Let me start with a question: What is your startup’s story?

What is it that you tell your customers? What do you write on your landing pages, social media, and all that other stuff?

And I’m not asking about your features or your elevator pitch, or whatever else you put on your powerpoint slides.

I’m wondering if you have a clear, meaningful message that you consistently communicate to the outside world through everything that you do.

I know that you may be very confused right now. But bear with me, as today we’re going to figure out how to take your storytelling to the next level.

Why Storytelling Is such a Big Deal

People are wired to communicate via stories. This is how we’ve survived for thousands of years. This is how we teach our children morality. This is how we entertain ourselves.

Grimm rocked storytelling!

Storytelling has been around forever. However, storytelling for business is a relatively new concept.

It’s new because for the longest time, it didn’t scale. You see, in order for a story to work, it needs 2 things.

1. Time. You need time to tell any compelling story, and it is almost impossible to do so during a 30 second long commercial.

2. Reach. We've always loved sharing stories but how many people can we reach by telling them in person? Not many.

Then came the Internet, and it changed everything.

First, it gave us an easy way to follow up on a story and learn more if those “30 seconds” caught our attention. Marketers no longer need to tell the whole story during the first interaction, but just enough to get people excited to learn more.

Secondly, the Web is full of ways to easily spread ideas that touch us. From email forwarding to Twitter, marketers now have the ability to reach an audience of any size.

On the flip side, we’ve learned to ignore any story not worthy of our attention. Furthermore, we’ve learned to pay little attention to specs, to feature descriptions, to anything that might get us bored.

And this brings us to the first storytelling mistake you need to avoid.

Mistake #1: Focusing too Much on the Features

App.net didn't become popular because it promised a “real-time social feed” or an unrestricted API. That isn't App.net’s story.

Their story is about customers tired of being treated as products, about changing the way social networks have worked so far, about the promise of ethics in dealing with privacy, about challenging the status quo.

And a lot of people love that promise enough to pay $50+ for a product that doesn't exist. As Andrew Chen writes on his blog: “[I] don’t actually know what it’s going to be, I’m just writing about what I hope it will be!”


Storytelling works because people can relate to it. Nobody has ever related to bullet points.

Here’s what Riley Gibson writes for Inc.:

“Focusing on specifications or detailed descriptions of what you do will be lost on most of your audiences, while a compelling and inspiring story about what you do, why you do it, and how it will make something better will help attract and motivate people.”

Mistake #2: Telling a Story Your Customers Don’t Want to Hear

When you tell a bedtime story to children, they often try to take over and tell you what the story should really be about. And you have no other way but to comply.

Same applies to business!

Your potential customers already know the story they want to hear; they just want to hear it from you.

In his bestselling book “All Marketers are Liars,” Seth Godin talks about how every person already has a worldview about any subject, and there’s no point convincing them otherwise.

So don’t try to persuade people into believing your story, but find those people who want to believe and communicate to them.

I want to believe (dinosaurs are not dead)

Corbett Barr has built a significant following by telling a story about growing traffic to not only increase income but to have a more meaningful life and a more impactful business.

John Chow has also built a successful blog about traffic. But his story is about laziness and “living the dot com lifestyle,” and finding the top-paying affiliate programs.

Both of these blogs attract large audiences, but those audiences have very different worldviews. And there’s no way to convince them to listen to a story they don’t believe.

If you feel that your startup’s story doesn't resonate with enough people, you have a choice to make.

You can either keep telling the same story but to a different audience. Or you can craft a new story that resonates with the audience you have.

Either way, don’t try to change people’s worldview. It doesn't work.

Mistake #3: Telling an Emotionless Story

I want to share a secret with you. A secret about virility.

Only stories that trigger some kind of emotional response go viral.

In his book, Unmarketing, Scott Stratten talks about this, and he identifies a number of emotions that cause people to share your content: sadness, happiness, excitement, anger, etc.

Not so long ago, Dollar Shave Club successfully launched by telling a compelling story about simplicity and masculinity.

They could’ve made a video that simply explains their service and left it at that. But they decided to take it a step further with a video that was funny and exciting, and awesome.

Watch it and tell me how it makes you feel.

Too often we settle on crafting stories that don’t go beyond being explanatory. Next time you’re working on a story, try adding emotions.

Side note: Humour is extremely tough to master. It’s much easier to make your story sad or exciting, than it is to make it funny. All the lame Shit People Say videos only prove this point.

Mistake #4: Letting the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

This may sound controversial, so let me clarify: I am not suggesting you lie.

Sometimes, however, it pays to be selective about the information you use in your story and the way you communicate it.

For example, let’s imagine that you’re about to hit a significant growth milestone: one million users. You have a press release ready. You know that people will be excited... And then it happens on a Saturday.

Now you, basically, have 2 options:

  1. Make an announcement on that day. Then the news becomes irrelevant by Monday.
  2. Or wait till Monday and announce the news then getting all the press coverage you can carry.

What are you going to do? I suggest the second option even if it’s not 100% factually correct.

It makes for a better story. And you are, after all, in the storytelling business.

Mistake #5: Lacking consistency

One last mistake I often see startups make is lacking consistency.

If you’re making a promise when telling a story, you have to keep it. If you’re telling one thing and doing completely the opposite, you’re in big trouble.

You decide what story you’re going to tell. But once you make that decision, you better stick to it. Make sure that your words and, more importantly, your actions are communicating the same message.

Be consistent.

Wrapping up

A couple of days ago, I met with Alex Chuang, the CEO of Weeve, and our conversation inspired me to write this post.

Weeve is a crowdfunding platform with a straightforward value proposition:

100% of donations directly fund nonprofit projects.

However, their story is much bigger.

It’s a story about a broken system, about sacrificing your own profits to give money to the people who really need it.

It’s not a story for everyone. But everyone who can relate to it, loves Weeve. And tells their friends about it. And becomes a member of Weeve’s community.

My Small Help

Now Alex’s goal is to maintain consistency and make his messaging emotional. Just like charity: water does.

Alex knows that storytelling is critical for any startup. He knows that a good story engages; it inspires action; it sells.

When you know exactly what your story is, all the other marketing questions become much easier to answer.

So let me ask you again: What is your startup’s story?

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