The Importance of Storytelling
“I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but what are you doing here?” … That was the question I was asked last month at the Change in the Making digital marketing conference held in Squamish, BC … which billed itself as “Western Canada’s biggest marketing & PR conference”.
It was not asked in a way that I should have taken it the wrong way, but rather out of a curiosity and a complement to how far we have evolved as a company. You see, I had just finished telling our story complete with the peaks, valleys, and emotional arcs that Matthew Luhn from Pixar would entrap the audience with the very next day. And the listener—with whom I was shouting conspiratorially at the after party—was truly curious and wanted to know more.
The art of storytelling is essential to every business. It is the reason new hires choose to follow your dream and why your Board signs off on a vision with a mix of excitement and nervous trepidation imagining what might be. It is also what enraptures a potential investor, or for that matter, convinces your loving spouse that your mission to change the world is a definite possibility.
Let’s explore each of these a little bit:
Storytelling to Candidates
A bit of truth-telling here. If you are a prospective hire for us at Left, or for that matter if you are interviewing elsewhere, there is something that you should know. Everything you hear is bullshit. Not in the way that is unbelievable bullshit, nor is it bullshit in the way that the work-life balance that we have created and our Community Engagement program are not real and awesome (they are, and it is wonderful). But bullshit in the way that we are making this up as we go along. All of it. That is what we entrepreneurs do. We are bullshit artists. And our primary, entrepreneurial attribute is that we can bullshit well enough that people (and hopefully you) will believe enough of it that you will jump in with both feet and make it happen.
You see, we have to tell you a story. Just as you are telling us your life story about what makes you unique and brought you to this place, in front of us, at that very moment (and what makes you qualified), from the moment we place that career ad or greet you at the front door, our job is to tell you a story. A good story enthralls you and makes you want to cheer for the hero. It creates empathy for the problems you are trying to solve. And with the really best stories, they invite the reader or listener into the make-believe world where everything is possible.
If we cannot tell you our vision, or create that emotional bond with you where you want to join the story, then it is not the right fit. It is not the “We are going to be the Uber of Pet Care” kind of statement that you might blurt out at a networking event. It is the tale you weave that brings the candidate into your world and makes them see the bigger picture about a world that you create. And if you create this emotional bond with a candidate, a good storyteller should have the ability to have their pick of any candidate.
Storytelling to Investors
When approaching a potential investor as an entrepreneur, you are asked to give your 30-second elevator pitch – your quick summary about why you (the target), should care (enough) to engage with you for a few minutes rather than looking over your shoulder for the next prospect, or more likely, the Sesame Crusted Seared Tuna with Coriander Pesto canape that is making its way around the networking venue in which you find yourself.
Alas, this too is bullshit. It is not your elevator pitch that they want to hear contrary to what they teach you in startup school. What they want to hear is a story. A story that pulls them in and gives them a reason to give a damn. Without that perfect story or emotional hook you will never get to your benefit statements, growth charts, and eventual slide deck depicting the potential market share [it is going to be huge!]. It is not that those things don’t matter, but if you cannot tell (and sell) a story, then it is going to be a rough, rough ride.
A typical investor has a lot of deal flow to peruse. A great investor sees and hears more pitches than the Whitehouse Press Pool hears lies. Take venerate Andreesen Horowitz as an example:
Each year, three thousand startups approach a16z with a “warm intro” from someone the firm knows. A16z invests in fifteen. Of those, at least ten will fold, three or four will prosper, and one might soar to be worth more than a billion dollars—a “unicorn” in the local parlance. (source:The New Yorker)
With those numbers stacked against you, it should be obvious that you would need more than a great elevator pitch once you get that warm intro. But once you get in the door, this should be your time to shine.
But where to begin? It is simple when you think about it… be authentic. Just as consumers are buying from brands that they admire, respect, or trust, the story – your story – should be authentic.
If you are an early stage company, all that you have is you: your passion, your idea, your experience, your history. Whatever has brought you to where you are today… this is your story. Where you go tomorrow is the journey that the investor will buy into, but your potential investor also needs to know what brought you to that moment in time.
For a later stage or growth company, your story now includes your company’s performance: both the highs and the lows, the unfortunate but necessary pivots and those euphoric late nights where you see your curve trending upward. A typical entrepreneurial founder is indistinguishable from the company they have created. But rather than a story of “Me, Myself, and I”, it is a story of “We, Us, and Our”.
If you cannot create that emotional bond with your investor, they will also not believe you will be able to authentically connect with your future customers, partners, and employees.
The Left Story
Storytelling is something that I love to do. Unfortunately, when I have my head down working on the tasks filling my inbox every day, it is something that I often forget/neglect to do. We have a great story here at Left: a story that the entire team is proud to tell. It is complete with a unique opening scene, wonderful backstory, near-death experiences, and even the occasional love story or two. Yes, there have been tears, but there have also been moments of pure joy that breathe life into that which we are creating.
We have been working hard at refining our story recently. The history is easy to tell. The distant future—the one in which we have changed the world through a new way of connecting people and things—this can be described quite vividly as well. Where we have struggled is how to tie the two narratives together. In a recent conversation, this was described as the “common thread” that brings you, dear reader, along for the ride.
In the coming weeks and months, you will start to hear more about this story: both from myself, the self-appointed storyteller here at Left, as well as from other Lefties, and from those whom we have connected with along the way.
Stay tuned. It will be a story you will want to hear.
John, Co-Founder and Storyteller
NB. I never did answer the question posed above about “what I was, in fact, doing” at the CIMC conference. I believe that everyone needs to learn every day. But sometimes we don’t give ourselves permission (or time) to learn something new – especially as an entrepreneur where life consists of jumping from fire to fire to fire. When you take yourself out of your routine, attend a conference or two, it opens your eyes to new ideas and new possibilities. I still consider myself a marketer at heart, and not only was there a great lineup of speakers, every marketer needs to keep up-to-date on how best to reach and engage the right audience at the right moment in time. Methods and mediums change… and fast! As a previous boss said to me once, “Stay awake! It all can change tomorrow.”