How to tell your story

Destination Dreamit began last week with all of the founders from Dreamit Ventures’ latest cohort gathered outdoors on picnic tables. The casual environment belied the urgency of the next few months — each young business is charging toward an investor roadshow before summer. Steve Barsh, one of Dreamit’s partners, made it clear that the pitches these founders would be delivering on their roadshow had to answer one big question: “What’s your story?”

I was at Destination Dreamit to present a workshop on “How to tell your story”. So I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction. Here’s an abridged version of the story I told:

Here’s what your businesses’ story is not: It isn’t an elevator pitch. It isn’t features and benefits. And it isn’t a company history.

It’s the emotion that makes what you do become real in the eyes of your audience.

The terminology related to storytelling has recently tipped into marketing cliché. We’re all admonished to be storytellers, or to have a great story. Art has fallen victim to the buzzword, and it has obscured the importance of the why in storytelling today. 

During the 20th century, brands benefited from there being few channels of information. Starting with newspapers through radio and even cable TV, it was not very difficult to get your message in front of the market: some capital and calls to a few outlets would get the job done. A little more than 10 years after thefacebook.com launched, the game has been totally upended. The spread of information has become democratized: Instead of receiving what is filtered by a media organization, we receive what our friends curate for us. 

Closely-held capital is no longer the path to the mass-market (although it helps!). Since the dawn of time, people have used stories to convey powerful messages and concepts to each other. Great stories create a connection with their audience, and people natural want to share them. The kind of evangelism that every brand wants to create is why storytelling is celebrated today: It is a millennia-old approach to spreading an idea widely.

Good news! There’s a proven formula for doing this, and it even predates Facebook. Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who wrote the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He makes the case that virtually every story from the pre-literate world through Star Wars (on which George Lucas credits his influence) follows the same narrative arc: the hero’s journey.  

The journey begins with an outsider protagonist, who is powerless in a broken world. This outsider meets a mentor, who helps reveal to the hero unlock the power within him or herself, and sets them off upon a journey to cure the world of its ills with the help of a magical gift. The hero uses the gift to defeat the source of the world’s problems and return the world to harmony. 

Be it the Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, or any Marvel film, the structure of the story remains the same. Every person sees him or herself as the powerless outsider in some way. Connecting with your audience on that level, and making each of them the hero of the story, invests them as a key part of your company’s success. Your company’s role is as the mentor: You exist to give a gift (your product or service) and help your audience discover the power within it.

There’s science behind how this works. Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist who studies the release of the chemical oxytocin in the brain. His work has shown that the release of this chemical during interpersonal experiences is a major factor in creating trust and investment. His research has also shown that oxytocin is released during the climax phase of a story with appropriate audience interest. It is why people feel a rush when the main character defeats his mortal enemy in a movie — we care, and feel that victory deeply. The more deeply we feel it, the more we encourage our friends to go see the film, as well.

Brand stories constructed using the hero’s journey have the same effect. By making our audience, instead of ourselves, the hero, we increase their emotional investment. And when they defeat the source of their problems using your product, they associate that oxytocin release with the brand, establish an incredible relationship, and become evangelists immediately.

Our brains are wired to respond like this. Our limbic system is what controls emotion — and it’s also the core of decision making. Brands can talk about their features and benefits all day long, but if it does not “feel right,” they will be hard pressed to create a buying decision. Your brand has to define the emotion you are seeking to create and ensure it is consistent across your entire business, from marketing to customer service to product development.

The emotion you create is synonymous, often, with why your brand exists in the first place. Why you do what you do is the root of company culture, and the emotional package that is tied to that “why” is the same sense of power you’re seeking to unlock in your audience by giving them your product. 

Great brand stories are timeless. They transcend different product lines and eras, and in many ways even guide your product-market fit. Billion-dollar brands are defined by their stories: Customers take ownership of the message, spread it and convert their friends — not for you, but for themselves. That level of resonance does more than build equity. It changes the world.

So where do you begin? Start with the why. Why did you start your enterprise in the first place, and what were the feelings that came to you when you first saw your product or service help someone else? Once you’ve defined that, think critically about the hero of your brand story. Who has the right set of challenges to feel the way your offering can make him or her feel? With those two core pieces in place you can begin to build out the remainder of the journey – and begin to harness the true power of your story