Storytelling: what story should I tell? Part I

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Storytelling: what story should I tell? Part I

The first time I did the storytelling workshop for start-ups I wasn’t sure it made any sense. It was basically a hunch that a lot of start-ups would be interested in learning how to write a powerful story for their company. The feedback we’ve had in the past year definitely confirms my hunch. It’s indeed a very hot topic. It’s so trendy, you can read all type of posts  screaming for interesting storytelling. Actually, it’s so fashionable, there has been some voices asking for some tuning down of the topic.

I have to say that, even though I have a vested interest in this field to pick up, I agree with the critics. Storytelling is a powerful tool, but as any tool, you can’t use it for everything. When used correctly, under the right circumstances and at the right moment, it’s a game changer, but if used wrongly, it can actually go against the start-up. One of the reasons why people use storytelling wrongly is because they don’t have a clear strategy as to what they should be writing about. The top question I get on the workshop is, what story should start-ups tell, so here it is.

There are many angles you can take for a story, and the limit is normally your own creativity. Now, I’ll give two suggestions for stories that normally resonate with the audience. Even though both angles might seem overused, it’s important to understand that the devil is in the details. How many times have we listen to the Cinderella story? Remakes, downplayed story lines, changes of time and location, etc. While we’ve seen endless variations, the story essence remains the same. You could even agree with Mr. Vonnegut and trace it back to religion, thousands of years ago. My point is, don’t underestimate these angles just because they’ve been used before.

My first suggestion is to tell the story of the founders or the actual project. There is always a story or reason why the founders are doing what they’re doing. This though, is an endless source of boring stories. As I always tell my students, stories are about unexpected twists and curiosity.

Storytelling: Take a dive

Many start-ups read post about writing stories and they go on and crack the most boring, uninteresting and expected crap about their background. When it doesn’t flies, they resent the whole process and disregard it as something useful. The thing is, most stories behind start-ups, tend to be boring.

I had this case where two cofounders asked me what was wrong with their company story. It went something like: 2 buddies from school, one day have an idea while having beers. End up school, they reject offers at top consulting companies and decide to move to the Bay Area to chase their dream. While the story might have wowed us 20 years ago, today it’s so common, it’s nearly the expected behavior for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit. The fact that is expected, that there are no surprises or twists within it, turns it into a useless storyline for the company.

Now, compare it with the story of the 20 year old that run out of cash, had his cofounders desert him and decided to turn the AOL building into his own coach surfing facility. Similar story, but totally unexpected outcome, including the final investment by VCs in the Valley. Can you feel the difference? The plot is essentially the same, but the events and the story gaps are totally different.

If your company has something similar, by all means, write about it. Word of advice though, make sure you tell your story to a small audience before writing it down. If people gasp with surprise and tell you what an amazing story, then you know you have gold, or at least something you can work with. If people smile and tell you it’s a nice little story, that’s a strong indicator that people thought it was expected and have heard it before.

Part II

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