How to Think of Your Company’s Narrative as a Product

Photo by Dardan Mu on Unsplash.

Let me guess. You’re a startup, and you’re worried about how to tell the story of your company publicly. Sometimes you even have trouble explaining it to your friends. And you don’t have time to do “thought-leadership” (whatever that means): you just want the problem solved. You’re nowhere near hiring a comms or even marketing manager in-house and you definitely don’t have a PR agency, yet. (Or possibly you’ve hired three agencies in as many months and fired all of them because you didn’t have time to manage them and they got you no coverage/coverage that you didn’t want — that’s a whole other post). You’re smart, but you don’t have a background in comms so this is a frustrating problem to have outstanding in your bullet journal.

Hi, my name’s Kate. I’ve met you before.

Not having a company narrative is a really common problem for startups, and often an anxiety-making one, too. It’s often coupled with a concern regarding when to go public, and a fear of overpromising and underdelivering. And it can even creep up on more established companies who might be a few years in and realize that their story isn’t easily communicated and it’s causing angst every time they go to explain the company to stakeholders or face a new round of funding pitches.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is this: stop thinking about putting narrative on your to-do list, and start thinking of your company narrative like a product — because it is. In some ways, the most valuable product you’re building is your brand and so it can’t be a last-minute, tacked-on message you come up with the night before launch and throw into a blog post. (I mean it can, but good luck…). It has to be nurtured, iterated on, tended to, and woven through the fabric of everything you do. Writing a job description? A letter to investors? A sales pitch? A press release? Speaking on a panel? Your consistent company message should permeate everything you write and say.

So how do you begin to craft a narrative, anyway?

We all have an innate sense of storytelling, whether you think so or not. You’ll realize this when you’re watching a movie and observe, “Oooh something terrible is going to happen!”, or “Eugh, it’s so obvious that character is the murderer”. It’s because there are only so many story arcs in existence: the underdog, the transformation, the martyred mission, the fated love story, the weird, colonial, paternalistic savior who tries (and usually fails) to save an indigenous community — you get the point. Companies are much the same in that they they tend to adhere to various company narrative structures (the wunderkinds, the ambitious pivot, the crazy idea that no one thought would work, the scandalous founder, etc.) — and occasionally they even sound like they’re straight out of a movie script. Sometimes these are proactive, planned narratives; other times the narrative has been projected onto them by the press or social media. (You can guess which is the one you’d prefer). Consumers intuitively look for patterns of stories, intrigue, vision or excitement as a hook to understand what your company is doing. They want to understand, just what is it that you do? And what does that solve for me? Or more bluntly: why should I care?

Step 1: Background

One of the first helpful steps is to think about your founding. How was your company founded? What inspired the idea? Any interesting or counter-intuitive stories about how the company came into existence? What’s your mission — has it changed since inception? Did you start solving this problem or did your company evolve over time? Anything unusual about the founding story? You might find some differentiating factors here — anything that might help a consumer or company empathize with you or understand the humans behind the company-speak.

Step 2: The Present

What is your company doing, now? What problem are you solving (and is it a problem to people other than you?). And what’s the vision you’d want to draw around that? Talk to trusted friends of the company: explain to them how you normally explain your company — your elevator pitch. And then try to layer on a more visionary story. What’s compelling? What sticks and what falls flat? Successful companies can paint a vision around their more nuts-and-bolts offerings: they sell the transactional and the transformative. For instance — Waymo isn’t ‘selling’ self-driving cars — they’re creating a new vision of mobility and transportation. Instacart isn’t ‘selling’ groceries — they’re enabling a new time economy; they’re helping you fall in love with food, again. Of course in these examples, those companies are doing all those things: you might be selling a simple service, but your vision for it can be more generous and aspirational that helps create trajectory and interest around the core story.

Step 3: The Future

One of the biggest questions I get from founders is: how do I create a narrative that is consistent with where we’re at now, and that nods towards where we want to be in the future? And it’s a great question — and a completely understandable predicament. Oftentimes the vision is much more grand than where you must begin — and that’s absolutely normal. First, be really honest with yourselves. Where do you want to go with the company? And how far away from that are you now? Is that delta considerable or not? The best way to conceptualize it is to think about building a puzzle: you’re necessarily starting at the beginning corner pieces, but also wanting to explain the finished picture. The worst thing you could do is say, “We are inventing the future of X”, because maybe that’s bit much right now — you only have the puzzle corner pieces, so just calm down! Instead try, “We aspire to”, or “Our aim is”, or “We’re taking a first step towards building” type of language: it’s positive, and it demonstrates momentum and intention. This helps your audience understand your direction, without being let down that you’re not actually there yet. Instead, they can be excited for the journey, which is much more preferable than being underwhelmed by the current reality. Honesty and humility will help — and are both underused in launch narratives, especially.

BONUS: Gut-check your narrative with friends

Once you have a story or narrative that feels like good representation of what you do, start shopping it around to trusted, diverse friends of the company. Is this tone-deaf? Is it accidentally making an unflattering comparison or overpromising? This narrative ‘product’ should also complement your real product: do the two mirror each other? Does the language or tone feel right to what you’re doing — and the audience you’re talking to? Take on feedback and check in on the narrative each quarter to make sure it’s keeping pace with the company. Like a good product, it shouldn’t change too dramatically from quarter to quarter but slowly improve and augment with time.

And good luck!

About me:

Kate Mason founded Hedgehog + Fox to bring human stories to complex companies around the world. Our clients include Instacart, Waymo, Girls Who Code, Spaceship and AirTree Ventures. Say hello@wearehedgehogandfox.com.