The Art of Storytelling
Storytelling is our speciality. It’s the basis for everything we do as a species.
Yuval Noah Harari
In the Beginning
As far back as I can recall, I have loved hearing people’s stories. Learning how interesting and successful people got to where they are; the paths they took, the challenges they faced, and even the minutiae of their daily routines have always fascinated me. I think it’s no surprise, therefore, that I ended up sharing people’s stories on my podcast, through interviews with tech founders and innovators.
When I was a kid, I remember my father buying The Sunday Times and each family member frantically pulling the newspaper and supplements apart, picking out their favourite bits to read first. Mine was always the last page in The Sunday Times magazine — a section entitled, “A Life in the Day” which featured the daily routine of someone interesting, be it Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama or Muhammad Ali. It also featured lesser-known people who had extraordinary stories; army veterans, surgeons, artists.
What I always found most compelling was what could be learned from the smaller details. By someone sharing their story — what they did with their lives, we saw into their habits, hobbies and what it takes to be good at something. And I could see how sharing those lessons could have an impact on so many because, if told well, their stories drew readers in. They engaged with us by giving something of themselves — the most important part — their life stories.
And great stories travel far. That is the art of storytelling.
So that is why, after almost ten years in tech, I spent my maternity leave interviewing mobile entrepreneurs for my first book, and then wrote Female Innovators at Work. I wanted the average tech consumer to understand the people behind the tech they were using every day. And this year, I started my podcast to bring these stories to a wider audience.
Why did I choose this path? It is for two reasons mainly, one is to document the legacy of those changing the world and two, to inspire and empower others to build. It’s as simple as that.
This global pandemic we find ourselves in has reinforced the notion that it’s our stories which connect us. And we have never needed that connection more. Stories are what make us human.
Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals. One-on-one, even ten-on-ten, we humans are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Any attempt to understand our unique role in the world by studying our brains, our bodies, or our family relations, is doomed to failure. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.
This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights — except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees do not.
Yuval Noah Harari
Why Founders Should Write More
I think there are three main ingredients to why and how a founder should write more online. One is that your key to gaining anything from recruiting staff to attracting customers and investors is to be seen; to be visible. And how do you do that? Well, if you are in the tech space, there is no greater place for you to grow your profile than Twitter. Yes, it has some down sides but if you are willing to be all of the following, I think it is a recipe for success.
- Be authentic Being honest is far more compelling when you’re telling your true story. Some founders are tempted to hire in people to add a shine to their story and messages — don’t. Authenticity early on will serve you well in the long-run.
- Be brutal. This isn’t fiction so don’t sugarcoat what’s it like to really start and build a startup. It may be easier than ever to set up a company but it’s fraught with hardships that your staff will soon learn, if they haven’t already. Let them, your customers, and investors, go on the journey with you. Write a blog detailing the good times, along with the bad you’ll undoubtedly experience; share the lessons you learn.
- Own the narrative. A startup’s most important asset is culture, and that is set by the founder/s. Your experience and background is what determines what type of founder you are so share your story from the outset, and ensure you lead where the culture goes, as you grow. Also, don’t let the press tell your story. If they can build you up, they can tear you down and many successful founders have experience of this. Build your following and you won’t need to rely on mainstream press any more. That is a good thing.
When I think about all the people on social media with huge followings, there is one common denominator — they are all authentic. They bring their whole selves there. This isn’t for everyone and there are always ways to keep aspects of your life private but by turning up on a regular basis and being yourself will pay dividends in surprising ways.
If you take Elon Musk as an example. He will do and say things on Twitter which would get most of us cancelled but he is in too powerful a position. People follow him because they admire and respect him — they might not agree with everything he says but it would be hard to bring him down or “cancel” him because he has built up a huge following and no longer has to rely on press or the like for coverage — he just tweets! The same is true with Joe Rogan. Once someone has shown their true colours, it is very much up to their audience to take them or leave them. By being themselves, they have built massive, dedicated, followings with people who appreciate they are human and have different facets to their personality.
As Naval Ravikant says,
No one can compete with you on being you. This is hugely important. If you focus your efforts on being you versus who you think you should be, that’s who people follow. That’s who people will buy into and you can never be copied. You cannot go wrong being you. People may like you or dislike you but they can’t compete with you.
If you are building and marketing something that’s an extension of who you are, no one can compete with you. Who’s going to compete with Joe Rogan or Scott Adams? It’s impossible. Is somebody else going write a better Dilbert? No. Is someone going to compete with Bill Watterson and create a better Calvin and Hobbes? No.
Artist are, by definition, authentic. Entrepreneurs are authentic, too. Who’s going to be Elon Musk? Who’s going to be Jack Dorsey? These people are authentic, and the businesses and products they create are authentic to their desires and means.
If somebody else came along and started launching rockets, I don’t think it would faze Elon one bit. He’s still going to get to Mars. Because that’s his mission, insane as it seems. He’s going to accomplish it.
Authenticity naturally gets you away from competition. Does it mean that you want to be authentic to the point where there’s no product-market fit? It may turn out that you’re the best juggler on a unicycle. But maybe there isn’t much of a market for that, even with YouTube videos. So you have to adjust until you find product-market fit.
At least lean towards authenticity, towards getting away from competition. Competition leads to copy-catting and playing the completely wrong game.
When you go into pitch investors, being a good storyteller is a really helpful skill. This is something Steve Jobs was a genius at — whenever he “sold” in Apple’s products, it was a masterpiece in marketing.
And what is needed now is brutal honesty. Customers, investors, partners and staff demand transparency, in a way which they have never done before.
In a world full of gotchas, being honest will get you more fans than if you’re not. So don’t be afraid to be honest about your competition to investors, don’t be quiet to your customers about the obstacles you are facing and definitely don’t be hiding critical information from your colleagues.
By bringing them along on your journey, you create your support base which is so needed in building a startup.
Cat Noone, founder, designer, and CEO of Stark, recently shared the message she sent to her team the morning of a big launch in a post entitled, We’re the pirates they never saw coming:
I tried to capture some of my learnings on how to invoke global change in an uncharted territory as well as some fundamentals on leadership. It’s as much a reminder for our team as it is more myself.
Our ability to craft narrative around the meaning of what we do is significant. As we improve at articulating the simple language around a complex topic, it becomes like an engine that turns on in the minds of other people. We become a catalyst of that thinking process around accessibility at scale. In doing that we create a narrative which allows customers to build on themselves.
Cat Noone. Read the post in full here.
When you are doing something new or in unchartered territory, it will most likely be an uphill struggle but by inviting people to be part of your journey, you create an instant and often unbreakable connection with the people who are in the best position to help you get there.
If you let people in, they will do their utmost to help you win.
Own the Narrative
The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.
The press are not your friends. I put that in bold for a reason. I used to work in PR, at a time where you would wine and dine journalists in order to get favourable press for your clients. That time is long gone.
Now, the goal for founders is to own your audience and more importantly, own your narrative. When TechCrunch wrote about a startup this week, the founder Zachariah Reitano was able to answer back and did so well here. That response garnered more praise than the original article received backlash.
I have also seen founders respond to criticism ahead of an article being published which naturally disarms the journalists. But this right to reply is important and the more you have a direct route with your audience, the safer you will be from unfounded or even damn right libellous articles about you and your company. Another example here is Tom Blomfield of Monzo responding, in part, to a book written from an opposing point of view to his. He was able to get his side of the story out — not by going to the press, but by going to someone with no bias, no game plan but millions of followers (Steven Bartlett).
And I believe we will see more and more public figures do this because it changes the landscape when they own the power.
Those who tell the stories rule the world.
Native American proverb
Another example this week is Mark Zuckerberg going to Ben Thompson of Stratchery vs a major traditional media outlet. Why did he do that?
Because he wants to own the narrative. And why would’t he? From boy genius to beaten up, the press have always presented their view on him. And now, he is taking the reins.
Ways in which you can do this:
- Write regularly on your company/personal blog
2. Use Medium as a way to write regular articles about the space you operate in
3. Tweet regularly with open and informative conversations— share your struggle there, as well as the highs
4. Start your own podcast
5. Build in public. Share your milestones online — the good and the bad.
Storytelling is here to stay. In fact, it’s now an in-demand skill, as highlighted below:
So whatever you do, just make sure it’s you telling your story. And let the world know what you’re working on!
Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.
What do you think? Find me on Twitter Danielle Newnham and let me know!