What's Your Story?

As entrepreneurs we often think that we have to marshal all of the facts and the evidence to support whatever we are selling. What we really need to do is tell a compelling story that gives customers a reason to join us. The facts and evidence follow.

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  • Founders School || Entrepreneurial Selling || What's Your Story? || Impact Guide (PDF).

  • Guber, P. Four Truths of the Storyteller. Harvard Business Review. 2007.

  • Simmons, Annette. The Story Factor. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2001.

  • Smith, Paul. Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. New York, NY: AMACON, 2012.

  • Olson, Randy. Don't be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Washington: Island Press, 2009.

  • Wortmann, Craig. What's Your Story? Evanston, IL: Sales Engine, Inc., 2006. Ch. 4-6.


    A tool that we often take for granted as entrepreneurs is one that we carry around inside of us at all times, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  And that's our stories.  Stories are your most powerful asset.  And I understand why we take these for granted because as entrepreneurs, as small businesses, we think, you know what, I gotta marshal all the evidence, I've gotta bring it.  I gotta bring all the facts.  I gotta bring all the data and I gotta line it up in a way you can understand.  And I gotta outcompete that next guy with all of those facts.  And I've gotta do this, that and the other thing.  And that's fine.  And that's a purely relevant instinct to this thing we call entrepreneurial selling.  The problem is it's not influential.  

    There's a whole body of social psychological research now that's coming to the fore that suggests your most powerful assets are actually your stories.  Why?  They do two things that facts do not.  They provide context and they connect to emotion.  We're awash in information.  You and I have sources of information all around us from digital to the old types of information; TV, radio, magazines, we've got LinkedIn and we've got Twitter.  We've got all of that stuff.  And that's all wonderful.  But if we have access to it, we're awash in that ocean of information, so are the people we're trying to reach, so are the people we're trying to communicate with.  And the question I love to ask is, aren't we just, when we're piling on facts, aren't we sort of adding to the wrong pile?  Shouldn't we be making things contextual and giving you chances to connect to something that is entrepreneurial and interesting about me and makes me different and makes me better?  Those exist, that context exists in the stories that we tell. 

    There's a really interesting set of studies that came out of Carnegie Mellon in 1997.  Two women and a man walked into‑‑ three researchers walked into the undergrad student center at Carnegie Mellon.  And they said hey undergrads, we're going to take a survey of how you use technology.  And it'll take six or eight minutes.  For your trouble we'll give you five bucks.  And they got hundreds of people to take the survey.  They took the survey and two undergrads would walk out, you know, Craig and his friend.  And his friend would say hey, Craig, did you give any of that money to Rokia and Save the Children?  And that would be confusing to me.  I'd say I gave some money to Save the Children.  But Rokia, what are you talking about?  Rokia, what is that?  And my friend, she would say in my envelope with my five $1 bills I got a pledge form from Save the Children.  And it was a story about this nine‑year‑old girl called Rokia in Malawi, Africa who is dying of a waterborne illness and it's entirely treatable.  And it was just a little bit of her story.  And then it said Save the Children and so I gave her some money.  Did you?  I said in my envelope with my pledge form and my five $1 bills, I also had a pledge form from Save the Children but it said in Malawi, Africa on an annual basis there are nine million cases of waterborne illness, 11 million cases of malaria, entirely treatable, blah, blah, blah.  Save the Children.  And yeah, I gave them some money.  

    It wasn't a study about the uses of technology at all.  It was a study about the power and influence of story.  And here's what happened, accounting for loose change in people's pockets, fact guy, me, on average gave a $1.14.  My friend on average gave $2.38.  There's a huge delta between, from what we know about the impact of facts and the impact of story.  They've run these studies over and over.  And it doesn't make any difference that it happens to be a charitable organization.  It's with anything.  The story connects, gives us context and connects to emotion.  And that's what makes all the difference.  

    And so of course, as entrepreneurs we have to marshal the facts.  Of course we have to know what we're talking about, it's not all about story.  But when you air and when you're trying to influence people you need to be ready with a story because it creates a world that facts do not.  And oftentimes we leave it very flat when we just communicate through facts.  Story creates color, context, emotion and influence.  And that's what we're trying to do as entrepreneurs, we're trying to influence.