Before an entrepreneur starts building his set of eight power stories, he needs to map out his entrepreneur’s journey, the core story from which the others can be drawn from or built upon. This journey is closely related to a story format that has held audiences rapt for millennia: the hero’s journey. From Homer’s The Odyssey to reality shows like “The Voice,” people are drawn to how a protagonist overcomes external obstacles and navigates his own internal struggles. The entrepreneur’s journey is essentially the hero’s journey, but applied to business:
*Usually people experience a “spark” that inspires them to start a business.
*Starting a business requires overcoming challenges of staffing, financing, building a customer base, etc.
*At some point the business becomes functional, and systems are put in place to achieve a steady work and cash flow.
*Different sets of problems arise, such as a key supplier going bankrupt, demand outpacing inventory, or perhaps the entrepreneur questioning if this is what he wants after all.
*The entrepreneur presses on and learns from the experience, becoming better prepared for the next journey.
Regardless of how long the entrepreneur has been in business or how ordinary he finds his story to be, the practice of writing this out conversationally is worth the investment of time as it provides the framework for the eight power stories.
THE PASSION STORY
The first story, the passion story, is less about what an entrepreneur does and more about why he does it. Passion stories are important because they are infectious; people connect with them easily either because they have that level of passion about something else or they wish that they could identify with a feeling of overflowing enthusiasm. To tell an effective passion story, an entrepreneur should use three strategies that expand upon each other depending on the listener’s reaction:
1. The Spark: Describe the passion but be sure to peak the listener’s interest before launching into a full account of the story.
2. The Flame: If people are intrigued by the spark, they will likely ask a question such as, “How do you do that?” This is an invitation to “fan the flame.” The hope here is to bring people into a deeper conversation about more specific aspects of the story.
3. The Fire: Have a full conversation. This could occur during a keynote presentation, at a dinner party, during an interview, or in the middle of a pitch to investors. Depending on the listeners, different aspects of the story can be highlighted.
Above all, passion stories have to be authentic to be effective. Entrepreneurs need to dig until they find the story about themselves that conveys genuine enthusiasm.
THE BUSINESS STORY
While the passion story is rooted in emotion, the business story is grounded in concrete facts. This story still needs to be told in an engaging manner, but its purpose is to clearly explain the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the business so that it is memorable. This story encompasses both a succinct version, known as the elevator pitch, and the lengthier “About” page on a company’s website or other promotional material.
The ten-second elevator pitch is clear and direct and simply explains the who and the what of the story. For instance, Khoo’s elevator pitch would go something like this: “My name is Valerie Khoo. I run Australia’s leading center for writing courses. We help people who want to get published and write with confidence.” Only after the listener asks a follow-up question would Khoo move to her 30-second pitch describing the basics of how her business helps people. For example, she might follow up with, “We do this by offering short courses in different types of writing. So whether you want to write a novel, a screenplay, a business book, or a media release, you can discover exactly how to do that through one of our courses, which can be taken online or in person.” Even if people are not interested in the business at that moment, a concise and confident elevator pitch will make it memorable for them in the future.
The second most common place to find a business story is on the “About” page of a website or printed promotional material. Its impact and selling ability should not be underestimated. In this form of the business story, entrepreneurs can elaborate beyond their elevator pitches with four core points and four supplementary points:
1. Who? What?: Identify the business and clearly explain what it does.
2. How?: With a target customer in mind, describe how their lives will be affected when they buy from the business.
3. Why? When?: Explain when and why the company was started. Tailor this section to the amount of time the company has been in business. For instance, if an entrepreneur only started his company a week ago, he could use language such as, “With ten years of experience in …” as opposed to, “Founded in .…”
4. The point of difference: This can be as generic as, “We have superior customer service,” but it is better if the entrepreneur can identify tangible ways the company is not like its competitors.
1. Birth of the business: If there is an intriguing story about how the business started or a turning point in the entrepreneur’s life that led to the pursuit of the company, this is worth mentioning. This often connects to the entrepreneur’s passion story.
2. Understanding customers’ struggles: If entrepreneurs can demonstrate that they have been in the same position of needing or wanting the same service or product they are selling, this is worth noting.
3. Customer success stories: When entrepreneurs cannot empathize with their customers, including some customer testimonials or quantifiable results of using their services or products establishes credibility.
4. Achievements and credentials: This should only include achievements and credentials that will establish credibility within the entrepreneur’s target market and build customers’ trust, not an exhaustive list.
THE CUSTOMER STORY
One of the most effective power stories is the customer story because customers, instead of entrepreneurs, take the starring role. There are two types of customer stories: those generated and shared by customers independently, and those generated and shared by the business itself.
With the rise of social media and the ubiquity of the Internet, customer generated stories are becoming more pervasive. These stories and reviews can be incredibly influential as they are easily re-tweeted, shared, and forwarded, compounding their initial effect. They can also be highly detrimental to a business if they are not positive. Too often entrepreneurs rely on this first type of customer story to carry their brands when they really need to maintain a constant focus on the second type of customer stories, those gathered and shared by the business itself. The key to capturing customer testimonials (short comments) and case studies (more detailed customer experiences) is creating a systematic approach for collecting the stories and asking permission to share them.
*Capture the data: This includes either a hardcopy feedback form for customers to fill out or an electronic feedback form or survey. Whichever medium is chosen, it needs to be distributed at routine intervals (e.g., at the end of every session with a health professional, with every bill at a restaurant, or emailed a certain number of days after sending every invoice).
*Refine the questions: Open-ended feedback questions, such as, “Tell us what you think of us!” or, “How did we do?” rarely provide a story or useful comment. More tailored questions, such as, “What has been the best part of this experience?” will help capture stories. This should always be followed by asking permission to use customer comments in marketing materials.
*Increase response rates: If response rates are low, entrepreneurs must consider what needs to be improved. They can change the phrasing of the feedback request and see what generates more results. There should not be any complex sign-in requirements, just a straightforward link. Finally, it should be designed for the purpose of getting some good stories, not a lengthy questionnaire akin to conducting market research.
*Extract stories: Reviewing the responses should be done as routinely as asking for them. Noting negative reviews is important, particularly if the company is new, because they signal areas that need to be addressed before they balloon into larger problems. Positive reviews can also provide insight into what direction the company could take next or where to focus its effort.
*Share the stories: When sharing stories externally, entrepreneurs must think about where the greatest amount of people will see them. Which pages on the website are visited most often? Can the stories be put in a newsletter format, on a blog, or next to a product in the online store? Customer stories can be shared internally as well. Even if all team members do not work directly with customers, the stories will put their work into a big picture context and provide inspiring reminders about the larger goals of the organization.
THE PITCH STORY
The pitch story is absolutely essential when an entrepreneur’s business is still only an idea; investors, suppliers, potential employees, and customers all have to be convinced that the business is viable. Mastering the pitch story is also important whenever an organization is introducing something new and unfamiliar. In either case, the pitch requires a delicate balance of presenting facts and conveying passion:
*Intrigue, but do not scare: Entrepreneurs must avoid unrealistic claims, such as, “We are going to beat Facebook and make a billion dollars in the first 12 months!” or general statements that lack enthusiasm. The balance between conveying tenacity and passion for an idea without sounding ridiculous can be difficult, but it is important to master.
*Show the idea to be useful and financially viable: Entrepreneurs must demonstrate that the product or service will solve a problem by showing that there is demand for it. This may mean “creating” the numbers for ideas with no historical industry data. For instance, Coachy.com, a site where people can book one-on-one video coaching with a wide variety of experts, created a minimum viable product to prove demand existed before fully launching its service. By using a single-page website, some tweets, and existing portals for video and transactions, Coachy.com was able to generate the numbers to back up its proposal to investors.
*Be open about sharing and innovating: While it can be tempting to keep new ideas a secret so others cannot use them or implement them faster, this mentality actually hurts entrepreneurs. Sharing the idea and allowing others to provide feedback means that the final iteration of the idea is more robust.
*Use “micro-pitches”: The pitch story should be adjusted depending on the concerns and expectations of the listeners. For instance, investors want to hear about revenue projections, customers want to hear how the product will help them, and prospective employees want to be confident they will still have a job in a year.
*Refine the pitch: The pitch story takes a lot of practice, which is why Mick Liubinska of Pollenizer advises entrepreneurs to overcome objections either by refining their products or business ideas, or by telling their stories in a better way.
THE PRODUCT STORY
Once an entrepreneur has moved beyond the stage of pitching an idea and has a product ready to sell, or if they are introducing another product to their existing line, they can use the “four Bs” to write a product story:
1. Brief explanation: The product or service needs to be distilled into a single sentence. While this sounds straightforward, many business owners have a difficult time with this. If explaining how the product or service works takes more than one minute, it will be hard to attract customers.
2. Birth of an idea: “Where did you get the idea for that?” is a question most entrepreneurs have encountered. Depending on their stories, sharing this can add credibility, build trust, entertain, or make a product highly memorable for customers. For instance, Lonely Planet guidebooks were invented when founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler were pressed for travel tips after their trip from London to Sydney in 1972. Their notes from that trip turned into a book that launched a legendary brand.
3. Benefits versus features: As a rule, it is better to tell a story about a product that demonstrates its benefits rather than just its features. For instance, “Round table with glass top and aluminum frame, 72 cm height x 90 cm wide” is necessary information to relay to customers, but, “Imagine relaxing at your new outdoor setting with a glass of wine in your hand as you watch the sun set, taking the stresses of the day with it!” explains the product’s benefits and makes an emotional connection.
4. Brand: Product stories should reinforce the overall branding of an organization. For instance, does the brand cater to people looking for good value or does it appeal to those looking for luxury? Product stories should reflect and support what the overall brand stands for.
THE LEADER’S STORY
The leader’s story is all about buy-in; rather than casting the leader of the organization as the hero, the people who buy-in to the leader’s vision and make it a reality are the stars in this story. The three core components of this story are the same regardless of the type of organization:
1. Demonstrate the leader’s personal character: Before people are willing to trust a leader’s vision, they need to trust the leader himself. This requires being open about key experiences and aspects of his life that reveal his values and visions. For instance, Scott Harrison, founder of “charity: water” tells the story of his transformation from hedonistic party animal to passionate non-profit leader with outsized ambitions to provide clean drinking water to 100 million people by 2020. His story of a life turned upside down by his volunteer experience abroad inspired incredible commitment from employees, donors, and sponsors alike.
2. Determine what is different about the organization: Even with trust in a leader, people want to know that they can trust the organization as a whole. They want to know how it will treat them, how it treats its employees, and what its track record is. In the case of charity: water, Harrison wanted to create a non-profit brand that would instill confidence in “people my age who were jaded and cynical.” While its offices in Manhattan have a distinctly hip, art gallery feel, charity: water makes sure that its priorities are clear to people entering its doors. The organization explicitly promises that 100 percent of public donations go directly to water projects happening in the field, while private donors and sponsors fund its operating expenses and salaries.
3. Inspire people to action: It should be straightforward and obvious how people can take the next step and become part of realizing an organization’s vision. For example, charity: water has an online platform where people can create a “birthday pledge” and ask friends and family to donate to the organization instead of giving them gifts. The non-profit ensures that people stay excited by and engaged in its overall vision by emailing them photos of the completed project their birthday pledge helped fund to be shared with friends and family. In other words, the donors become the heroes in the story of charity: water, not its leaders.
THE MEDIA STORY
An entrepreneur’s media story can be an amazing way to get exposure for free, but it requires understanding and thinking about what kind of stories media sources want. Entrepreneurs need to look for opportunities to give journalists, bloggers, and other media outlets a reason to write about their businesses. For instance, can the story be tied to a seasonal event or connected to an upcoming event or a recent business award? While statistics should be avoided in a story like the passion story, they are often central to a media story and are more likely to attract a journalist’s attention.
Entrepreneurs should tailor their media stories to specific media outlets and their respective readers/viewers. This is something that CEO Matt Barrie of Freelancer.com has become an expert on. Barrie explains that for large publications, such as The New York Times or The Economist, he might discuss a macro story about global labor markets and long-term outlooks for labor in developing economies. For journalists interested in Freelancer.com’s beginnings, he tells the “light bulb story” of hiring a group of workers in Vietnam to do data entry for him when he could not find anyone locally to hire. For a local newspaper, he finds a real life example of a local business successfully using Freelancer.com. His media story is always tailored to achieve maximum coverage and impact.
Your story, the “story that drives your life,” is the most important but least shared of all eight stories. This story is not a memoir; it the story people tell themselves about who they are and what is possible for them. The words entrepreneurs choose to describe themselves, even if only in their heads, can have tremendous power over what they achieve or fail to achieve. Are they the victim or the hero in their story? Have they cast themselves as “the exhausted mother” or “the successful businesswoman”? Just as it is important for entrepreneurs to tell the right business stories to others, it is also important for them to tell the right stories to themselves.
The other seven power stories can persuade and inspire people, build customer loyalty and brands, and helps businesses grow and thrive. However, this final power story is the one that ultimately drives all the other stories as a compass, a framework, and a path to the future.