Startup Storytelling: how to make people care

When was the last time you read a book where the story started with a product pitch?  How many of the books you’ve read recently, autobiographies aside were about the author?  How many of the autobiographies were of people who had still to achieve something significant in business? I raise these questions because storytelling it was a topic of discussion during a twitter chat organized by Startup Canada as part of its #startupchats series.

The chat was a rarity on social media these days – a civilized exchange of views by people with polar-opposite viewpoints.  Scrap that.  It is a rarity these days. Period. One of the participants was a long-time member of the Toronto Startup scene, Mark Evans.  Mark’s position in the chat was that product is key to good storytelling.  He wrote a blog post about his experience of the chat and asked me to write a piece about my take on the topic because we disagreed so fundamentally on the issue.

In his post, ‘For Startups, What’s More Important: Good Product or Good Story?’Mark poses the question whether it is the product or story that is more important for startups stories. He makes a case for both in his post, but I still disagree with his assessment. While the story is always more important than the product, a story that focuses on the startup, as Mark suggests, is also the wrong approach. I’d also argue that the product is irrelevant if you’re not telling the right story.

Mark makes the point that product rules because a bad product will be found out.  I agree.  But that’s one of the Ps of marketing – not part of the storytelling process [the promotion P].  Marketing doesn’t work without successfully delivering on all four [Product, Price, Place and Promotion] but starting the promotion with ‘I’ve got a good product’ without explaining why anybody should care is unlikely to win friends or influence people – let alone sell things.

When I was a child of the stories I read started with the fabled sentence, ‘once upon a time…’.  Why?  Because it is a vehicle for setting the scene.  It’s a way to provide context; to draw people in to the story. They didn’t start with a product pitch.  None of the stories I remember from my childhood started with a pitch by the author telling me how good they were are storytelling, character development, etc. and none started by telling me they were the Shakespeare of children’s books.

We all know that when we find a good story we can’t help but want to read more. We enjoy the twists and turns; the stories of good vs. bad. So what is the right story?  If it’s not product or a story about your startup, what should the theme of every good startup or small business story be?

The right story is the one that the audience wants to hear.  And, this is where most companies get it wrong.  They’re so busy pitching and telling the world how unique their product is; how they’re going to be the Uber of X, Y and Z, that they forget about the audience and, as a result, they lose them.  Nobody cares about their story.

I read, on a daily basis, supposed content marketing ‘experts’ imploring startups to tell their story.  I hear the same people telling entrepreneurs they have a voice.  But, for startups in particular, the key to telling the story your audience wants to ‘read’ is first understanding the audience.  If you understand the audience you can create story they can relate to.  

In his post, Mark talks about Dollar Shave Club and the video that is widely credited with putting them on the map, called, ‘Our Blades Are F***ing Great’.  The key to that story is the problem faced by men around the world – having to spend ridiculous amounts of money every month on razor blades.  Had their story been about their blades or the company it’s likely nobody would have cared. It’d just be a story about a cheap razor-blade. 

But because the company told a story that showed it understood the problem and positioned its solution in a fun and attention-grabbing way, the company was able to communicate how it solved the problem in a new and innovative way. They didn’t lead with their product or their startup story – they lead with a problem that their audience understood. We all know how it worked out.

So, when you’re starting to write your startup or small business’ next story forget the product pitch and the narcissistic navel-gazing and figure out what story your audience wants to be told.

Startup storytelling tips

  • Write the story your audience wants to hear – not the one you want to tell
  • Your product is useless without an understanding of the value it delivers
  • Nobody cares about your story or your product.  They care that you understand their story and your product can help them write a better one
  • Resist the urge to use storytelling as a veiled product pitch

Learn from some of the greatest corporate storytellers

Nike ‘’Take It To The Next Level

Apple ‘think different

Maserati ‘Strike

Chipotle ‘Back To The Start

4 Replies

  • Lyndon: Great to see constructive public discourse! I think the one thing we can agree on is how marketing and storytelling need to be customer-centric. As marketers, it’s all about a customer’s goals, motivations, aspirations, fears, etc. It’s not about product or the story a brand wants to tell.

    As someone waving the flag for storytelling, I (and other marketers) need to remember it’s a customer-first world these days.

    Thanks for the counter-view!

    Mark

    • It’s refreshing, isn’t it Mark!! We’re losing the art of conversation – particularly amongst those in my industry.

      The problem I see time and time again is that entrepreneurs want to pitch their product, rather than providing a reason why the audience would see value in it. In the startup world entrepreneurs spend time doing research as part of their business model development [lean canvases, for example] but then forget all of the valuable information they collect when they start to do public relations, marketing and publicity. They also try and tell one story to all audiences – citing efficiency – but the reality is that telling an effective story to each delivers far more value.

      How do we fix this? Look forward to continuing the conversation.

      Best wishes,

      Lyndon

  • –>> Your product is useless without an understanding of the value it delivers
    AMEN to that brother. Every story needs to begin with some type of “what is in it for me” statement directed at the reader

    • Thanks Tom. I always smile when I see most of the things done in the name of public relations. The definition explains there must be mutual benefit… and yet most of the time the only perceptible benefit is for the person sending the tweet, email, ‘content’ marketing, press release…

      The key is to ask the people you want to buy your product or service what the value is and then use it for PR, marketing and publicity purposes.

      Best wishes,

      Lyndon

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