For thousands of years, storytelling has been an integral part of humanity. Stories play a vibrant role in our daily lives, from the entertainment we consume to the experiences we share with others. Even in our digital age, stories continue to appeal to us just as much as they did to our ancient ancestors sat around the campfire.
Modern-day storytelling is reflected in the popular TED Talks, and its slogan of Ideas Worth Spreading. Analysis of the most popular TED presentations found that stories represented 65% of their content.
Throughout time, storytelling has proven to be a powerful delivery mechanism for sharing insights and ideas in a way that is memorable, persuasive, and engaging, and so storytelling is a great tool for startups seeking to connect with new investors, customers and employees.
Stories are powerful in shaping a startup’s messages around their values, strategy, brand, culture and product. An inspiring narrative helps people relate and connect to both the founder and the startup idea, providing a unique perspective of the founder’s voice. As a result, the best stories take on a conceptual role in creating a company’s core purpose.
They have more impact with customers than simply listing and highlighting ‘features’ about a particular product or service. Indeed there are two ways to share knowledge with people – you can push information out, or you can pull them in with a story.
For startups, storytelling is key because attracting the spotlight is difficult without a marketing budget, particularly when the product is interesting but they have no brand recognition. Good stories deliver a competitive edge to a startup because it is easier to attract an audience and enable the conversations. It begins with having a real grasp about what they do, why what they’re doing matters, and their target audiences. Once that story comes to life, it is easier for storytelling to happen and be the differentiator.
Your startup is innovative. Is that enough? No, in an age of immediate social media, data and competition, building an innovative technology product isn’t enough. The information age has democratised promotion with social media, so how do you get noticed, offering a comparable experience at a comparable price?
Equally, a world of commoditised tech means that building a great product and putting it in front of users at a good price is not enough to distinguish your startup. When customers can find the same service elsewhere with a few clicks, it is an emotional connection that drives loyalty. Your startup needs to win hearts and minds by telling its story, and that’s all about your position and purpose.
For example, Susan is a socially responsible entrepreneur who has set up a fair trade coffee shop. Why would consumers drop in to Susan’s café and not Starbucks? It’s not because consumers lack for places to go to get caffeinated, it’s because their core purpose is to help consumers build a more equitable world through socially mindful buying.
What are you really selling? Susan isn’t positioned as a coffee shop, she sells compassion. Susan’s customers are proud to support a company that makes life better for those less fortunate. They’re excited for the opportunity to buy coffee grown by farmers who are paid a living wage. They’ll pass a closer Starbucks to buy from Susan’s.
For tech startups, as barriers to entry continue to fall driven by microservices and cloud technologies, competition will increase and the startups that reach their target customer bases with the best messaging, building the most effective brands will win.
To thrive, you can’t simply rely on selling a great product, you must sell a vision as well. The future success of your startup depends on its messaging. If you can connect with your buyers, sharing your vision with them and giving them a reason to buy, you will reap loyalty. If you cannot, you’re just selling another startup product easily abandoned.
So you called a cab, but no one’s showing. The only thing the cranky dispatcher will say is He’ll be there in 15. You call back in 15, and he now says Driver’s on the way. Any minute now. Click. It’s cold, it’s getting dark, and you’re already late. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app that let you tap into an unused supply of empty cabs and cars to get you where you want to go, perhaps with a little style? So goes the legendary inspiration behind Uber, a story now encapsulated in a single tagline: Everyone’s private driver.
So, recognising startup storytelling is a way to help in the positioning, purpose and creation of your value proposition, they have to be good stories and have a purposeful message, here are some considerations for building your own startup story.
Stories spark emotions We have an intuitive, emotional side as well as a deliberate, rational side to our decision making, and for a startup, rather than just trying to connect with people on a rational level, create an emotional engagement about your vision, purpose and journey so far.
Storytelling gives startup founders a way of inspiring in a way that appeals to both sides of our character. A story has a core message, but can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the lens through which it’s being heard.
A startup story is a narrative about your north star Every startup founder has a story in their head about what their work means for them, through which they put their north star into context. Startup leaders able to tell their story create a strategic narrative that can engage people in the wider context of the journey the business is on, giving people a reason to understand them and their business.
Research shows that telling stories helps people understand information you are sharing. A London School of Economics study found that 10% of people retain information when you simply share a statistics, and 30% will retain it if you include a story with your statistic. But if you simply tell a story, 70% will retain the information shared. That’s powerful! In these days of information overload, a good story will always win over a proposition explained just using data.
A story communicates your values What is your brand and startup about? Are you innovative and quirky, fun or just really believe that your products or services are great? Define what makes your company great, work out how you are least like the competition and tell that story. If your story doesn’t divulge something personal or unfamiliar about your brand or business, your story could end up being boring.
Stories help people learn Stories are a great way of learning from others, and can help shape a startup business, internally and externally. Stories give people the space to consider, reflect and discover the implicit meaning of what’s being said, enabling them to learn what they need in context for themselves. However, in your startup story don’t tell them everything, leave gaps to give people time to think and reflect.
Your story reveals who you are Your startup story reveals who you are implicitly, without having to explain your career history or hand out your business plan. Your story creates a timeline of experience, learnings, medals and scars – there is nothing wrong with revealing your emotions. It could be that tough lessons have been learned, but it’s all about communicating who you as a business are, sharing your identity and person. Positioning the founder’s story helps a startup become what it is.
There is beauty in brevity We all understand and appreciate the art of long-form writing, but short attention spans and being overloaded with content and data is part of our everyday lives. If you can make your story descriptive and captivating, yet short and sweet, that will be memorable. Remember, brevity doesn’t just mean short, it means the exact use of words in writing or talking with impact.
Start with a meaningful opening line Unless you’re telling the story of how to land a plane safely or the proper assembly of an IKEA bookshelf, resist the urge to begin at the beginning. Chronology matters much less than having your story follow an interesting arc, as the stuff you need to hook people doesn’t tend to happen early on. Events need to build, one after the other, emotionally rather than sequentially. To have real impact, your story should describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion, but not necessarily the one that the audience expects.
Know your audience – keep the customers interest in mind Remember, what’s the problem you are solving? Think about what is interesting to your audience as consumers and work that storyline. What interests you as a founder may not match up with what consumers are interested in. Who is the story for? Tell the story for your audience, and always keep their interests in mind throughout the creative process.
Show, don’t tell A fundamental maxim of storytelling is ‘Show, don’t tell’, rather than talking at your audience, telling them what to do or feel, share the story so that it unfolds naturally and your audience comes to their own conclusions. People don’t just absorb facts and information, they actively listen and make their own inferences.
Describe what’s happening as if the action is unfolding right now in front of you, and as Mark Twain said, help people to answer the question What does this looks like in practice? Founders sculpt the best startup stories by using anecdotes, with a sense for what the outside world might think of as interesting angles.
Make it personal It doesn’t matter if your startup builds smartphone apps, cloud infrastructure or designs medical devices, human beings are still driving the action. Personalise the protagonists and journey of your story. Make her seem real enough so that the audience feels a stake in (and wants to know) what happens to her next. People connect with other people, so make sure you focus on the real-life characters in your story.
Use customer’s stories What could be more personal than a hard drive in the cloud? Practically anything, but it’s all in how you use it. When Dropbox releases a new feature set, they celebrate by launching a site thanking their users while encouraging them to share what Dropbox has enabled them to do. Customer stories bring a whole new dimension to your product.
It’s not always good times Something always goes wrong in start-ups, and these present opportunities by telling a story of recovery and remedy. Engaging stories do not chronicle a straight line to success, it’s the doubt and concern that keeps us engaged. Hone in on your problems or barriers to achieving your goals, what challenges have there been to date, what is standing in your way.
By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend credibility to your story. Your story needs to be authentic, few startups proceed in a linear way to success without hiccups along the way, a fake story begs for a backlash. As you sculpt your own story, make sure your tales don’t grow too tall in the process.
Stories are the language of humans, they make connections, create engagement and spark responses on calls to action. People like to hear a story, since sitting around the campfire, or the end of the school day. As a result of a good story, people change their behaviour and the way they think, so use your startup story to create a vision of the art of the possible and take customers, employees and investors with you on your startup journey, creating advocates along the way.