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Startup Storytelling

Startup Storytelling: a business worth talking about…… will allow you to tell stories about it.



If your business is not worth startup storytelling, then you should probably not start one at all. But your business is worth talking about. Avoid second-hand stories, because yours must differentiate you.

Here’s my Corsican friend, Jean-Louis Villanova, telling a story in a Chjaime e Risponde duel.

Startup storytelling is a way to help in the creation of your value proposition.

They have to be good stories and have a purposeful message. In these days of information overload, a good story will always win over dry ‘corporate speak’ or ‘marketing hype’. Even chief executives are ‘branding’ themselves these days.

A good story must:

  • be touching in some way
  • have effective meaning
  • pose a problem and offer a resolution
  • use striking imagery
  • fit the audience
  • give you delight to tell.

Entrepreneurs need stories for startup storytelling. If you contact someone and say, “I’m calling from the Googleplex and I..,”you will probably get attention. If you are making a presentation and you are introduced by the chair saying, “Will is from Goldman Sachs..,” your audience is likely to be very attentive.

But neither of these apply to you. And you need to attract attention fast, however good your (unknown) product or service.

Injecting some humor into startup storytelling is good, unless like me you risk forgetting the punch line. The story need not be long and should follow the advice of Chip and Dan Heath (authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die) who say, “For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it’s got to make the audience:

  1. Pay attention
  2. Understand and remember it
  3. Agree/Believe
  4. Care
  5. Be able to act on it.

Reveal Who You Are

Your startup storytelling will reveal who you are implicitly, without having to churn out out your resumé, or hand out your business plan. The story will of course be true and even if you are telling a story against yourself or one that demonstrates a lesson you have learned, make it positive in tone.

owl and moon1By the same token, a picture can convey ideas, often with subtlety. Venture Founders uses the owl as the company logo to convey wisdom (a-hem!) and here he is coupled with the moon, a symbol of the goddess Diana and the serene power to endure chores or as a symbol of light in the darkness. Quite a good pairing, I feel, for a business about helping people to start businesses and to navigate choppy water.

That does not mean that stories need to be embellished and there is nothing wrong with revealing your emotions. It could be that the lesson learned was hard. If they are about you they will most likely reveal suffering as well as joy.

Your brand needs its story and it should not be defensive. It should be narrative. “It’s about communicating who you, as a business, are—discovering your identity, not inventing a new one willy-nilly. Positioning helps a company become what it is, not something it’s not,” says Stephen Dunning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative.

On the personal level, practice ‘no credentials’. Do not rely on your position, title or rank. Be who you really are. And as you are, be conversational. Your life is not your presentation. And nor is your business. It is alive, like you.

The great secret of business storytelling is the creative use of metaphors—just like the best-selling management authors (viz. Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life).

Founders Are Storytellers

Though I say it myself, you would be well advised to spend $4.99 and buy a copy of my eBook, Founders Are Storytellers: Be Convincing Wherever You Are. It tells you the whys and wherefores, as well as providing a good guide on how to go about startup storytelling.

Rehearse Your Story

Startup storytelling may sound easy. It is not and you need to prepare yourself, just like you would for any presentation. Craig Wortmann, author of What’s Your Story?: Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful has an excellent piece of advice, “Approach your presentations as if your clients or people will not be allowed to take notes or refer to any documentation.”

Craig’s storytelling mnemonic, IGNITE, is worth you noting for creating your own stories—make them:

  • Intentional,
  • Genuine,
  • Natural,
  • Improvisational,
  • Total,
  • Engaging.

Find a storytelling buddy and rehearse your story together. If you do not like that idea, record it and listen to it on your own. Better still record it on your webcam and play it back to review how it goes. If if you have no webcam, tell it to the bathroom mirror! A live story telling will be different because you will get feedback from the audience, but a rehearsal will iron out obvious shortcomings.

One excellent way to tell your stories is to use an email newsletter with all your friends, clients and contacts. Constant Contact can help you to connect with your customers and build your business through storytelling. Try their no risk FREE 60-Day Trial.

Sources from Your Own Experience

The sources of subjects for your startup storytelling are most effective if they come from your own experience. But they can also be:

  • second-hand; I told a story to Michael Carroll , author of a great book for entrepreneurs, The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation and he loved it enough to ask if he could use it and he has already told it with more panache than my original, but then he is an excellent storyteller;
  • from your company experience; successes of employees, customer experiences, neat problem solutions, examples of creativity;
  • from articles that quote experience or stories recounted in books; you will find Bo Burlingham tells some excellent ones in Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, and Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessmanis full of them;
  • presentations of stories retold by you in your own context, if they make strong and memorable accounts that are pertinent.

A Fresh Story Every Time

A former colleague of mine, George, whose storytelling is a big contributor to his business success, always made me smile when we were on gigs together. He carries a battered old leather briefcase with him. It is so old and worn that the handle is long gone. When he arrives at the front, he needs a large table by the lectern, on which he can spread out a whole bunch of notes and papers before he starts talking. He is a business school professor and this underlines his professorial status.
What the audience does not know is that, while he delivers his presentation as if he had never done so before, and does occasionally refer to the papers on the table, it is a presentation he has made many times before, with the same old notes from the same old briefcase. But this ritual is one of many reasons why he makes the presentation a winner every time. He tells the stories like it is the first time they have been aired.

The Narrative Grid

Steve Dunning produced the grid below, as a way of helping you to see how you should approach business narrative, depending upon circumstance.


PLEASE NOTE: There is tons of useful stuff on Startup Owl, a site that’s been going for a dozen years. So keep browsing, but know that the founder, Will, now devotes most of his time and energy to his new website that you should definitely visit:

Other Business Storytelling Advice

Go visit Ishmael’s Corner: Storytelling Through a Business Prism, Lou Hoffman’s blog for all kinds of helpful advice . And take a look at what Modernstorytellers have to say. Some good links to help can be found at Free Book Notes.

If you want more help, take a look at three books on storytelling in a business context that all can be useful for startup storytelling:

  1. The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative
  2. What’s Your Story?: Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People, and Brands
  3. What’s Your Story?: Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful

Successful Entrepreneurs’ Stories

Many entrepreneurs love to tell their stories. Authors and journalists like to tell them, too. Here is a short selection of books that demonstrate the power of storytelling.

  • Lasermonks: The Business Story Nine Hundred Years in the Making
  • Mommy Millionaire: How I Turned My Kitchen Table Idea into a Million Dollars and How You Can, Too!
  • Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow
  • Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World
  • Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffee
  • Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

PLEASE NOTE: There is tons of useful stuff on Startup Owl, a site that’s been going for a dozen years. So keep browsing, but know that the founder, Will, now devotes most of his time and energy to his new website that you should definitely visit:

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