Every startup has a story. Like all stories, they often follow the same three-part formula that is the foundation of all great narratives — there’s a setup, then a confrontation, and finally a resolution.
In startup founding stories, that arc typically follows a standard path. A founder finds a problem. They put together a team to solve that problem (often with the help of some great mentors). Then they bring a product to market that customers are willing to pay to solve.
Founders who tell their startup story well humanize their business. They show the people behind this business, are transparent about their struggles, and convey their passion to make a difference and change the world.
But it’s not the only story you can tell as a founder. In this part of our Lift Off series, we sat down with our branding and marketing mentor Ellyn Winters-Robinson about the art of storytelling and the impact it can have on your startup’s success.
Show, don’t tell
I’ll start with the really big picture, which is that we, as human beings, are innately storytellers. That’s how we communicate with each other. But when we shift to the language of business, we sometimes lose sight of that and we start to talk in terms of facts and figures. It all becomes a bit dry and dusty,” said Ellyn.
Ellyn added that startups often get caught up in talking about “speeds and feeds” — the cold, hard facts about features and performance or uptimes. While a “50% reduction in downtime” might seem like a great way to sell your product, it doesn’t explore why a customer would want to use your solution to solve their problem. Instead, Ellyn said that startups need to use storytelling to truly connect with customers. “It’s the best way to communicate pretty much everything in the business.”
The importance of storytelling for your brand
In our post on Building a Startup Brand, Ellyn discussed how a brand is more than just colours and a logo. Your brand is every interaction that your customers have with your business. This interaction includes understanding why you started your business in the first place. Those interactions also become a great source of storytelling.
Think of some of the biggest brands in tech, from Apple to Google to Amazon. Their origin stories are deeply embedded in their brand:
Apple Computer was founded by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in a garage to make great computers that anyone could use. Today, Apple is a billion-dollar business that appeals to people who identify as individuals and creators.
Two Stanford students built Google to organize the world’s information — and not to be evil. Today, Google dominates the global search and digital ad business, and its operating systems power everything from smartphones to cars.
Jeff Bezos founded Amazon to sell books online. Now he has his own spaceship. (Ok, we skipped a couple of chapters here.)
Companies that have very strong brands typically have a very strong brand story,” said Ellyn. “There’s sort of an origin story, the reason and that’s linked to their mission and their vision and their values and everything else. The brand story that you tell publicly, you have to uphold with action.”
Beyond SEO - storytelling and marketing
Bringing storytelling into your marketing is critical to connecting with your customers. It’s where you position yourself as the helper aiding the hero on their quest. Think of any popular fantasy or science fiction movie, and you’ll find the same positioning. Yoda helps Luke learn the Force to defeat the evil Empire. Professor Dumbledore guides Harry Potter in his quest to fight He Who Shall Not Be Named.
Ellyn said that while writing for SEO optimization is essential, you still need to write content that connects with customers through storytelling for that content to resonate and “stick” with the reader. “When you look at a really good content plan, the idea is obviously that optimization is there, but best practices for content marketing also emphasis the need to write good content, and that’s often in the form of stories that are interesting, engaging and that people actually want to read.”
These stories can run the gamut from interesting behind-the-scenes stories about your business and your team members to stories that detail your customers’ struggles and successes — and showcase your role as the wise helper in their quest.
Storytelling and pitching to journalists
Every founder wants a story in a major publication — but connecting with reporters is getting more difficult. According to Cision, one in four journalists surveyed said they received more than 100 pitches a week.
Telling great, compelling stories can help you break through the noise and make a real connection with a journalist. “Journalists are trained to be storytellers,” said Ellyn. “If you are pitching a journalist, and you don’t understand how they like to architect stories, or how those stories connect to a news cycle then your pitch is going to fall short.”
Ellyn recommended that startup founders start by learning the basics about how journalists architect a story. From there, follow journalists who cover your industry or focus area and look at places where your story can help a journalist contribute an interesting angle to an active news cycle. “You have to tell them a story that fits in their world and that they want to tell,” said Ellyn.
Using storytelling to build relationships with journalists can also unlock opportunities to do much more, such as feature stories. “That’s where the big PR gold is,” said Ellyn.
Always. Be. Storytelling.
When it comes to sales, Ellyn said that storytelling could help salespeople connect with customers in an authentic way that can help build long-term relationships. Ellyn used an example from an Accelerator Centre client who used storytelling to navigate their sales process with a significant potential client. “His internal champion said to him that it doesn’t feel like he’s being sold to. That’s because this fellow knows how to build relationships by building a human connection with storytelling.”
Ellyn said the best sales work is done through storytelling. This starts in the prospecting stage, where you listen and learn from a prospective client to understand their pains and challenges.
Great salespeople understand how to listen for that cue and use that opportunity to tell a story about how their company helped another customer solve a similar problem. “Without even going into a formal case study, there are war stories that salespeople can build up that instantly start to build credibility and trust,” added Ellyn.
Putting the story together
Earlier in this story, we talked about positioning your customer as the hero in the story with your business as the wise helper on their quest. This structure works, whether you’re communicating with a prospective employee, telling a sales story or trying to pitch to a journalist. “It’s about understanding that you’re not the hero in this narrative. You are the helper,” said Ellyn.
Ellyn emphasizes that great storytelling is the core of building a human business and a strong, lasting brand. “You become a very relatable business when you communicate stories that connect,” said Ellyn. “It’s really hard to relate to speeds and feeds. But if your customer can find themselves in a story, you will create a memorable connection with the human that’s sitting across from you. And that generally translates into a more positive experience for everyone involved.”