In the third excerpt B2BNN is publishing from Mark Evans’ new book Storytelling for Startups, we find out which people should be explaining your corporate story and why.
Most startups have a small number of employees, particularly startups that have embraced the lean approach advocated by author and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries. With few voices, it makes sense to adopt a collective approach to story-telling that involves everyone (employees, investors, advisors, partners, etc.).
One of the challenges is making sure they read from the “same page in the hymn book” when telling the corporate story. Getting everyone to be a startup storyteller is a powerful way to make people see themselves as key players on the road to success, rather than being cogs in the machine.
Let’s look at the different kinds of startup storytellers:
As the visionaries, business leaders and, often, the biggest investors, founders play a huge role in storytelling. In many cases, they are the lead storyteller because they are so vested in their startup’s creation and growth.
The problem is many startup founders are not natural storytellers so, like everyone else, they need to learn how to deliver compelling narratives that reflect a startup’s raison d’être as much as its vision and mission. They need to know the story inside out and understand how to deliver it in different ways to different audiences.
A big storytelling hurdle for founders is recognizing the role they need to play, even when there are other employees with better storytelling skills. More than anyone, a founder has credibility and an authentic story to deliver given they have been involved since the beginning. This makes it easier for founders to develop a narrative that contains the key elements of good storytelling: optimism, drama, challenges and, hopefully, success.
At the same time, the stories told by founders need to evolve. The story conveyed to friends and family after a startup is launched is different from the story told to potential employees and investors. And the story changes as a startup’s product is developed, marketing and sales people are hired, customers are attracted, investors arrive, or new competitors enter the market. For a founder, it means their storytelling has to be agile and opportunistic. They need to understand that stories are delivered in different ways to different audiences (media, investors, employees, partners, etc.) seeking different things.
Michael McDerment, co-founder and chief executive with Freshbooks, said he struggled with storytelling because he wanted to constantly tell it differently, rather than repeating the same story over and over again. “I came to realize a big part of your job as a startup CEO is you are the chief story re-teller,” he says. “A big part of my job is telling the story and telling it consistently. I used to get tired of my own story when I was telling it because I wanted to make it new and different. But I forgot the audience was hearing it for the first time. Instead of changing it up for their benefit, the best-polished story is one you repeat. I struggled with that for a long time but that is part of my role and job description. Now, I can tell the story in 10 seconds, 30 seconds, five minutes or 90 minutes. I think there is another thing: understanding that you need to communicate your story in different lengths effectively, and that comes with practice. That is an important concept.”
Every employee needs to be a powerful storyteller and brand advocate. Employees should effectively be able to communicate what the startup does, the product’s value, and who should be using it. They should be able to tell a story in different situations – customer support calls, sales meetings, meet-ups, conferences, etc. If employees can tell your story, you have an engaged army to spread the word in many places.
How can startups arm employees with the story?
- Begin by having well articulated messaging so everyone can read off the same page. Strong messaging offers consistency across the board and gives employees a rock-solid reference point so they are always on point
- Get your employees involved in the storytelling process. Storytelling is not the domain of the executive suite or the marketing department. It is not something that suddenly comes down from above. Good storytelling happens when many people are involved in how things are shaped. It happens during town hall meetings, informal brainstorming sessions, surveys, or even something as “old school” as a suggestion box. This makes it easier for ideas to emerge. One of the best ways to transform employees into storytellers is letting them write for the corporate blog. This generates good content and provides different perspectives than the founder or someone in marketing. And, who knows, it may be a way to discover a blogging star!
- For startups with enough resources, a community or social media manager can also be a huge storytelling asset. With a solid public profile, community and social media managers have many opportunities to tell stories that engage target audiences. Some of them happen spontaneously (e.g. chatting on Twitter, Facebook), while others are more structured such as speaking at conferences and meet-ups.
In many respects, a startup’s best storytellers are their cus- tomers. These are people who have embraced a startup’s product. Hopefully, they are happy to talk about a startup – be it word of mouth, blog posts or via social media. As much as startups rely on marketing and sales to drive the sales funnel, customers are a key part of the mix. For a startup with a limited marketing budget, it is a huge advantage to have customers become marketers and storytellers.
There are two sides to turning customers into storytellers. One, startups need to make them part of the storytelling machine. It is important that customers take a starring role in how a startup puts the spotlight on its business. This achieves two objectives: it makes the customer realize their business is valued, and shows potential customers there are good things happening. Some of the ways to celebrate the customer include case studies, videos, blog posts and newsletters. These are places where a customer’s stories (how the product improved how they did business) can be thrust into the spotlight.
The other side of the storytelling coin is encouraging customers to tell their own stories. The UPS Store, for example, launched a campaign that encourages small business owners to tell their stories on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #ViaStories. The UPS Store shared and promoted these stories on viastories.theupsstore.com, as well as through social media.
Another example is Shopify, which asked its customers if they would be interested in creating case studies for the Shopify blog on how they were using the company’s e-commerce platform. If you can figure out ways to encourage customers to tell stories about how they are using your product and the value being delivered, that is powerful and authentic.
Sometimes, your product is so good and your community so engaged that customer storytelling naturally happens. In other cases, you may have to “seed” the market by giving customers incentives to create stories. It could be the opportunity to be featured on your Website, invitations to an event, or winning a prize. With just a little encouragement, the stories could flow.
Photo of Michael McDerment courtesy Flickr, Creative Commons