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Storytelling for
startups

Martyn Baker, managing partner at Gardn, explains how startups can build a narrative for their business.

Gardn is a consultancy that focuses on helping tech startups to tell their stories as they go to market, and win new customers. Here Martyn Baker, managing partner at Gardn, explains how taking a step back and looking at the narrative of your business can help you to assess how you approach sales more broadly.

Telling a story to remember

We don’t remember things abstractly. Our memories themselves work like stories, connecting one thing to the next in a series. A popular memory technique known as the palace method involves imagining a sequence of rooms through which you walk your mind’s eye, triggering memories that you associate with prompts that you have ‘placed’ in those rooms. At its heart, this memory technique is about storytelling.

We need to step back and reassess how we talk about our product as we sell. We put so much emphasis on numbers, particularly as we first start our pitch, and yet that’s never the thing that people will typically remember. We remember stories that catch our interest.

What’s at the heart of a story?

The first thing to note is that this isn’t about your founder story, although it might come into it in some shape and form. It’s also not quite marketing, although your marketing effort will benefit from everything we look at. I want to look at the first few minutes of interaction as you meet someone new. How do you get your key points across as quickly and as well as possible?

Alastair Campbell, when he was Tony Blair’s campaign director, talked about ‘objective, strategy, and tactics’ as the three most important words in the English language. Those three together form the basis for any great narrative.

Let’s take the example of Apple after Steve Jobs returned. The company’s objective was survival, its strategy to simplify. The tactics that aligned to those was to simplify the product, the company’s culture, and its communication. As in Apple’s case, the key to a good sales narrative is that it also aligns with three groups of people: investors, employees, and potential customers.

One pitfall is to focus on one of the three without the balance of the other two. When you start to talk about revenue and growth in order to align with solely investors, this will convert into how your employees and customers think about you too. In the tech world we refer to ‘feature creep’, which happens in two scenarios. When things are going either incredibly well or incredibly badly, you start to lose the focus of what you’re building for and muddy the waters of your product and of your business narrative. It’s a problem of your strategy and your tactics not being aligned.

How do we put this in practice?

Take what I’m doing now. My objective is to help your sales, and my strategy is storytelling. My tactics are running consulting workshops and offering sales material. (It’s important to note that the product is part of the tactic rather than part of the objective or strategy. The objective is the big “what”, the strategy the “how”, and the tactics are what you are actually doing).

I might use this description in an email summary, or at the beginning of a presentation. State your objective and your strategy in a single sentence. In a second sentence, outline your tactics in a really concise way – this will bring everyone onto the same page.

That concise description should be the basis for any external touch point, especially if you have a small sales team. What we’re trying to achieve is really what TV advertising aims for: reach and frequency. You want as many people as possible to hear the same message again, and again, because you want them to remember your business’s narrative.

A lot of founders feel uncomfortable at the idea of their product being their tactic, but thinking of it that way ensures you stay true to what you’re trying to achieve. It’s also vitally important that you debate your own strategy. Never let your strategy be assumed, as that’s the point at which feature creep comes in.

Some top practical tips

One of the easiest ways to convey a message that people will understand and remember is to do so through three words or phrases. From ‘ready, set, go’ to ‘lights, camera, action’, splitting a mantra into three parts makes it a lot easier to digest and to remember. (This is another useful part of keeping ‘objective, strategy, tactics’ at the heart of your message!)

Another tip, specifically for presenting, is to be mindful of your screen. Never show your material on a 4:3 aspect ratio – it will come across, subconsciously, as old-fashioned. Always fit your presentation to a widescreen format. This also feeds in to how you should be presenting your business narrative. You’re aiming to keep the attention of your audience, to stop it wandering (subconsciously or otherwise). So keep your message concise. If you can’t communicate what you do and fit it onto a single page, you haven’t simplified it enough.

Finally: practice. Ideally for every minute you’ll be presenting, practice for fifteen minutes. Of course, it won’t go well the first time. But to really refine your pitch and improve what you do, you’ve got to see what doesn’t work.

Your sales narrative should be impacted in both directions, by taking it out and seeing how customers react to it. That’s especially true in engineering companies, where customer feedback to the business narrative could eventually prompt a change in the product itself.

This is why you continuously evolve your strategy by taking it back to that central narrative. Constantly debate it, hone it, refine it – and hopefully, you’ll improve sales.

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