Saving the Princess — How to use storytelling constructs to make people care

I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or play Nintendo during the week growing up.

This was a real problem, because of the handful of things that mattered to eight year old Brian, saving a fictional princess from an evil turtle named Bowser topped the list.

The first time I played Mario, which doubled as the first time I played any video game, was on my eighth birthday. I usually had the attention span of a gnat, but I was hooked immediately — my parents swear that I screamed out “later” when they called me in for cake.

As founders, we’re on a journey to make people care. Customers, co-founders, investors — everyone. The problem is, their default state is to not care. You’re reading this, but I could lose you at any second. You owe me nothing. Each sentence is a transaction — I say something interesting, you read another sentence.

Storytelling constructs help with this transaction. They’re a shortcut to help get across what you’re building and why it’s interesting quickly. This is ridiculously helpful for early stage founders. My favorite book on the topic, and one I’ll lean on in this post, is Nobody Wants To Read Your Shit by Steven Pressfield (read it).

So with an assist from Steven and Mario… Here we go!

MARIO

The first time you play Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo, you immediately see a Princess get kidnapped by Bowser. Mario then appears on the screen, and the game begins. It’s clear that you’re Mario — this tiny, unlikely hero. Deep down everyone pictures themselves as the hero, so this makes sense. And since heroes save the day, you’ve got to save the Princess. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what the buttons do or how many boards there are or why turtles with wings are hell bent on stopping you or even why you’re doing this in the first place (were Mario and Peach dating?!). Ten seconds into your first time playing the game you know your fate is an epic battle with Bowser to save the Princess. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Time is of the essence. Go.

That’s how you get an eight year old boy to skip his birthday cake.

And here’s how you do it with your startup.

THEME (and how to avoid the Lean Excuse):

Everything great has a clear theme.

Books, startups, movies, vacations, online dating profiles, a dinner party — everything. But themes are hard, particularly for entrepreneurs. They force us to do something we hate — focus.

To make things more confusing, most entrepreneurs (rightfully) preach Lean — a methodology that prioritizes testing and iteration and encourages experimentation and data-based decisions. But a dangerous misunderstanding of the Lean mindset is to use it as an excuse to stay unfocused.

When I was building 3Degrees, I shied away from launching it as a Facebook-driven dating app for people under 30 (didn’t exist) initially. Instead, I built an unfocused “connection” tool. “Let’s launch with a bunch of features and see what resonates — if people date, we’ll build a dating app. Let’s not exclude anyone.” I wasted 6 months and a bunch of investor money. Lean often disguises “fear of choosing a unique, unifying theme,” because that always feels risky even if the bigger risk is no theme.

Further, giving your customers a clear theme will give them permission to care. Unclear themes urge them to opt-out. The theme of Mario is that you’re an underdog hero on a quest to save the princess. That’s cool — I’m into that. And every ounce of the game supports that theme.

The theme of Southwest is great customer service. Every decision is made through that lens. From flight offerings to plane size to the logo being a heart. A clear theme makes subsequent decisions easy — if it supports the theme, do it. If not, don’t.

The theme of this post is that storytelling is a shortcut to building meaningful, quick, relationships with customers. Anything that doesn’t lead to that goal should be nixed.

STAKES

As soon as the Princess is kidnapped, the stakes are set. Her life is on the line. Intense.

The stakes for your customer need to be meaningful. They need to elicit action. And they might not be obvious — finding stakes is an exercise in empathy.

Let’s say you’re a company that helps early stage founders track various metrics in their app. The obvious stakes are that your customers can make better decisions with the data you let them track. Ho hum. More interesting stakes might be that cash is probably running out (as often is with companies that size), and your customers need to raise money — the metrics you measure will help them figure out how to optimize their funnel and boost sales immediately, leading to a round and company survival. More interesting. You could position yourself as a tool that is critical for your customer’s immediate survival. Those are the stakes.

Theme and stakes should play off each other. Take Facebook and Twitter. When Facebook launched, their theme was “connect with your friends” (and it still is). The stakes were implied. If you don’t connect with someone on Facebook, you aren’t friends. Yikes.

Facebook’s features — “share photos and videos, send messages and get updates” all support the theme of connecting with friends.

On the other hand, Twitter whiffed here (and they still whiff). Their theme isn’t clear, so the stakes aren’t clear. Twitter is for… breaking news to entertainment to sports to politics with live commentary? Huh? If I’m not on Twitter… so? That let’s customers do what they love doing most — nothing. I’ll download it and “see what’s happening” some other time.

What are your stakes? What does the customer have to lose if they’re left out? Do they care? Is there urgency? How does it fit with your theme?

CONCEPT / TWIST

This is the “how,” and by far the least interesting to your customer.

Which makes it tricky, because it’s what you’ll spend most of your time doing and is probably most interesting to you. So you’ll want to really talk about it. Don’t.

Patagonia recently launched wetsuits with a drastically smaller footprint. Here’s a masterclass in how to highlight a “how” while supporting the theme (sustainable, high quality outdoor products), the stakes (you’re not an outdoorsman without us), and the goal (adventures). Perfection.

They aren’t talking about how they’re neoprene-free, or why that’s a big deal. They show you a guy surfing a gnarly wave, presumably in their wetsuit, which presumably has no neoprene, which is presumably bad. But since we know their theme, we trust that they’ve nailed it again.

YOU

This is all well and good, but you’re building a SaaS product for non-profits or a tool for freelance journalists, not a fun video game.

It’s all the same. You’ve got to make people care, and creating this story — making your user the hero, establishing a strong theme with clear stakes, and supporting that with the pillars that are your product’s features will help push people through the tough early stages from don’t care -> care.

I’d love to hear how you’re thinking about this with your startup. Give a shout and we’ll talk it through.

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