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Once upon a time

“What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever.” (Robert McKee, 2022).

In his amazing TED talk, “The Clues to a Great Story” Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton says the greatest story commandment is “make me care”. The purpose of storytelling in business can be extrapolated – making someone care means creating a connection and solving a pain point. As a founder that’s the most important thing you’ll do in a day. Make. People. Care. Whether that’s potential investors, customers, your team or business advisor. And the ability to tell a good story is integral to making that happen.

As founders and entrepreneurs, we innately understand the unique utility our idea, product or service offers. But it can be tough to translate that into simple and compelling explanation. Navigating the sea of corporate-speak, data insights, PowerPoint presentations and marketing hyperbole raises the bar. To be able to quickly and simply explain why you started, what problem your business uniquely solves and your vision for the future – is uncannily hard.

So how do you develop story skills? And what is story anyway?

Storytelling is ancient, ubiquitous and deeply embedded in humanity. From birth, you’ve been surrounded by stories: – oral histories, legends, picture books, nursery rhymes and bedtime stories. Books, films, art, gaming and social media. Humans are intrinsic storytellers – and you have a deeper understanding of story than you realise.

All the great storytellers from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and today have explored the tension between subjective expectation and reality. The traditional three- act structure is a fundamental framework for storytelling – essentially a beginning, a middle and an end. Act One, the normal world, a desire. Act 2 is about striving to overcome obstacles that block that desire. Act 3 – making it through and being irreversibly changed by the experience.

Humans naturally want to work through stories and we understand experience as stories. Stories entrance us and drive emotion. They’re how we connect and remember – we tend to forget graphs and data points.

MAKE. PEOPLE. CARE.

HOW DOES THIS WORK IN A BUSINESS CONTEXT?

Tell a truthful story. Audiences appreciate the truthfulness of a storyteller who acknowledges the struggle and deals honestly with challenges. That kind of story engenders a positive but realistic energy in the audience and develops trust and empathy. Trotting out how amazing everything is and how it’s going to be plain sailing up ahead is boring. But this isn’t about whingeing or negativity. Set out the obstacles you’ve identified and overcome.
Talk about what future challenges you foresee and what you plan to do about them.

Get Personal. Persuade by telling a compelling story: the story of what inspired you, what was hard, what is hard. What you set out to do and why. Unite an idea with emotion. Sharing your passion and determination invites an audience to emotionally connect and journey with you. For example, you watched your parents struggle with debt your entire childhood. This experience drove you to forge a business specialising in supporting people with financial literacy and debt consolidation. That’s story. An audience connects with this because sharing your personal story and vulnerability creates trust and convinces them you’re truly driven to make change. It underscores commitment and invites hope. It makes people care.

Keep It Simple. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication when it comes to story. Telling a good story means you can take complexity and explain it simply – and being able to clarify problems will allow those who are trying to help support you better. Business advisors tease this out with work on core values, unique propositions and brand premise. Like the foundations of a house, your story/business premise is a simple, solid statement that sets out a core issue, describes a movement towards resolving that issue and fulfills that resolution. The story/brand promise speaks directly to a human need that the story explores. It offers a reason to care.

1. Start with a sentence that starts:

My story/business is about ……

Find the issue or idea at the heart of your story/business. Hope, courage, learning, beauty, kindness.

2. Next write a sentence that begins:

The movement of my story/business towards the resolution of its promise can be described as ………

Does your business’s development hinge around overcoming, disrupting or re- educating? Does it lead towards something like empowering, renewing or redefining?

3. Third, write a sentence that begins:

The fulfillment of my story is ……………

4. Now look over the sentences and reduce them to a single sentence.

“The premise of my (or insert company) story is (what you do/how you move towards something) and ultimately (what you/the company
achieves/learns).”

Here’s my stab at applying this to a business you might be familiar with.

The premise of Netflix is to continually develop original content and technology and to provide convenient, affordable and personalised ways for people to watch TV and movies and ultimately entertain the world.

MAKE. PEOPLE. CARE.

Work Out Who You Are

Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling. A storyteller creates all characters by putting themselves in the shoes of those characters with openness and curiosity. A storyteller mightn’t like how a character thinks or acts but can bring compassion and insight to their treatment of them. Knowing who you are and what drives you means you’re better able to listen and understand the viewpoints of others (e.g. customers, competitors, investors), identify their pain points and work to solve them. Or not.

Story Short and Tall

You can view story from the overarching perspective of brand journey, but you can also bring story to the everyday. Story can be found everywhere: in a breakthrough, an epiphany, a milestone. In the learnings and losses. In a new connection, a crisis averted. Story is about heart. It’s ultimately in stepping through each day, dealing with the setbacks and courageously continuing towards a goal. This can look like a rainy morning commute, the graft of preparing for a funding round or time off for a sick child. Opportunities for you (and your team) to demonstrate the lived values of your brand story are everywhere.

Cut the BS

Authenticity and transparency tropes are a hot thing right now on LinkedIn. But the cynic (and storyteller) in me has found perspective with it – and it can only be a good thing. Out with BS and bravado and glitter and graphs. There’s a new integrity forging a path and at the heart of it? Story. We embrace flaws, we value honesty. We want to share the brutality of striving and learn from courage. Find your inner storyteller, harvest story from within your team. Make. People. Care.

Lou Harness is Founder and Video Producer at Webflicks. Lou leads an agile, creative team bringing film experience and script expertise to crafting meaningful business stories that create positive change.

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