The Power of Great Storytelling

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This post was written by Seedcamp Founding Partner, Reshma Sohoni. Follow Reshma on Twitter @rsohoni

Storytelling is a powerful tool. In business, it is the most important and first thing you will do in developing your company. Now in 2015, where the cost of starting up your business has become increasingly cheaper and products are more and more similar, being a great storyteller is what will separate you from all the other startups fighting for attention and investment in a crowded space.

In the past year, I’ve spent some time traveling and have noticed that what makes tech ecosystems such as London, Berlin, and the Nordics truly stand out when compared to Central and Eastern Europe, is their ability to tell great stories. This perception came up in conversation whilst I spent some time in Prague earlier this year. I was discussing the evolution of the CEE/Balkans tech scene since we started Seedcamp in 2007, in comparison to the larger tech hubs of Europe.

Startup hubs including London, Berlin, and Stockholm, are key examples of great storytelling Cities.

In my view, the one key attribute to the perception that startups in London, Berlin, and the Nordics are killing it en masse is storytelling. CEE/Balkan-based startups and tech hubs, whilst they are growing, are not perceived to be on the same scale as others in part due to their storytelling abilities.

Founders need to be able to do more than just build great products. That’s hygiene and you won’t survive long-term without delighting customers. But when you are just jumping off the racing blocks, what enables you do go one step further is telling your story phenomenally well – in a way that ultimately brings value and understanding to your audience. So what really stands out amongst those who reach escape velocity, beyond the 1M users / 1M revenue, is user experience and marketing. These begin with storytelling.

If you can tell your story incredibly well the marketing, sales, recruiting, fundraising, and even the product, ultimately have to fall naturally in line and become more effortless and effective.

So what is Storytelling?

It’s not a story about your product and the litany of features. It’s not a story about the amazing technology you invented at University. Storytelling is about the value your audience derives from listening to you, using your product, working on your technology, bringing in sales, investing in you and your vision. Storytelling is about the value you bring to them all. The more it’s one story that you can tell, the more you know you are towards that perfect alignment.

One great exercise to help you improve the way you tell stories is to challenge yourself by sharing yours in one minute. Now try doing that in five. Then 10, and then 30 minutes. What 99 per cent of you will do is get that one-minute story perfect. Because you have been beaten down to perfection through a multitude of pitch competitions, accelerator Demo Days and even just explaining to friends and family what you actually do. But what the one per cent does, and why they become the unicorns, is that they nail that story in the 5, 10, and 30-minute discussions.

Here are a few tips to improve your storytelling:

  • Obsess over the value you bring to your audience – go into hiring interviews, user feedback sessions, fundraising meetings and all other audiences, obsessing over the value you bring to that audience. Likely you will find one story line that ties all of them together. Obsessing over anything is hard work. So be patient and practice but be brutally disciplined about this obsession.
  • Bring passion into telling the story – Engineer led founders often go into their automatic comfort zone talking about how their technology is built and how the products work. You need to switch into human mode. Whether it’s a smile, frustration, humour, or another emotion, bring that passion into your story. For many of you, either you will need to make that a conscious switch or you must identify a co-founder/senior team member who can bring in that passion. You must be interesting and ultimately, likable.
  • A hook, a crescendo, and a release – Whether it’s one minute or 30 minutes, your story needs to grab attention, hold it, and offer a release. Every great story you read or listen to does this. We all learn this basic skill in our earliest years. As we move from creative qualitative expression into quantitative science we often move away from practicing this skill and we start to lose mastery over it. Hence, many of you are finding yourself in a monotonous diatribe and you lose your audience to their phones, watches, dreams, and laptops. Ultimately you lose them to your competitors or worse….to doing nothing. Think about that! Doing nothing is better than using your product!
  • Answer the questions – It shocks me every time how founders just do not listen to the questions being asked and instead answer whatever they want to. When you are telling your story and get to Q&A you can’t forget that it’s still about them, not you. The smart hires, customers, and investors will ask you the hard questions because they care. You owe it to them to answer their questions and not dance around

That should give you a few more weapons in hand to become a great storyteller. The next time you find me engaged, enthusiastic, excited, and asking questions you know you have just mastered storytelling – good luck!

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