The biggest challenge for every entrepreneur and every startup today is to get noticed and remembered in today’s information overload. The number of entrepreneurs worldwide is huge, starting an estimated 50 million new businesses per year, or 137,000 per day. Every one of these probably has a unique story, but in my years as a startup advisor I only remember hearing a few who capitalized on their story.
The impact of a memorable story was highlighted for me recently as I reviewed the classic book, “Sell With A Story,” by Paul Smith, who is an expert trainer on increasing business results through storytelling. His focus is primarily on improving the results for traditional sales professionals, but I’m convinced that the same principles are equally critical for entrepreneurs selling their startup to investors, strategic partners, and customers.
I say that because I’ve heard too many abstract pitches about the next paradigm-shifting technology, which I can’t relate to, and only a couple with stories that really grabbed me. The best story I remember related the family impact of devastation wrought by Alzheimer’s disease, leading to the development of a mitigation process, and I am now fully committed to this effort.
I learned from Smith that a memorable story doesn’t have to hit you personally, but it does have to include six key attributes to raise it above the standard sales pitch, or new venture problem statement, opportunity sizing, and value proposition. These attributes include the following:
- Specific moment-in-time indication. Most entrepreneurs were incented to start their venture at a specific moment they remember well, so telling the story of when and how this happened is a natural. The result will always have more impact than merely outlining a new technology, cutting costs, or tackling a known problem, such as world hunger.
- Place where it happened. A memorable story needs to start with location specifics to make it real. Stories relay events, and these events have to happen somewhere. The words can be simple, like “I was meeting with a customer in Boston,” or “When my home was devastated by a tornado.” It’s even acceptable to make up a place with a “what if.”
- Every story needs a main character. This should be obvious, but much of what passes for “a story” these days are things like elevator pitches or product descriptions that have no characters at all. In the context of new venture stories, the character would most likely be the entrepreneur, a potential customer, an investor, or all of the above.
- The obstacle or the painful need. This is the villain in the story, which should be the problem you are solving. If could be a disease you are designing medicine to combat, missing data that your solution provides, or a safety risk in a common process. The explanation of your solution, financial return, and the rollout comes later.
- A worthy goal. The main character in a story must have a specific goal, ideally one that is appreciated or even noble in the eyes of the listener. These days, it’s not cool to have a primary goal of making lots of money, but it is smart to include evidence that the new venture is sustainable as a business, and will provide a satisfying return to constituents.
- Something has to happen. Statements about your product’s amazing capabilities or your service commitment, or testimonials about how awesome your company is, are generally not stories because they don’t relay events. They are just someone’s opinion about impact which still belong in marketing collateral, but won’t make you memorable.
If possible, every entrepreneur should craft a unique story, or tune their story, for different audiences, such as investors and customers, to convey your values and your commitment in their specific context. Add emotion, surprise, dialogue, detail, data, and other elements to make your story fresh and effective. Always close stories with succinct lessons and recommended actions.
A compelling story is best used as a “grabber” to get people’s attention and make your venture and brand memorable, but it doesn’t replace any of the new venture basics, such as the business plan, investor deck, or financial model. It can be your competitive advantage over peers and existing players, and it is fun to do. How prepared are you to tell your best story?