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Interview with Peter McGowan of Storyland Studios

Peter McGowan is the Co-Founder and Chief Storyteller of Storyland Studios and PlainJoe Studios, a full-service experience design firm with offices in the US and Europe. Per it’s website, Storyland’s 100+ employees help Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits alike “imagine, design and create immersive experiences and environments that lift the Spirit.” Recently, David Brenner of AI&F interviewed Peter about the power of storytelling in the context of technology, business, nonprofits, and the Big Story of the Bible, as weighed against the often materialist, libertarian narratives of Big Technology.

AI&F: Peter, please tell us about your faith journey and how that set you on a path to this unique role as Chief Storyteller of Storyland Studios?

PM: After my father left our family, my big brother invited me to a local church and I encountered Christians for the first time, which was so different than what I knew growing up. In time I gave my life to Jesus and by God’s grace had some incredible Christian men begin to mentor me. In spending time with them and their families I learned what it was to be a godly man, a godly husband, an eventually godly business owner. Two of those men, my high school art teacher, Terry, and my youth leader, Doug, are still my closest friends.

Doug helped me get my first job at IBM after graduating high school which started me down the path of technology and in the 90s I rode the .com boom all the way up. I was set to be “financially independent” by the time I was 30 and do whatever, though as a believer I was very aware it was God’s providence. I was challenged by a friend who had the courage to ask, “Is it really all about you?” It was this realization that led me down the path to do something beyond myself.

AI&F: How did that lead you into thinking about the power of story?

PM: One night over coffee with my brother, Mel, and another good friend, Mike Foster the question was asked “if our server is not a believer and we told them that we are Christians, would her first thought have anything do to with Jesus?” We all agreed it would more likely be “great- cheap tip, judgmental, hypocritical!” My brother Mel had spent 10 years with the Walt Disney Company, and he summed it up: “The church has forgotten how to tell its story.” And that’s how Storyland got started that night. We said, “Hey, how can we create a storytelling firm that would help people tell their story beyond words.” By which we meant stories that walk away with people, stories that people interact with, and spatial storytelling that people immerse themselves in.

AI&F: Tell us about Storyland Studios.

PM: We started just over 20 years ago, with one driving mission of helping organizations tell their story beyond words.

PlainJoe Studios is the cause/non-profit based front door, where we help non-profits and other organizations on tighter budgets.

Storyland Studios comes alongside for-profit companies to help them uncover their story in their own vocabulary.

AI&F: We are seeing more and more scientific research and business writing on the power of stories to influence fellow humans. Where do you see the power in stories to inform and persuade?

PM: It is encouraging to see that science is validating how we have seen stories influence people over the years. Their power comes down to the reality that, even in an information-saturated world, people ultimately make decisions based on emotion. We look for the “thing” that drives the story. Good storytelling doesn’t have to have an elaborate budget. It’s really about character development. Take the characters Carl and Ellie in the movie Up– the first 5 min of the movie is a greater love story than most stories achieve in 2 hours. It’s a really compelling story with great characters who you can connect and empathize with their emotions.

AI&F: From your website, it seems you work in multiple dimensions with the corporate stories you tell. Sometimes you’ve got physical space to work with. Sometimes history. You’ve got products you want to describe. How does that all come together?

PM: We have this process we developed called story circles. It’s really that old hero’s journey with characters, plot and settings. Who’s the cast of characters? Often it’s not just your target audience, but it’s the people within your organization and how they are participating in the story. What’s the plot? The journey you want them to go on and thinking about that as holistically as possible. And then the setting, the environment where it unfolds? Is it in a physical store environment? Or is it taking place on their phone? So looking at those 3 things, the products interweave themselves into the story. Sometimes they become a part of the character, or best of all, the McGuffin, the thing that drives the plot and becomes a key part of the story.

AI&F: How about stories on the Plain Joe Studio side, about faith and communicating it? How do you make that come alive? And are you using different technologies there, given cost limitations?

PM: We’re open to whatever technology is going to work. There’s an adage: it doesn’t matter what you have, it’s what you can do with it. So it’s great when you have big budgets, but now with digital, whether it’s screens or projection, you can bring images and transform spaces with LED lighting and software to achieve effects that 20 years ago were out of reach for most clients. But again, we always come back to what is the story, and then does the technology help add or distract? That’s always the benchmark we’re using.

AI&F: Talk to me more about how technology can get in the way of a good story?

PM: You want the technology to fit as naturally as possible rather than using technology for technology’s sake. First you draw people in and then build that audience. There’s a great quote from Steve Jobs where someone asked him why he wasn’t using all available cutting edge technologies. His response was, “Hey, I’m sure all these technologies out there are really great, but in the end, they’ve wasted their money going after technology versus customer experience.” That’s what paves the way. Another word for customer experience is the customer journey or the story. What is the journey the customer is going through, the story we want the customer to be a part of?

AI&F: Back to the theory of stories. I recently read a book about how there are really only five basic plots in the stories we tell. Do you believe that in the context of stories of faith?

PM: Whatever the number, as it relates to stories of faith, I think for Christians the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. When you talk about stories like the Hero’s Journey, it all comes back to what is God calling us to do? Remember how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with trick questions and he narrowed the journey down to two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and then you love your neighbors as yourself? Whether there are 3 or 5 or 20 different plots, ultimately stories about our faith come down to three questions: How do we love God? How do we be real with ourselves and with God? And be real with our community?

AI&F: Let’s go back to cutting edge technology for telling the Big Story of the Bible? What do you see happening there?

PM: You know, the church has used technology to advance the Gospel for 2,000 years – look at the Roman roads, stained glass windows and architecture, the printing press, radio and television. Today there are a lot of people trying to do great things, but too many of them are using already outdated, 20-30 year old technology because it’s tried and true and cheaper.

I believe the Parable of the Talents means our calling is to take risks and seek a high return on investment. That’s the purpose.

AI&F: Does that extend to working with large language models and GPT?

PM: We’re not really afraid of AI. It’s just another tool. And if we can use AI to help tell a compelling story that I know needs to be communicated, if we can use AI for spiritual formation at a mass scale, help raise up disciples and help people on their faith journey, we should go for it. That’s my whole thing about Jesus using technology: he wrote temporarily in sand, because that was the best immediately available technology for communicating a story in his oral tradition. Ultimately, it’s about “how is the story being communicated effectively?”. If GPT can be used to help someone learn the Gospel story better, great. At the same time, we’re always going to be fighting for human interaction because we know relationships are critical to our growth as followers of Jesus.

AI&F: Thanks very much, Peter! We’re eager to see where this goes!

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