5 common storytelling mistakes

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Last week I came back from a pretty fun conference in Rijeka, Croatia. It was my first time in Croatia and despite having Croatian Airlines losing my suitcase for a whole three days, I had an incredible time. For starters, I was really impressed by the Rock Paper Startups conference organizers. They pulled a great event. So kudos to the whole team. I was specially impressed with the Mc they brought in to run the conference. I am a sucker for Mcs, having been one myself many times, but the work my dear Iva Sulentic pulled was incredible, so also hat tip to her for being an incredible professional.

During the event, the organization asked me to talk about storytelling for start-ups. I decided to give it a twist and I focused on the typical mistakes I see everyone making when dealing with stories, let it be a start-up or a big corporation.

Storytelling is the new black

As I’ve said many times, it seems the use of stories is trendy now. Everyone talks about them, but in my experience, few really understand what  story is about. Storytelling requires time and expertise and it isn’t a cosmetic thing your marketing department can throw in the mix. As I said on my talk, in a much more eloquent form, is that, despite many trying to be Steve Jobs, most resemble Steve Ballmer, instead of Jobs. It’s not the first time I comment on how much work Jobs invested into creating the right story with the right twists, the right delivery, etc. It took him months for a one hour talk. And he was who he was. So just make sure you understand that story building is a serious business that requires full focus on what you’re doing.

1. Facts aren’t story

This mistake is the number one reason why I’ve ended up focusing wholeheartedly on storytelling. When you ask someone to send you a story, you’ve probably have a 80% chance of getting handed a fantastic list of facts. Well, let me break this to you, numbers and facts aren’t story. They might be weaved inside a story line but they are not the bulk of it. Stories are about human emotions and empathy, we can’t relate to numbers, it’s boring, and it’s the major cause for a well known illness called Death by Powerpoint. People don’t care about an aseptic description, about what or how you do it, but WHY you do it.

Stories illustrate facts, they get the hard numbers and embody them in a human protagonist that experiences real life experiences the audience can relate to, illustrating by means of example.

2. Stories are told for a reason

One of the clear examples that storytelling is reaching a tipping point is the fact that you see plenty of companies using stories that don’t make any sense. Sometimes I get pitched fantastic stories that, while being beautiful, don’t relate to anything the company is doing. Stories have a reason to exists. They have a moral, a teaching or a message that the storyteller wants to push through to that specific audience. The Bible, The Iliad and the Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita or even Snow White, all have messages and where written, orally taught and aggregated to teach specific things, let it be moral codes, culture facts or beliefs.

Some of the stories I hear from many companies just don’t make any sense. They lack an inciting incident, a spark, a reason to tell the story. Other times the reason to tell the story has nothing to do with the message the storyteller is trying to convey, backfiring and creating more confusion than anything else. This is one of the reasons why I’ve heard people bashing storytelling during these past years. They’ve been exposed to such incongruent stories, that no wonder they shun away from it. I sometimes do too.

3. Context is critical for a story

I can’t stress this point more. A specific inciting incident or event only makes sense if there is context. What is context exactly? Well it’s the information that allows humans to understand a specific situation, in this case, a specific scene from a story. Actually this has a lot to do with helping the audience resolve disambiguation of a scene. In other words, walk me to the inciting incident or I won’t understand it. Most of the stories I see fail miserably here. The reason is simple, they are normally designed and told by experts. The problem with experts is that they live in a meritocracy, where everyone should be as expert as they are or more. This means that their stories already assume the audience has a firm grasp of the reason why they’re telling the story. Wrong. They don’t. Except in very specific situations, a story will encounter a virgin audience that needs to be walked to the spark of the story. If you fail to walk them by the hand, they won’t understand the story and will, in all probability, get more confused.

4. Stories need protagonists

This isn’t new, but it’s worth repeating because people still think that telling a story from a brand perspective is what they should be doing. While you can surely try, nothing beats a human protagonist. The more the audience can relate to the protagonist, the more engaged they will be and the more emotions you’ll be able to spark in them. A product isn’t a protagonist either. I always give the same example, but I think it illustrates the problem very clearly. You don’t get attracted to the Coke can, you get attracted to the guy or gal drinking from it. That’s the link, not the liquid nor the container, but the person that drinks it and what they represent. Stop trying to tell stories about inhuman things, even Sponge Bob got this right damn! Learn from it!

5. Share your story

Some people wait until they’ve finished the story, the ads, all the graphics, etc. to release a story. After a while reality starts dawning on them and they realize the story isn’t working. Please, don’t wait until you have everything ready. You should dry run your story as soon as possible and get feedback. Tell it to your friends, family, customers, etc. See how people react, learn what works and what doesn’t and ask why. This process is well understood by standup comedians and movie makers like Pixar, learn from them and share basic designs, share your story MVP as soon as possible to get feedback as fast as possible.


As I said in my talk, storytelling takes time, it isn’t a quick or easy process. Some people believe storytelling is just about grouping words one after the other. This is the same thing as calling a group of people inside a room a team. Most probably it’s not. Actually the hardest part of a story is to design it, to build the scenes, explore the universe and make it all work in harmony. Once that works, writing it down is the easiest part and the quickest. Don’t leave it until the very end or you’ll regret attempting any storytelling whatsoever.






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