Book excerpt: Storytelling for Startups – How to tell your story, entrepreneurs

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B2BNN will be publishing excerpts from Mark Evans’ new book Storytelling for Startups, available for purchase now. Every week for weeks, we’ll excerpt a new chapter from the book, and this week we’re introducing you to the idea of why startup entrepreneurs need to be great storytellers.

Creating good stories is how startups convince preoccupied consumers that there is something worth their time and interest. Whether a startup’s stories engage, educate or entertain, they capture enough of the spotlight to get a consumer to pause, even if it is for a short time. If you get can someone to stop in their tracks, it is an opportunity to tell your story. Storytelling is how scrappy and hard-driving startups build relationships with customers, employees, partners, the media or investors.

But here’s the key question: how do startups get started with storytelling? The answer: a four-step process that any startup can embrace.

  1. The first and most important step is recognizing that every startup can be a storyteller and every startup has good stories to tell. Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. As humans, we tell stories all the time. We tell stories to our children, during sales presentations, in the dressing room after hockey games, during dinner parties, and at coffee meetings. Storytelling is an integral part of how every human lives and connects with other people. This includes startup entrepreneurs who need to tell stories about their company’s products, employees, com- petitors and marketplace. It is storytelling that happens in a particular venue, but it is still storytelling.

Here is a list of 10 questions to kick off your storytelling journey:

  1. What inspired you to launch your startup?
  2. How difficult was it to become an entrepreneur?
  3. Are you solving a problem that you encountered?
  4. What have been the biggest challenges along the way?
  5. What are the biggest lessons you have learned?
  6. What are the mistakes you have made?
  7. What are the keys to success?
  8. What are your goals?
  9. How do you hire people?
  10. What has surprised you about being an entrepreneur?

These are straightforward questions, but people love to hear personal stories about an entrepreneur’s goals, challenges and successes. Coming up with stories is like meeting someone at a party. In many cases, people have interesting stories to tell; you just have to ask them questions. In creating stories, you are answering questions, making observations about the things you are seeing and doing, and the people you are meeting.

  1. Think about your target audience (aka the people who will, hopefully, be consuming your stories). What stories would they want to hear as opposed to the stories you want to tell them? As a storyteller, the number one task is making audiences happy, so stories have to be about them and their You have to ask yourself, “Will this story be interesting to my audience?”
  1. Start to collect story ideas about your product, customers, competitors and the mar Like a reporter, you are looking for stories that are new, interesting, unique, different or pro- vocative. Not every idea will become a story, but having many ideas makes it easier for good stories to emerge. Storytelling is a state of mind and recognizing that storytelling opportunities exist everywhere.
  1. “Just Do It” – aka start creating It could begin with a story on your Website about how your startup was created. A story could be a blog post, a Facebook update with a link to an interesting article, or a photograph posted on social media. They do not need to be perfect stories. It is more important to build momentum so the storytelling process can be established.

The Problem: Why are startups bad storytellers?

If good stories are so important, why don’t most startups tell them?

storytellingbook
The book jacket cover for Mark Evans’ new book Storytelling for Startups

This is a multi-faceted question. The simplest answer is most startups are bad storytellers because they have little knowledge or insight about how to create stories.

Don’t get me wrong, startup entrepreneurs are smart and passionate, but I have worked with dozens of start-ups and storytelling is not a core skill I have come across. For the most part, storytelling is not something they learned or attempted to do. Frankly, it is not something they understand or see as a key part of starting and growing a company.

“In general, whether it’s marketing, branding, messaging or storytelling, startups are either bad at it or not aware of the glue that holds all of it together,” says Cezary Pietrzak, a marketing and mobile consultant. “When it comes to story- telling, the stories come from the founders and their vision to change the world. But after that foundation, the continuity of the story gets difficult.” Translation: entrepreneurs are often lousy storytellers.

For most startups, product is king, which explains why most of their time, energy and resources are devoted to building a product. The love affair with product often means adding more features in a desperate attempt to attract more consumers. Lee LeFever, co-founder of Common Craft, which produces corporate videos, says the focus on product and features often causes startups to forget how people use their products. “You want to get people to see the beauty of using your product in the real world, and a story is a good way to do it,” he said.

Learn From the Best

While many startups ideas are innovative, people can be skeptical when asked to embrace something new and different.

This is where storytelling can be extremely effective by creating a narrative that makes it easier for people to see how a new product meets their needs. You want them to see how it fits into their world, rather than have them focus on the technology.

This reality is something that Karl Martin, founder and CEO with Nymi, faces on a regular basis. Nymi makes wearable technology that uses your heart’s unique signature to unlock devices, remem- ber passwords and authenticate your identity. It is leading-edge technology that requires a big leap of faith.

Salesforce founder Mark Benioff
Salesforce founder Mark Benioff

Martin says storytelling allows Nymi to talk about how it is offering a better way to use passwords, payment cards and PIN numbers. This is a concept that consumers understand because it is a part of their everyday lives. “My ideas around storytelling are driven by a basic sense of empathy for the person on the other side,” Martin says. “You want people to buy into your vision. The analogy is skipping a stone. You are trying to skip a stone as far as possible and have your audience come along for the ride. If you start a story by saying here is what I do but offer no context, you are taking a big rock and dropping it in the water.”

For Nymi, the challenge is how to make good storytelling happen. Martin says one of the keys is creating a solid, consumer-friendly story, and then continually repeating so it seeps into the corpor- ate culture. As important, Martin says everything that Nymi does publicly – product demos, presentations, etc. – begins with a story that provides context, rather than the technology being develop- ing. “As a technology company, it is easy to have technology take  over the story. Our culture is about making sure an outward-facing story has context.”

For entrepreneurs, Martin says it is important to realize that story-telling is about getting people to buy into something they may not do on their own. “I think startup entrepreneurs see storytelling as marketing; good marketing involves telling stories. They don’t realize that storytelling is not about finding customers, but getting them to buy into the concept about why you exist as a company.”

Salesforce founder Mark Benioff was feeling stifled after work- ing for Larry Ellison at Oracle. The “story” is that Benioff leaves Oracle and proclaims that software is dead and SaaS is the future.

This was not a new concept; analysts had been talking about the end of software, but Benioff made the story resonate with a wide audience. Salesforce used the tagline “No Software” for years.

Freshbooks, a Toronto-based company located in the basement of co-founder Mike McDerment’s parents’ house, was running a search engine optimization business. As the story goes, McDerment could not find a good invoicing service, so Freshbooks decided to build one. Fast-forward 12 years; Freshbooks has more than five million customers. McDerment said corporate history is important because it provides people with context about where the company came from and where it is going.

KEY TAKEAWAY:

Storytelling is an absolute necessity for startups looking for an edge in an ultra-competitive world. Startups that are good storytellers can better engage and connect with target audiences – customers, employees, partners, media and investors.

Reprinted with permission from Mark Evans. For more information on Storytelling for Startups, go here

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Mark Evans

Mark Evans

Mark Evans help startups and fast-growing companies tell better stories (aka marketing). His strength is delivering “foundational” strategic and tactical services, specifically core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation. Find him via his blog
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