Storytelling for Startups

Engaging Customers, Employees, and Investors with Stories

“People often make the mistake of thinking that there’s a huge difference between storytelling for entertainment and storytelling for business.” —Jenn Maer, Omada Health

Great storytelling can be your most powerful tool for disseminating your vision. Stories are scientifically proven to stimulate different regions of the brain and change how we act in life. When we hear about a character that is moving, the motor cortex in our brain responds. When we hear a word like citrus, the olfactory portion of our brain lights up. Stories offer founders and marketers the opportunity to literally synchronize a customer’s brain with the message behind the story they are telling (scientists call this neurocoupling), and this obviously has profound implications for selling a product.

When we hear stories, our brains release dopamine. This allows us to remember stories better. You can hit someone with a piece of marketing that they are sure to forget, or you can craft a story that people are scientifically predisposed to remember. That is the power of storytelling for startups.

This insights has led to major (sometimes creepy) developments in ‘neuromarketing.’ As in all marketing, founders have an ethical responsibility to use it to promote life-enhancing products and to hopefully not take advantage of customers.

Storytelling becomes increasingly important depending on how people find you product. If you have a pull acquisition program, i.e. customers know about the category and seek solutions by searching for your type of product, your need for storytelling will be less pressing than if you have a push acquisition program, where customers are doing other things and learn about your product. As Ryan Metzger stated in a recent post“when ‘push’ is dominant, storytelling becomes more important which increases the need for a strong PR presence as well as high-quality ad copy and landing pages.”

*Many of the following insights are sourced from a Dreamit podcast.

Elements of a Great Startup Stories (IE How to Make People Care)

  • Create a sequence of events. Stories are crafted to be engaging by the deliberate story design choices of their authors. Andrew Stanton of Pixar describes lesson as the Unifying Theory of 2+2. Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them 4. Give them 2+2. “The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they are doing that. Your job as the storyteller is to hide the fact that they are working for their meal,” stated Stanton. This may sound simple, but once you internalize this concept you will begin to craft more suspenseful sequences of action each time you create a story. No matter how boring the story is, you can create suspense out of it by simply creating a series of events.
  • You need a character you’re rooting for or something you really care about and has a personal angle that people can relate to. Without characters, there is no emotion, and without emotion, a story just falls completely flat. “What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against,” states Pixar artist Emma Coats. Have you ever noticed how Beats always releases stories of athletes around the time of big sporting events? When you are already predisposed to root for the characters in their ads, it makes telling the story that much easier. This ad featuring Serena Williams has been watched over 15 million times. It shows a sequence of events, a character who has had every odd stacked against her growing up, and the ups and downs of her journey to the top of the tennis world.

  • Show the negative to highlight the positive. In order to use stories to persuade, you have to show the negative side. Stories should have some basis in reality, and in the real world there is dynamic change. “If things go static, stories die, because life is never static,” states Andrew Stanton. Pinterest’s Head of Operations Don Faul recounted his interactions with Sheryl Sandberg when he was at Facebook, “At Facebook, Sheryl [Sandberg] used to talk very publicly and encourage other leaders at the company to talk very publicly about things they tried that didn’t work and what they learned from it. She would tell specific stories about the smartest people she knew, how they had stumbled, and how they had worked through failure. The way she told these stories, the people were very real to us. The feelings they experienced when they failed were very real. But the idea that the company was learning and moving forward was also very real. She made it clear these experiences were the foundation of Facebook’s culture and something to take pride in.”
  • Maintain authenticity. “Audiences are smart and they will sniff it out right away,” stated Schwartz. This concept is about about being honest, but it also extends beyond just the content of what you are saying. It’s also about how you say it. “Everything is more compelling when you talk like a human being, when you talk like yourself,” Ira Glass stated. Authenticity is also about putting your money where your mouth is. A brand like Patagonia, for instance, does not just claim to care about the environment in their advertisements. They become enmeshed in the cause — going so far as to sponsor a van that goes around the country repairing customers’ jackets so they won’t waste environmental resources on buying new things. Paradoxically, these efforts actually result in even greater sales of clothing for the company.
  • Find the “North Star.” In stories, you are often connecting a smaller idea to something bigger. You need to identify the core idea —i.e. your North Star — that you are trying to get across to your audience. What you say in your story should resonate with and amplify this core idea, whether you do it in a subtle or overt way. Once you have a North Star, vary the ways you tell your story to connect to different audiences. Your North Star will remain the same, but the way you tell your story will change depending on who you are talking to. Airbnb has been extremely successful with content marketing, with hundreds of stories from communities all over the world. But they are all guided by a North Star, that Airbnb is committed to supporting communities. Here’s another example from Casper. This ad appeared on New York subways. Three different stories. One very obvious North Star: Better Sleep for All.
  • Utilize visual storytelling. 83% of human learning is visual. With more content and information inundating customers than ever before, it has become critical for brands to parse the important information and feed it to customers in visual formats. Consider this page on Slack’s website — you can give a boring list of your customers for validation, or you can create something like this and show the important things your technology is enabling. For a startup, the visual story you tell on the landing page of your website is absolutely critical. 55% of visitors spend fewer than 15 seconds on your website. Without a strong visual story with an easy CTA, you are at a major disadvantage.
  • Constantly seek out inspiration for stories. You have to surround yourself with tons of stuff, tons of people, tons of experiences. “Ideas lead to other ideas” is the creed of Ira Glass. You have to get out of your comfort zone and find the story. For the purposes of a startup founder, you should always stay in contact with your customers and employees. Create customer feedback channels (learn how to do that here). But more important than creating the channels is responding to those channels. Faster response times leads to better promoter scores and satisfaction for customers. This is the perfect opportunity to build real relationships with customers and hear their stories.
  • Create user narratives. In Hooked, Nir Eyal & Ryan Hoover discuss ways that stories help product developers create things that are relevant to the end users. They give an example of how Jack Dorsey at Twitter used stories — “Dorsey believes a clear description of users — their desires, emotions, the context with which they use the product — is paramount to building the right solution.” Usability studies, empathy maps, and customer development can inform these user narratives. If you succeed in telling the customer’s story of how they use your product, you can coordinate your teams better. Everyone (operations, design, and engineers) can relate to the story and move the product in the right direction.
  • Share your vision for your company’s future. Your biggest storytelling asset are your employees, so your goal as founder must be to empower them to tell stories. They need to be aware of how their interactions with customers are serving the broader vision for the company’s future. With this in mind, they can will have a better connection to the brand and that will translate into greater customer satisfaction.
  • Build your company in public. This post by Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover lays out the benefits of building your startup in public, namely the increased buy-in you get when people feel like they are helping to build your product, the early feedback you can use to iterate early and change quickly, and the general excitement that people get from following your startup journey. This means storytelling using the techniques above on platforms like Medium and Twitter.

Examples of Great Storytelling

Google has some of the most powerful ads that utilize stories to cause an emotional reaction. It’s nearly impossible to watch these ads without crying (more examples here and here).

Skype is another great example of the emotional power of stories. These stories do not lose value as time goes by.

Steve Jobs was possibly the greatest tech storytelling to ever live. His Apple launches and signature use of the phrase “one more thing” became iconic and established Apple as a brand that made the impossible possible. Watch how he utilized this narrative trick here:

Tech companies like AirbnbHarry’s, and Omada Health have dedicated entire sections of their websites to storytelling.

So, how do you prepare and improve?

First, watch great storytellers. Check out Youtube videos of Steve Jobs presenting new products or Elon Musk talking about his vision of the futureor Andrew Stanton talking about how he created stories for Pixar like Toy Story. Stand-up comedy can also be a great resource.

Second, practice. Practice your pitch in front of the mirror, to your friends, to whoever wants to listen. The more you practice, the more clearly you will be able to understand the conversation, how to direct the conversation, and how to pivot when you are presented with something that you weren’t expecting. To see this idea more clearly, think about practicing basketball. The best players spend hours every day taking shots from different angles, with different defenders, when they are rested and tired. This is all so that when it is game time, they are not presented with a situation that they haven’t seen before. You have to do the same thing. Don’t let a potential investor’s question be novel or tell a story that a customer will not find engaging. You only have one shot at making a good first impression with your product.

Third, find an expert to help craft your story. Hillary Rea and richard schwartz of Digitas Health — Life Brands provide storytelling advice to Dreamit companies as they go through our accelerator program. These lessons have helped our startups gain customers and raise venture capital funding.

This article is a follow-up to our recent webinar titled “A Founder’s Guide to Storytelling”. Seth BerkRichard SchwartzHillary ReaBharanidharan Rajakumar, and Jenn Maer discussed the power of storytelling in the context of building a business. You can find the webinar on YouTubeSoundCloud, and iTunes.

Charles LaCalle