I recently gave a presentation at GSVLabs on Effective Storytelling for Startups (a recording of the workshop is here). GSV Labs is an accelerator with offices in Silicon Valley and Boston and works with early stage founders to help them improve their odds of success.

The first part of the workshop was partially about redefining storytelling as something we do with practically everything we say and do.  The clothes we wear, the words we use, our body language, the cars we drive, our tendencies to exaggerate, etc. In other words, we aren’t just telling stories in board meetings, at investor pitches, in our advertising, or when setting company culture. We are telling stories all the time.

What most people don’t take advantage of is their ability to manage the narrative. That’s partially because they don’t recognize the amount that they’re telling stories.  It’s important to note that the stories you tell in aggregate form your “personal brand”. The stories you tell about your company create your corporate brand. And the combination of those two brands have a huge impact on things like: 

  • Your ability to raise investment capital
  • You ability to recruit great people
  • Your ability to form strategic partnerships

During the presentation I spoke about how you can instantly improve the quality and effectiveness of communications with a few storytelling tips.  At the end of the presentation, someone asked what I thought was the most important part of great storytelling. And while there are lots of videos about storytelling that focus on how you “tell” a story, I realized that I thought the most important parts of storytelling happened BEFORE you actually tell the story.

When I’m coaching founders, I encourage them to consider a few things when creating a story (pitch decks, presentation, meeting, etc.).   My top 4 pre-story considerations are:

  • Who is your story for?
  • What emotions do you want people to feel?
  • What do you want people to take away?
  • How can you help them see what you see?

I’m surprised at how often people don’t start with the impact of a story when crafting one.  So I thought I’d write a quick piece to let you know how these things help.

Who is your story for?

Most stories are not universal. Stories affect different people in different ways.  Have you ever gone to the movies with a friend and discovered that while you loved the movie, they hated it?  Or can you imagine how commercials for a fast food burger joint are received very differently by a vegan versus a fast food lover?  People hear your stories through different filters and mindsets. If you know what some of those filters are before you tell a story, it gives you the opportunity to decide whether the story is right for that audience as is, might be right for them with some adjustment, or just isn’t right for them at all.

Let’s use a fundraising pitch as an example. I sometimes see founders who are are at the seed stage trying to tell their story to Series A investors.  It should be easy to see that this is not the right story to tell to this audience. And yet people try.  

Another version might be someone that is pitching the right type and stage investor, but telling them the same story they use in their consumer advertising.  Investors and customers have completely different concerns and motivations. In that instance, the founder should tell the “investor story”, which addresses things about the business prospects, not focused on the product benefits.  

A third variation would be someone trying to pitch an investor on a product that  focuses on a use case that the investor has no direct experience with and little empathy for.  The question there is whether the founder can help the investor relate to the product or market be relating it to something that the investor is already familiar with.  That’s why so many founders include analogies in their pitch. It’s an attempt to help the audience connect with something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar  Another tactic is to use a case study and give the investor the perspective of a customer.

If your audience doesn’t relate to, care about, or understand your story, you won’t get the reaction you want.  Craft a story that’s right for the audience you are telling your story to. I’m not suggesting that you lie or change facts, but rather that you be thoughtful about who would appreciate, understand, and be positively impacted by the words you choose to use and the picture those words create..

What emotions do you want people to feel?

When I say “positively impacted” in the section above, I mean a positive from the standpoint of the “hoped for” impact.  Good stories can create an emotional response, enhance a pre-existing emotional state, or have no emotional impact at all.  The question to consider in this case would be: what emotional responses are you hoping for? 

In the case of a pitch presentation, you likely want the audience to feel a number of things.  You’d want them to feel:

  • Confidence in you as a founder
  • Curiosity in wanting to learn more about what you do
  • A sense of exhilaration about something new and exciting
  • Belief that this is a strong potential investment opportunity

These may seem obvious, but when I am working with founders I see a lot of pitches that don’t do enough to try and create an emotional impact.  Instead they’re focused on just presenting facts and figures. Large market numbers might be a good start in creating some good emotions, but if they are not the right numbers, the response you get might now be the one you want..

If your story is the story of your brand, what emotion or feeling do you want that brand to evoke? Volvo makes you think of safety. Tesla is sexy. What do you want your personal or company brand to make people think of?  Should they be confident that you do what you say? Worried that you don’t care about certain things that are important to them? Thrilled that your corporate values seem to align with their personal values?

I know I’m using feelings and emotions as the same thing here.  And while they aren’t the same, they are intertwined. How do you want your stories to make people feel? With early stage founders, if your brand doesn’t suggest confidence (not cockiness), investors aren’t likely to feel confident in your potential for success.

What do you want people to take away?

Take aways are another thing. What do you want people to remember from your presentation? What would you like them to do or want to do?  This is important because if you can decide what you want people to take away from your story, it becomes easy to look at your story, presentation, or pitch and decide what information in the story doesn’t support your takeaway goal.

With some of my Founder Coaching clients, one of the big issues they start with is not having enough time to cram all of the things they want to say into the amount of time that they have to say it.  They want to cram 30 minutes of story into a 10 minute window. More often than not, when we start looking at the story and look at the intended takeaways, it’s easy to see that a lot of the story content has nothing to do with the takeaways.  

The issue with that is that the audience’s brains have limited storage capacity.  Generally speaking, they will only remember a fraction of what you include in your story.  If you dilute your story with a lot of words that don’t support your intended takeaway, there is a good chance that your takeaways will get muted.  Think about a glass of your favorite drink (pick something other than water). That drink is your story with a focused goal of takeaways and emotional responses. Now imagine that each additional thing you add to the presentation is adding water into the glass. Each drop dilutes what you get from that drink. The same dilution happens when you add non-essentials to your story.

How can you help them see what you see?

I covered this one a little bit in the section about audience, but there is a special case that deserves its own section.  

Founders are creators. They are the parents of a bouncing baby business that is going to grow up and conquer the world.  They are proud of what they are building and see their business from a place of unadulterated love and excitement.  

Some founders (clearly not you), fail to imagine that outsiders don’t implicitly know the same things they know.  Sometimes the audience doesn’t “get it”. Some of those times, it’s because you didn’t tell them something they needed to know so they would “get it”.  Something that sits in your head and seems so obvious to you that you think you don’t need to include it in the story. When I sit down with founders, I often hear great insights and information that somehow didn’t get into the pitch. When I ask why, it’s usually because the founder just assumed that “everyone knows that”.  If your story hinges on key information, don’t assume that everyone knows that info.

Remember when you couldn’t see the typos in your term paper and needed someone else to put “fresh eyes” on it and help you see what you couldn’t?  Founders should speak with people unrelated to their business and discover what people need to see to share their excitement..

And this doesn’t just go for pitches.  This applies to all stories. When you tell someone about something that “John at the office” did today, ask yourself if you’ve given them enough context about John to understand and appreciate the story. Is John your boss, friend, company jerk, new hire, etc.? People don’t always know what you know.  Make sure that the things they need to know are in the story. Context and insight are key.

The End

The fact is that good storytelling takes more than a single blog post to teach. But whether you work with a storytelling coach or not,  I will say with some certainty that if you are mindful about the things mentioned above and make a few tweaks to all of your stories, you’ll start to see how storytelling should be a tool in every founder’s arsenal.

Before I go, I have to pay homage to one of the great founder/storytellers, Steve Jobs.  He understood the power of stories to affect hearts and minds. Here is a video of his iPod launch in 2001.  Clearly the man knew what he was trying to achieve.  There’s no reason you can’t do the same.