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Have a Great Story and Know How To Tell It

Our young hero embarks on a journey for a rare ring.

A group of misfits band together against a fearsome enemy.

A girl meets a boy.

These are all setups for stories we’ve heard. You could even say they’re cliché.

But ask any Hollywood writer or producer and they’ll tell you that stories are the easy part. They take similar forms and are built on many of the same elements. They aren’t too complicated.

The hard part — the part that separates great storytellers from everyone else — is taking these simple stories and bringing them to life in the mind of whoever’s listening.

Why is storytelling so important? Because it moves people. It inspires them to take action.

When you were a kid and watched Star Wars, you were inspired to buy a lightsaber, or a lego Millenium Falcon.

When you’re an investor — a great story inspires you to invest in a team, product or service.

Every startup has a story. No, your startup’s story may not be as dramatic as Lord of The Rings. But it still relies on the same storytelling principles. It has conflicts and motivations and characters.   

So many of us in startups forget about the story and get caught up on the elevator pitch. You know it by heart — it’s that sentence or two that quickly sums up what your startup does and why it matters.

I’ve heard a million of these elevator pitches. And my reaction is usually the same…

“Cool...But tell me more.”

That’s because your startup and all it represents can’t be boiled down to a sentence. It’s so much more than that.

Behind every startup is a broader purpose and a problem that’s being solved. A series of events and actions — and maybe even some luck — led you to wherever you are on this journey.

By noticing these common principles, you can craft a story that will bring emotion to your startup, sharpen your brand identity, and—most importantly—make investors excited about your company.

Here are the four things you need to do as CEO to craft the perfect story and hook investors:

1. Remember the central conflict.

A big blockbuster movie can have all the special effects in the world … but if it doesn’t have a good story, you won’t be buying a ticket to the inevitable sequel.

I see loads of young founders with cool technology, all sorts of ideas, and impressive credentials. But when they tell me how they came up with the idea and why it matters, I often sense no purpose, no greater reason behind what they’re doing. The story leaves me cold.

That’s because a good story needs a clear, natural and believable conflict that sets the story in motion and drives it forward.

Your startup, in its simplest sense, is built on conflict. (And no, I’m not just talking about arguments with your CFO.) More specifically, your startup is addressing a conflict and providing a solution.

So when you’re standing in front of investors, get to the heart of why your startup exists. Remember the problem you’re setting out to solve. This is what sets your story in motion.

2. Set the scene and be descriptive.

Present your story effectively. Don’t just tell — show! Set the scene for this central conflict. Often it helps to think of yourself as the “hero” in this story. You, the hero, encountered a conflict then started this brand in an attempt to address the conflict.

Make the story have a logical beginning, middle and end. These may sound like basic storytelling principles, but you’d be surprised how many CEOs end up sounding like your drunk friend at the bar who’s telling a confusing story that’s met with a bunch of blank stares. Don’t be that guy. No one likes that guy. So don’t be afraid to rehearse.

And while we’ve established that your story is a bit deeper and more substantive than your pitch, it should still be concise. The last thing an investor wants to hear is a rambling story. Don’t include extraneous information. Get to the heart of what makes your story interesting and banish the rest.

3. Be honest and be human.

It’s time to drop the slick marketing speak, the snappy mottos, the technical jargon. Storytelling is your chance to get real. Be honest with how this idea came about.

Your journey hasn’t been a smooth waltz into this boardroom. No, it’s been full of ups and downs. Staying authentic and addressing all the bumps in the road will humanize your story.

Furthermore, your story can place your startup into a larger context.

I sometimes like to click on the “Our Story” link on company websites. Some companies will even take it a step further and have an “Our Vision” page. It’s a bit more exciting than the boring but inescapable “About” page.

I recently clicked on “Our Vision” for one of the many “meal delivery services” that drop a box of ready-to-cook ingredients at your door every day. These startups popped up because they got at the central conflict of “work/life balance.” Such companies appeal to young professionals for obvious reasons.

That’s why I was admittedly impressed when I saw that this particular company crafted a wide-ranging vision around sustainable food that supported local farmers. This vision makes the story feel bigger. It brings humanity to your project.

Placing your story in a larger context adds stakes to your startup. It sets your company apart, which will help catch the attention of investors.

4. Spread the word.

The stories of great companies stick in our mind. They’re what we immediately associate with that company when we hear its name.  

That’s why have to tie your story to your brand. They have to be intertwined. So tell your story a lot. Be proud of it. Feature it prominently on your website. Rehearse it. As your story becomes intertwined with your brand, it will become a major marketing element.

The story doesn’t have to be complicated. But it has to be inextricably tied to your personality. Because the people you’re pitching to aren’t just investing in an idea — they’re investing in you and all you bring to the table.

A Storytelling Success

I’ve worked with clients who have entirely changed the course of their business by sharpening their story in an easy and practical way. One example was HYPR, an influencer search and discovery index.

In their case, we had to sharpen the conflict of their story. This allowed them to convey the solutions they provided in a whole new way, inspiring investors and taking their startup to the next level.

Initially, they started out as a basic marketplace for influencers. This worked in some ways, but it wasn’t expressive of the true conflict HYPR was setting out to address. And there were 10,000 of them out there. But we dug deeper, and had conversations with clients, and found out, like Indiana Jones working his way through a booby-trapped cave, that the there was no real conflict that needed a solution that is an influencer marketplace, but there was a real conflict, a real problem we could solve: “It is hard for marketers to figure out which influencers to work with. Which Influencers actually influence our target market”.

This was dramatically different from the original conflict, and the story changed similarly. Instead of being a marketplace, HYPR evolved into a decision engine/index to match the right influencer with the right audience.

And suddenly HYPR got funding, clients, and hyper fast growth.

No, this example isn’t “sexy.” It doesn’t do justice to the massive journey this brand has been on for years. But it is an example of storytelling helping a startup find its purpose and better articulate its authentic identity. It’s a crucial step on the path to raising money from investors and growing your startup.

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