s never out of his comfort zone.
3. Until one day …
(Suddenly an inciting incident alters the direction of the story and changes everything.)
A colossal misunderstanding leads to a new job as an industry analyst. Two weeks into the new job, Donovan’s new boss announces that the company will be sponsoring a conference, where Donovan has to speak in front of 500 people.
Donovan is stunned. Speaking in public is the hardest, most acutely painful thing he can possibly imagine. He goes home that day “bawling my eyes out.”
But his understanding wife talks him down from the ledge and gets him into Toastmasters. Donovan, the reluctant hero, is thrown into a new world.
Donovan attends regular meetings, gaining valuable support from fellow members, and sharpening his delivery skills. It takes years, but eventually he’s an accomplished speaker.
He even writes a book – How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World’s Most Inspiring Presentations – which becomes a bestseller.
4. Because of that …
(The stakes get higher and higher until the hero faces a crisis.)
Then … Donovan gets invited to do a TEDx Talk. His career and the success of his book depend on a stellar performance. Suddenly the stakes are very high indeed.
For three months, Donovan dutifully prepares for his talk. He drafts his message. He hones his delivery skills. He methodically plans it all out. A week before the event, he runs through his presentation with a few friends from Toastmasters. And what happens?
“I bomb completely,” he says. “I freeze. I lose my place. I forget what I’m saying. I keep it together as best I can, but all I remember afterward is sitting in my car and crying.”
5. Because of that …
(This new complication propels the hero in a completely different direction.)
Aided yet again by his wise and understanding wife, Donovan stops trying to perfect his talk. He realizes that memorization won’t work. Nor does relentless rehearsal. All the delivery flaws he’s been trying so hard to erase don’t really matter.
The most important thing, he says, is to “just connect with your own emotions and your audience.”
Donovan gives his TEDx Talk, and it’s a success. But by then, it’s almost beside the point. The real triumph is elsewhere.
6. Until finally …
(The journey is over, the hero has arrived, and so has the audience. The moral of the story is clear.)
Donovan’s epiphany comes when he realizes the power of just being himself.
“I used to tell myself that if I want to appear authoritative, I’ve got to slow down and speak louder,” he says. “If it’s suspenseful, then I’ve got to speak softly. Happy is a smile and a lean in. Angry is a scowl.”
Instead, he stops doing all that. He realizes it’s not necessary to enact those feelings to give a great speech.
“There’s this moment in everything you do when all the mechanics just wash away and you’re just yourself, right?” he says. “It’s magical.”
That moment transformed everything about Donovan as a speaker and a person. “There’s been a lot of great mentors,” he says. “A lot of failures along the way. But for me, that was the moment.”
Want to learn more about the Pixar Pitch? Read To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by Daniel Pink.
Donovan’s other books:
- Speaker, Leader, Champion: Succeed at Work through the Power of Public Speaking
- How to Win the World Championship of Public Speaking: Secrets of the International Speech Contest
- What Great Looks Like: Leadership Best Practices for General Managers
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