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11 Tips to Write Your Own Story

These storytelling basics from a Pixar artist apply just as well to business--and life.
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The CEO was scheduled to retire in a month, having announced his planned retirement five months earlier.

He was consumed by how he would be remembered. "When people reflect on my accomplishments, I truly think my legacy will be..." he started to say.

He continued on, but I had already tuned out. Anyone who references his own legacy without rolling his eyes or using air quotes is just a bit too full of himself. (Other people can talk about your legacy; you can't.)

But we all will at some point think about how we want to be remembered. We'll think about the impact we made. We'll think about the mark we left. Someday we'll hope the story of our life is great.

Hopefully, when that someday comes, it won't be too late.

Recently Emma Coats, a Pixar storyboard artist, posted a list of 22 storytelling basics that apply just as well to life and business.

I adapted a few principles you can start using today to make sure your life story turns out to be great:

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their success.

Trying something easy and succeeding is satisfying in the moment, but ultimately fleeting. Trying something really hard, even if you fail, is something you--and others--will remember forever.

Growth is a result of the effort, not the success.

2. Trying for theme is important, but you won't know what the story is about until you reach the end of it.

What you actually say and do is really who you are, not what you say you are. Decide who you are and act that way every day.

Only then will others will see you the way you see yourself.

3. Simplify. Focus. Combine.

What you leave out, what you put aside, and what you choose not to do frees you up to do what you really need to do.

Try to do too much and you do almost nothing. Do a few things and you can do them all extremely well.

4. What is your character comfortable with? Challenge it. How does it deal?

We fly our true colors in a crisis. Otherwise calm people freak out after an accident. Nice people turn ugly when confronted. Braggarts shrink in the face of danger.

What you do under stress defines you.

5. Come up with your ending before you figure our your middle.

Decide how you want your story to end and work backwards. Every decision along the way will be a lot easier to make.

6. When you're stuck, put together a list of what WOULDN'T happen next.

Figuring out the best thing to do can be hard. Start with something easier. Write down what you know won't work. Write down what you think you shouldn't do.

Sometimes you'll realize what you assumed wouldn't work will. Other times you'll discover a better option.

Either way you'll be in motion. Motion generates ideas.

7. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is part of you.

We admire people because we recognize something in them we see in ourselves: A quality we recognize, a quality we someday hope to possess, or a dream we share.

Don't just admire a person or a business. Think hard about why you admire them, and do more of what you admire. Take the best from others and make it your own.

8. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it.

Every idea is great as long as it stays in your mind. Stories are based on actions, not ideas--turn your ideas into actions that you can then improve.

Plus the pain of regret is much worse than the pain of effort.

Do everything you can to avoid looking back and thinking, "I wonder what would have happened if I had just tried...?"

9. Give your character opinions. Passive and malleable is poison to the audience.

You don't need to please everyone. You can't. And you shouldn't try, especially if that means compromising your beliefs, ethics, or point of view.

Be courteous. Be considerate. Be professional.

And be yourself.

10. Know the difference between doing your best and fussing.

If no one will notice the result of additional effort but--maybe--you, it's time to let go.

You can refine it more later, based on the opinion that really matters: your customers.

11. What is the belief burning in you that your story feeds off?

Go through the motions and your story isn't just boring to everyone else.

It's boring to you.

What could ever be worse than that?

Last updated: Jun 20, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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