Written by Eugene Lee, Principal, OMERS Ventures
Something Harley Finkelstein, of Shopify, said a couple of weeks ago has really stuck with me “You can have the greatest product in the world, but if people don’t understand your why or what your product is being hired to do, you aren’t going to go far. The number one skill every entrepreneur needs to learn is how to be a strong storyteller.”
Instinctively we know that’s true. But the art of good storytelling is exactly that…an art. It takes patience and practice and it helps to study those who are best at it. World renowned author Salmon Rushdie put it best when he said the first and only rule of good storytelling is ‘be interesting’.
I decided to sit down with our head of communications, Jennifer Janson, to talk about what founders need to think about when they are trying to nail their own narrative.
What makes a compelling story?
Great stories generally share some common traits — they’ve got interesting characters, an emotional plot, a set of challenging circumstances and (in some cases) a happy ending or hint of what’s to come. Your company story should be no different. Let’s break that down:
In a business, the compelling characters might be the team and what drives you to do the work you do, or it might be the audience you are addressing. Think about your personal experience that has led you to where you are today.
Have you overcome extraordinary adversity? Did the co-founders paths cross in an interesting way? Your team’s story is a story only you can tell so make the most of the opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition this way if you can.
Equally, does your team have a personal connection with the audience you are addressing? It’s not uncommon for a founder to build a business based on a personal experience identifying an unmet need. If the audience you are addressing has a meaningful connection to you and your own experience, let that speak for itself.
The emotional plot is essentially what drives all the talk about purpose-led businesses and Simon Sinek’s now famous saying ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. What is the reason you get up in the morning and pour your heart and soul into your business? Answer that question and then ask yourself ‘so what?’. Challenging yourself to answer ‘so what?’ as many times as you need to, in order to get to the heart of what drives you.
Let’s use ourselves as an example. One might say that as a firm that does venture investing our purpose is to generate outsized returns. That might be true, but it’s not particularly compelling or unique. It doesn’t prompt people who hear it to say ‘tell me more…’. Especially in a world where there is ample capital and lots of VCs.
So what? Well, the better returns we are able to generate on our investments, the more we can contribute to the comfortable retirement of real people. The people who run into burning houses and race to the site of an accident or help keep libraries running. We are stewards of their money, so when we wake up every day doing what we do, we know that ultimately, we are impacting the lives of real everyday people who uphold our communities. See how that suddenly got way more interesting?
And finally, the challenging set of circumstances. This relates not only to the lived experience of every entrepreneur building a business (is there ever a day that’s not challenging?), but also to the market challenges that your business is addressing. Figure out a way to make these challenges real. Whether it is a chronic pain sufferer who can’t get access to the help that they need or a salesperson who is constantly left feeling like they’re on the back foot because they have less info about their competitors than their would-be customers do. Paint a picture to help bring the challenges you are addressing to life (but remember, for a business to have a compelling story, everything you say must also be true).
I hear all that. But it sounds a bit fluffy. What about when I’m trying to ‘sell’ my story to investors?
It’s a fair question. But remember, particularly for early-stage investors, we are buying into a team and a belief in the potential of the business as much as anything else. VCs look for big opportunities. Of course it’s important to show the numbers behind the story. But remember, a good story is also a sales tool — if your story gets us excited, we’re confident you can probably get customers and potential hires excited too. We’re looking for the big vision and the confidence in you to execute on what’s possible.
So how do I structure a good story if I’m trying to include everything you’ve outlined above, while still staying true to the ‘be interesting’ mantra?
Well, that is easier said than done. This is where the craft comes in and you may find it benefits you to work with a professional — someone who helps companies tell their stories in compelling ways for specific audiences. But as a rule of thumb, there’s a narrative arc that every good storyteller follows, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Listen carefully next time you see someone telling a good story — they will almost always follow this pattern. Even if it is only done in two minutes at the start of a Zoom call. The critical point is to make sure that every stage in your story arc adheres to the ‘be interesting’ rule. If it’s not interesting, cut it out. You can always dive deep into the detail later. In fact, if your story succeeds in piquing the interest of the listener — that is exactly what they will want to do!
You want to start by setting the scene. Don’t be tempted at this stage to go into all the detail. Your goal here is to leave your listener hungry for more. And be sure to highlight the ‘tipping point’ or ‘inciting incident’ that led you to create this company or product.
The next phase is rising action: here is where you start to layer in a little bit more intricacy — maybe you saw unexpected uptake or word of mouth, maybe you saw extreme interest in an unexpected area and decided to pivot. Start to weave in some data here (but only to support your story). This part of your narrative is ultimately leading your listener to the climax of the story. For a business, this is the huge opportunity that you have before you, and why, given everything you’ve said, you are the team to realize that opportunity.
In a typical story arc the climax is followed by ‘falling action’ and resolution. ‘Falling action’ is probably not a phrase that works well in the start-up space where every day is part of the hustle. But think of it as giving your listener an opportunity to take a deep breath and absorb what you’ve told them. And to get back to the reality of what needs to be done in order to achieve this great ambition. This is where you want to start to get into the nuts and bolts of what you do, where the gaps are and even where you may need some help (in cases where you are talking to investors).
How will I know when I’ve ‘nailed’ it?
It’s a gut instinct thing. You will see it in the eyes of the listener. In their questions, and in their desire to learn more. You’ll notice colleagues sharing the story too, because they find it easy to remember and compelling to share. A story is an evolving thing, so even once you feel you’ve really nailed it, don’t forget to change with the times and shift your focus as your company grows and changes too.