How to use storytelling in your startup

Narrative techniques help focus strategy and refine messaging

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
Robert McKee

Humans have been telling each other stories for millennia. From tales told around campfires, to hieroglyphics, written language and printed books, through to digital content shared around the world.

Humans are hardwired to tell and listen to stories.

It has been proved that storytelling has a physical effect on us. When we hear a good story, chemical changes take place in our brains. The amygdala releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that drives a sensation of pleasure, while also enabling information processing and recall. Whether heartwarming or melancholy, exciting or profound, scary or inspiring, the more powerful the story, the more it tends to stick with us. Just think of your favourite book or a great movie you saw recently. Do you still feel something when you think of it?

Storytelling isn’t only about fiction. When we talk or write about our work, our projects or, our startup ideas, we are telling a story.

Art meets science

Startup founders have a million things to do, but fundamentally, telling the story of their idea or project is the most important. There are many audiences to engage with — potential co-founders or employees, customers and partners, investors, advisers and collaborators.

I’ve seen and assessed hundreds of startup pitches over the years and I’ve found that too often, the message is muddled. Founders often explain features or technologies, and focus heavily on fine details. While this information can be valid, it is not easy or engaging to follow. Without a clear sense of purpose, pitches become boring, uninspiring and easy to forget.

A great pitch is often seen as art, but it’s just as much a science. This is not unlike storytelling — we may think that our favourite authors spend a few sunny afternoons at their computer to smash out a bestselling novel. The reality is that successful authors spend a great deal of time planning their story.

I’ve found that startups can apply storytelling techniques that can help enhance their messaging.

Deconstructing stories

What is a story? Typically, it’s a narrative that has a beginning, a middle and an ending. It has characters and likely begins with an inciting event — something that changes or challenges the status quo. The character takes action, interacting with other characters, initiating or taking part in events. Generally, the character will face challenges and must overcome obstacles, often learning something about herself along the way. By the end, something has changed.

A classic plot diagram

That’s a very broad way to look at it, but if you distill your favourite stories you’ll observe common formats recurring again and again. Author and journalist Christopher Brooker suggests that there are just seven basic plots, such as Overcoming the Monster, or The Quest. In his view, it’s the way in which these seven plots are told that gives us the millions of books, movies, films and oral stories we know and love.

Storytelling is easier than you think

You may be surprised to know that you understand a lot of the terminology and frameworks used in analysing a story. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the image below. I’m confident you recognise most of these terms and if asked, you could explain what each means in the context of a story.

Some elements are intrinsic to the story, like plot, pacing and dialogue. Other aspects are extrinsic, such as being aware of the audience, considering what information or context may be necessary to understand the story and also how a story can be promoted.

Elements of a story

What about startups? I’ve revised the same diagram to show essential elements that startup founders need to plan, work on or consider.

Just as a good story has a strong plot, a good startup has a strong vision. Why is the founding team doing this? What is the context? What has incited this journey? Who are the established players in this space? Who comprises the team? How will the startup overcome challenges, grow and ultimately be successful?

Elements of a startup story

What’s your startup story?

When I meet with a startup, my first question is always why are you doing this? I don’t want to hear about the market opportunity, the revenue potential or how it’s going to disrupt a rigid industry (that information can come later).

I want to know why.

Why do this? Are you trying to improve something? Make it better? Why this problem? Why you? Why not just take a well-paying job in your field of expertise?

It can be hard for a founder to articulate this, as it involves reflection and introspective thinking. Simon Sinek outlines a simple, yet powerful model for inspirational leadership that helps get past the fine details of ‘what’ and ‘how’ and get into the crux of your vision. By starting with why, founders can craft a more compelling message.

It also sets the foundation for a great startup story.

Product vision statements are a fantastic tool and I’ve seen variations of these successfully applied by many startups and internal project teams. Let’s take a look at Geoffrey Moore’s positioning statement format:

For (target customer) who (define the need/problem ) the (product name) is a (product category) that (statement of key benefit — that is, compelling reason to buy)
Unlike (primary competitive alternative) our product (statement of primary differentiation)

In this simple, two-sentence statement, founders must identify the target customer and clearly articulate the need or opportunity. The best products are those that solve clearly defined problems and starting out this way helps ensure the solution is going to be of value to the target customer.

The statement also forces founders to try to identify the category where this product fits. Even if it’s a new product, it must still address some fundamental problem that may have been solved (at least partially) by some prior solution. Importantly, the key benefits must be articulated. What has this startup got that’s truly unique and meaningful?

Finally, founders must compare the product to competitors, finding ways to differentiate. These may be rational or logical factors, or they could be more emotional aspects.

Here’s an example for Malmö Living, an Australian fine furniture startup:

For the urban professional who wants fashionable home décor without breaking the bank, Malmö Living is an online furniture store that offers designer furniture at affordable prices.
Unlike expensive fine furniture stores, Malmö Living’s pure online model means it can reduce costs and pass on savings to customers.

Now, a statement like that is quite a mouthful, and is not something that you’d put on a website or use in marketing. These statements can provide a foundation for crafting slogans and taglines to help communicate what your startup does in a snappier and fun way. Take a look at some popular startups and scaleups to see how their taglines communicate key aspects of their vision.

  • AirBnB: Book unique homes and experience a city like a local
  • Canva: Amazingly simple graphic design software
  • Hubspot: Software to fuel your growth and build deeper relationships, from first hello to happy customer and beyond
  • Influitive: Helping companies discover, nurture and mobilize their advocates
  • Patreon: A membership platform that gets artists and creators paid
  • Slack: On a mission to make your working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive

Another unique approach is that used by Amazon, which tries to replicate startup mentality within a large organisation. Product teams are required to craft press releases about the launch of their product. This is telling a story by imagining how the product will look, feel and work.

For new initiatives a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product’s customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology” — Ian McAllister, Director of Alexa International at Amazon

Techniques to try

“Today, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to be a good storyteller,” Richard Branson

Interested in using storytelling techniques for your startup? I’d suggest taking some time out to complete one (or all) of the exercises below. Remember, it’s not about crafting the perfect content — it’s about using this process to help focus your thinking and, in doing so, hone in your strategy.

  • Write your positioning statement: Using the template above, prepare a positioning statement with your product in mind. If you have multiple customers (e.g. buyers and sellers in a marketplace model) you can prepare one for each.
  • Draw your startup journey: Grab a piece of paper and trace a line that highlights key moments in your startup story. What experiences planted the seeds of your idea? What challenges have you faced? Where are you now and where do you want to be?
  • Prepare your startup press release: It’s launch day! You’re going live! What would you like the media to know? Have a go at preparing a press release introducing your product.

Share your experiences

Have you used storytelling techniques in your startup? Please share which approaches worked well, which didn’t and what insights or lessons you’ve learned.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s leading publication for entrepreneurs and startups.

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