The Seven Deadly Sins of Startup Storytelling

This piece originally ran on The First Round Review published by First Round Capital.

pencilSo you called a cab, but no one’s showing. The only thing the cranky dispatcher will say is “He’ll be there in 15.” You call back in 15, and he now says, “Driver’s on the way. Any minute now.” Click. It’s cold, it’s getting dark, and you’re already late. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app that let you tap into an unused supply of empty cabs and cars to get you where you want to go, perhaps with a little style? So goes the legendary inspiration behind Uber, a story now encapsulated in a single tagline:

“Everyone’s private driver.”

When it comes to persuasion, companies have traditionally appealed to the left side of the brain — logic, pricing, specs. Emotion, however, has proven to be the better marketing tool. As Daniel Pink, author of Drive, writes, “Right-brain dominance is the new source of competitive advantage.” Appealing to the right side of the brain allows for deeper engagement by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do this: Tell a story.

That said, the way you tell a company’s story is (and should be) quite different from the way you’d tell a story at a party. While the same techniques for success apply, too often business stories fall flat or set unnecessary fires, particularly in the domain of start-ups. You see it all the time. But in my experience, you can’t teach a company how to tell its story — just like you can’t teach someone to have a certain personality. Instead, I’ll give you the big don’ts.

1. Telling, not showing.  One of the most fundamental maxims of storytelling is “Show, don’t tell” — and for a good reason. Rather than talking at your audience, telling them what to do or feel, share the story so that it unfolds naturally and your audience comes to their own conclusion themselves. People don’t just absorb facts and information. They actively listen to stories and, in real time, make their own inferences.

When you’re sharing a story, do so in a way that lets your audience envision the setting, picture the protagonist, and really feel the conflict that he or she is facing. Describe what’s happening as if the action is unfolding right now in front of you. As Mark Twain said:

“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” 

 

What this looks like in practice: Go to the “About Us” section on your website. Is it mostly text? Is the information pure data or are you using stories, personality and perhaps even humor to illustrate who you are?

Also take an inventory of the tools you’re using to share your company’s story. Done well, video is the most powerful antidote to the poison of telling. Rich in its ability to stimulate the senses visually and viscerally, it can convey complex ideas quickly, or emphasize subtle but important differences.

A key example is FiftyThree, creator of a digital drawing tool that’s a significant departure from other styluses on the market — particularly the way it folds in the best elements of analog tools. Called Pencil, it’s positioned as a better stylus, and unique in how it incorporates palm rejection. But rather than waste time explaining that terminology, or how Pencil is superior, the company released a beautifully shot narration-free video of artists actually creating with Pencil and demonstrating the intuitive quality of its features.

2. Too much jargon. We have all read countless press releases and seen presentations filled with nonsense words like synergy, platform, paradigm. What do they mean, anyway? We comfortably laugh at Alec Baldwin’s pompous character Jack on 30 Rock as he invents concepts like pos-mens (positive mentions) and upward-revenue-stream-dynamics, but to most people outside of our industry, we probably sound equally obtuse. Among the many plaudits heaped upon Steve Jobs, his emphasis on simplicity ranks high. You must recognize that it’s you and your product that need to fit your customer, not the other way around.

In his introduction of the famous Think Different campaign, Jobs told his audience, “To me marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember very much about us — no company is. So we have to be very clear about what we want them to know about us.”

Filling a story with technical terms, acronyms and superfluous words is the best way to lose your audience. Hippocrates (MDs know him as “The Oath Guy”) wrote: “The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”

In Practice: Under Jobs, Apple adopted a relentlessly simple, humanistic mode of communication. Today, successors like Square (“Sell on the go.”), Venmo (“Make and share payments.”), and Evernote (“Remember everything.”) make important and often elaborate capabilities accessible. They do this by filling in the blank for their customers: “I really want to _______.” Then they do it.

3. Too impersonal. It doesn’t matter if your organization sells razors, builds cloud infrastructure, or designs medical devices, human beings are still driving the action. Personalize the protagonist of your story. Make her seem real enough so that the audience feels a stake in (and wants to know) what happens to her next.

 

“People connect with other people, so make sure you focus on the real-life characters in your story.”

 

Subway famously took the opportunity to turn a true story into pure gold. College student Jared Fogle demonstrated that you can lose a ton of weight on a diet of Subway sandwiches. Much more compelling than promoting a slate of healthier new sandwich choices, here was a real-life story of a guy who Subway customers could connect to. And he was using their product to lead a better life. Originally written up in a campus newspaper, he was subsequently recognized as an asset by a local Subway franchise, then by Subway’s Chicago ad agency. Jared became the modest but quietly charismatic spokesperson for the brand. The Jared story ran as the lead campaign for Subway for 10 years — during which sales doubled.

In practice: What could be more personal than a hard drive in the cloud? Practically anything, right? But as the saying goes, it’s all in how you use it. When Dropbox hit a big customer milestone, they celebrated by launching a site thanking their customers while encouraging them to share what Dropbox has enabled them to do. Some people wrote and stored novels, others shared baby photos with distant grandparents, still others lost and recovered their honors theses — all thanks to Dropbox. The continuously scrolling page filled with customer images and text submissions brings a whole new dimension to the company and, best of all, gets out of the way to let customers share what they care most about with each other.

4. Starting from the beginning. Unless you’re telling the story of how to land a plane safely or the proper assembly of an IKEA bookshelf, resist the urge to begin at the beginning. Chronology matters much less than having your story follow an interesting arc. And as luck would have it, the stuff you need to hook people doesn’t tend to happen early on. Events need to build, one after the other, emotionally rather than sequentially. To really impact people, your story should describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion — but not necessarily the one that the audience expects.

As you think of the elements of the story you want to tell, imagine them as modules, first capturing them on Post-Its, then mixing them up. This easy exercise will break you of the oppressive habit of presenting things in order. Now, Post-Its in hand, think like a movie-maker. Open on a moment of truth. Make people feel it. Engage the senses. Then reach back to the past to savor the contrast. Even if people know how your story ends — it’s usually the product you’re asking them to buy — you can breathe life into the journey of how you got there, how your other customers discovered you, and why it’s made a difference.

In practice: Bank of America chose to flip chronology in its recent Portraits campaign. Opening on an old couple taking a photo together, we start to go back in time with the couple’s extended family setting up and taking photos, reaching back in time through significant, often challenging events. Grandchildren disappear, adults become children, and we’re left at the beginning: a young couple on a couch with their whole lives ahead of them. The effect is mesmerizing. What might have been a cloying, overly-sentimental ad is elevated with visual interest, a rare combination of creativity and familiarity that grabs attention and warms the heart.

5.  Lack of conflict.  Something always goes wrong in companies, particularly start-ups.  But screw-ups also present opportunities to shine by telling a story of responsibility, apology and remedy. Not only are customers more loyal to brands that readily apologize, the backlash to brands that don’t own their mistakes are disproportionately costly.

Engaging stories do not chronicle a straight line to success.  Imagine if Rocky won every fight… no one would watch. It’s the doubt and concern that keeps us engaged. Hone in on your protagonist’s problems or barriers to achieving his goal. What is standing in his way?

 

“By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend authenticity to the story.”

 

Lululemon missed a huge opportunity to apologize when it shipped a batch of, um, overly-sheer yoga pants. The faux pas was made oh, so much worse when founder Chip Wilson suggested that his customers’ fat thighs were to blame for the problem. Pouring insult on injury made sure that the company’s eventual apology fell on deaf ears. The incident prompted a disastrous quarter for the company and Wilson’s resignation.

In practice: While some accused her of being slow on the uptake, Marissa Mayer seized the opportunity to humanize Yahoo’s brand and demonstrate leadership while offering a clear, sincere apology for last month’s widespread email outage. She empathized with people and the problems the outage caused and took responsibility without making excuses. She even offered insight into the problem itself that anyone could identify with: “Unfortunately, the outage was much more complex than it seemed at first…” Hearing these few words, most people can think of a time when something similar happened to them. That’s where empathy begins. And only then can you recover.

6. Fabrication. Your story needs to be authentic. A major cancer center in Washington once asked a customer named Audrey, who happens to be a triathlete, if they could use her photo in a cancer awareness campaign. When the bus and magazine ads launched, much to the surprise of Audrey (and her large network of friends, family and fellow athletes), she was positioned as a cancer survivor. How much more powerful would this campaign have been if the featured image were that of an actual cancer survivor? For everyone who knows Audrey (or heard her story), this reputable institution has now tarnished its credibility forever. People want to hear and be moved by real stories.

 

“A fake story begs for a backlash.”

 

Make stories part of your culture — and more than that, the integrity of your culture. All-hands meetings can be pivotal here. Stories are often the best way to relate how a company is doing, what people are doing well, and what they could be doing better. And when leaders do this with transparency, honesty and humility, they make their employees feel good about their work — even if things aren’t all peachy.

In practice: Capturing moments, good or bad, in story form can authentically connect your employees to your company, and increase their commitment to their work. Consider kicking off staff meetings with stories instead of progress reports. There are a few ways to do this. As you go around the room, ask everyone to briefly talk about the strangest thing that’s happened to them since the last meeting, or a customer story that involved the greatest amount of surprise. Did someone use your product in a new way? Did a hater become a believer?

7. Proprietary. Companies with a stranglehold on what their corporate story is and who can tell it are missing a world of opportunities. And they’re doing so at a time when social media makes it easier than ever to connect and share. Stories told by employees and by customers are incredible, sometimes invaluable assets (see Jared for Subway). Recognize the value in stories from internal and external sources, design ways to collect them, and enable your customers, advocates and employees to be storytellers too.

The best tactic here is to create an internal “story bank,” or database of stories, where employees and even customers can write and submit stories complete with titles. These stories can then be tagged by keyword, so that people looking for particular anecdotes or examples can easily find them. This also makes it easy for employees browsing through customer stories to reach out to the authors.

Nike, Apple and eBay all harness stories as tools to crowdsource ideas — especially what their consumers are really passionate about. In doing so, they give employees the language and initiative to tell personal stories of meaning, and to amplify and distribute brand initiatives in story form.

In Practice: Comcast pioneered one of the very first effective campaigns on Twitter when it launched @ComcastCares. Once a hotbed of Comcast hate, Twitter became a huge brand building environment and customer service win for them. Comcast wrote the book on how people telling negative customer stories on social media (all-caps rants about poor cable service, photos of the cable guy asleep on their couch, etc.) could be co-opted and turned into authentic and powerful testimonials.

To start, Comcast simply trolled Twitter for mentions of the company, identified complaints, and addressed individuals publicly on the platform. Employees introduced themselves by name (not as the faceless Comcast Customer service organization) and combined apology with sincere effort to help. Comcast quickly found that even the angriest individuals stop raging when a reasonable person is trying to help them in a public forum. From there, it built its strategy by acknowledging its negative image and visibly working to flip it on its head.

On the other end of the spectrum, JPMorgan skipped these critical steps and discovered the hard way that the rosy story they were telling themselves (and wanted their audience to retell) was not what caught fire when they launched #AskJPM on Twitter. Misjudging both the medium and the moment, the hashtag that they thought would showcase sage financial advice solicited public outrage not seen since the original Occupy Wall Street protests. The company quickly shuttered the campaign, but #AskJPM lives on as a social media joke and cautionary tale.

As content marketing increasingly becomes the norm, tactical storytelling is sure to be broken down to a science. But there’s danger in being overly reductionist.  What makes good stories work is the same unpredictable, creative, unintuitive quality that makes humans human. Breakout success won’t follow from the rote application of step-by-step guides or how-tos. Design your strategy to avoid the seven sins above, however, and you’ll be in good shape to forge a voice of your own.

Coming full circle, back to Uber, you can see how sparing, simple text is used to convey an authentic message that not only poses a problem, but presents an appealing solution in less than 30 words. Stories don’t have to be long to be great. And the best ones tend to make the customer their main character.

  • Marushka Monette

    I really liked this ! I’m starting to develop content at futurOn , a digital marketing agency where I work , and I’m sure this will help me :)