5 Ways Your Storytelling Strategy Could Be Tanking Your Startup

by | Feb 15, 2018

“If you build it, they will come.”

This is what you tell yourself as you code for the 72nd hour straight, surviving off nothing but Hot Pockets and Soylent in your parents’ dusty basement.

You have a brilliant idea–world-changing. Future generations will flock to your Wikipedia bio in reverent awe. Soon, time will be divided into two epochs: Before Your Awesome Idea and After Your Awesome Idea. This is going to be monstrous.

As you pound the enter key with a triumphant “click,” your creation goes live for the world to see.

You drum on your desk eagerly, waiting for the interview requests from Wired, Oprah, and Jesus Himself to come pouring in. Waiting for the thunderous applause. The raving fans.

Or even just someone–anyone–to recognize the decades of effort you put into this thing.

…They never come.

The Truth About World-Changing Ideas and Storytelling Strategy

The sad reality is, nobody is sitting around waiting to be disrupted by your idea, no matter how amazing it may be. And believing they care enough to seek you out is wishful thinking at best, self-sabotage at worst.

People are selfish–not only do they want you to make their life easier, they want you to deliver solutions to them in a nice bow.

What’s that nice bow, you ask? Storytelling Strategy.

When I say “Storytelling Strategy,” what I’m talking about is a combination of things. Yes, it’s content marketing–that is, creating engaging, compelling content like blog posts and helpful videos to lure people closer to your startup. But it’s so much more than that.

Storytelling Strategy is the entire way you package your startup.

It’s everything you say about your startup and around your startup, ever. From the copy on your website and your social media accounts, to what you tell your friends that you do and the job title you list on your apartment applications, everything matters. Everything counts.

A failed storytelling strategy can be as obvious as no hits, no clicks, and no buyers. But it can also be more subtle, like your startup never achieving its full potential. You may never even realize your strategy is holding you back.

Below, we’re going to break down the 5 most common ways your storytelling strategy could be shooting your startup in the foot…and how you can fix it.

1. You Don’t Have a Strategy

A bit obvious, isn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many founders overlook having a storytelling strategy at all.

Instead of planning and thinking, these startups just “do.” And naturally, just “doing” leads to a lot of “hoping.” That is, hoping their business actually catches on after throwing it into the abyss. At best, it will be utterly ignored. At worst, it can be misconstrued, twisted, and manipulated by whoever encounters it.

Deciding upon a storytelling strategy helps you retain the integrity of your original idea: how you envisioned it being used and what your startup stands for. It also helps to establish YOU as the creator behind it.

This ties into the now-insanely-famous Simon Sinek “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” TED Talk. Sinek believes that companies like Apple are so successful because they sell their story–not their products. Without a strategy, Apple would just be selling expensive phones. But instead, they’re selling ~*~the future~*~.

Not sure if you have a strategy? Check in by asking yourself how much of what you do is intentional. Have you ever thought about what you tell people about your business? About what you say to the horrible “what do you do” question?

If your answer is yes, then good. Even if you’re having problems, you can just adjust the ship and be on your way.

If not, you now is the perfect time to get on course.

If you don’t have a strategy, the solution is simple (but not necessarily easy): get one. Start being intentional about what you say and do. It can start as small as writing out your company’s central value proposition and then making sure everything you do plays into it. Or you can get as big as content calendars and brand consultants.

Either way, awareness is key.

2. Your Story Isn’t Cohesive

The objective of a good storytelling strategy is to give leads and clients a “cohesive brand experience.” That is if one of your readers sees your content with your startup’s name removed, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to guess it’s from you.

To accomplish this, it’s important your story strategy is consistent in its tone and perspective.

Ready for an example? Here is one of Fisher-Price’s recent quote Tweets.

Now, imagine that, for their next quote Tweet, Wendy’s Twitter team (aka the best team in social media) took over.

That would be a bit jarring.

The problem with incoherence is that people inherently like predictability. But predictable doesn’t mean lame or redundant–it means that what you’re doing is aligned with people’s expectations.

For example. For a time, we expected Lady Gaga to pull crazy stunts. She certainly wasn’t boring when she wore her meat dress (which apparently has its own Wikipedia page), but she was acting in accordance with our expectations–so we weren’t thrown. We were surprised, but not caught off guard.

This is important because we are programmed to instinctively avoid unpredictable. To the ancient parts of our brain, unpredictable reads as dangerous, and as much as we all like to pretend we’re James Bond incarnate, we’re all just fear-avoiding simple folk at our core.

To find out if your brand has a cohesive identity, write out a list of adjectives you’d want people to use to describe your startup. Then, take a look at your recent content.

Do these adjectives fit every single piece you’ve put out? For example, if you say “professional,” are you using memes in your Tweets? I’d certainly hope not.

For all future content, it can be helpful to plan out exactly what you want your brand’s message and vibe (or voice) to be. Use your list of adjectives to give yourself a refresher right before you hit “post,” and do a final read through to make sure everything is in order.

3. Your Story Doesn’t Vibe with Your Audience

This ties back in with our Fisher-Price and Wendy’s example: think about who you’re talking to.

Wendy’s can get away with being savage because they’re appealing to an audience who lives for that stuff. But you may not be. What does your audience want?

Everything you do should be in service of your audience–even your story. Yes, it’s true, you can’t change your story. While I suppose you could technically make up some fake origin story, I would always recommend a healthy restructuring of the truth rather than complete fabrication. And the way you structure it is entirely dependent on your audience.

Your startup’s story should reveal how you would be the perfect mentor to help your audience achieve their deepest desires. Do they want to be the best parent? Show them how you can be their guide. Do they want to eat cheap? Show them how you can be their sidekick.

You’re going for peer or mentor. Not boss or savior.

Nike does this exceedingly well. I just popped over to their website now, and this is the first thing that came up.

“You have a goal.” See how that treats their audience as the hero of their own story? It’s their objective Nike will help reach–no the other way around. Brilliant. Good work, Nike.

The thing most startups get wrong is that instead of empowering their audience, they try to be the hero. They show how they overcame some obstacle and are now the best…and that’s it. Nobody wants to work with a showoff.

Find a way to tell your story to make it about your audience. Sure, you can show how you used to be just like them–but then make sure to carefully call out how you are going to walk alongside them to help them achieve their own goals.

4. Your Story is Just Like Everybody Else’s

This is something that often happens when startups fall into the trap of being a follower.

You see it all the time in media: Twilight is a blockbuster success, so now everything on TV is about bloodsucking lovers. Instead of putting (potentially) good writing talent to work, they waste it trying to be someone else.

It’s that old saying your Kindergarten teacher told you: Be Yourself. Everybody Else Is Taken.

In startups, this can happen at the idea stage–you see someone is making an eff-ton of money on bitcoin, so now you’re going to make an ICO goshdangit!–or in the story stage. The story stage is what I’m talking about here.

Maybe you were on the subway and you saw a quirky Purple mattress ad. So naturally, the next thing your startup tweets is some quirky thing with crazy dudes eating subs in it.

No bueno.

Now, it’s not wrong to be inspired by another brand. You should look to other brands you love for ideas and motivation. The same rule applies as in high school essays: copy from one source and it’s plagiarism; copy from dozens and its research.

(Is that kosher to say? Oh well.)

If you’re wondering if your story has fallen into this trap, try this old screenwriting dialogue trick. Take a peek at some of your recent content, and ask if anybody else could have possibly released it. Would it have made sense?

Now, realistically, somebody else could have released something similar. So the question here really comes down to specifics. Are you injecting your brand’s personality and backstory into all of your content? Are you taking advantage of a unique point of view, or saying something new?

If you find that your content is bland and untethered to your brand in some way, think about ways to insert some originality. Are there personal anecdotes you can add to spice it up and put your stamp on it? Do you have an opinion or idea on this topic that may interest your readers? Toss it in!

5. Your Story Tries Too Hard

This final problem is one of the scariest because it’s the hardest to avoid. But screenwriters know it all too well.

Sometimes, we overwrite.

We draft, revise, draft, revise, and draft again until we’ve spent hours fixating on the most minuscule, irrelevant details. (Should I spell “gray” like an American or “grey” like a Brit?)

In the end, the final product feels contrived and lifeless. What personality our story once had has been sucked away.

Most often, we see this happen in a corporate setting when there’s too many cooks in the kitchen: Johnny thinks we should be more formal, HR is worried about paragraph three, the intern said she heard em-dashes are out, and so on. But it can happen anywhere.

Worried you may have overwritten? Give yourself a time limit. Decide that you have to finish a piece of content within a reasonable amount of time. After the time is up, you walk away. Once you’ve taken a meaningful break, you can come back and make a few tweaks. Then you’re done. That’s it.

It’s better to put something out there with too much personality than too little. As you can see if you read through some celebrity scandals, we will forgive minor misjudgments. But we will forget boring. And as they say, any press is good press, amirite? 

In the end, what matters most is being in command of your startup’s Storytelling Strategy. It’s never too late to get intentional.

Which of these five fatal storytelling flaws do you think your startup is most guilty of? What is one step are you going to take today to make your storytelling strategy better? Share in the comments!

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