Erb Perspective Blog

Being Entrepreneurial in Your Storytelling

Tips for Sustainability Advocates and Entrepreneurs

iStock_000015416157XSmall 2By: Lianne Lefsrud and Dev Jennings

As a sustainability advocate, you may be a budding entrepreneur like Erb’s Bizeeboxers in FastCompany.   Or you may be an intrapreneur, acting as the VP Sustainability for a Fortune 500 company. Oftentimes, your ideas are supersized. How can you clone yourself and your ideas? How can you make your motivation infectious? The answer is simple: STORIES!

Really, why stories?

Stories are a powerful means of capturing attention, establishing your credibility to give advice, and developing logical persuasion. Indeed, research in strategy and management has shown that those who use stories well tend to become team leads, small business innovators, and CEOs.
Good stories help garner resources for a firm via pitches, prospectuses, and capital negotiations. Stories can be especially valuable for small ventures with limited financial resources, as the ability to tell stories and to have others retell your stories can become a means of creating resources.

What is a story?

A story refers to a set of related statements where there is a protagonist (person who is the key subject), some plot involving the protagonist and others or natural objects in interrelated events, and an outcome. That outcome usually is based on the story, but normally has a broader meaning.

And how can you tell them better?

There are some general principles, based upon research, for storytelling in entrepreneurial and small business contexts, as you consider your purpose, audience, story structure, and delivery.

  • Start with the end in mind

It makes sense to start with your end in mind. What effects do you want?  Perhaps you want to improve employee commitment and innovation, increase the amount of venture capital you are raising, or persuade a mentor to join your advisory board. What might be some intended and unintended spillover? If others retell your persuasive stories, spillovers effects might be employees recruiting other employees, VCs recommending you to other funders, or your mentor suggesting other board members. Working backwards, which audiences and types of stories might help you achieve those effects?  For example, you might need a resonant identity story with your current and prospective employees, perhaps based on the Hero’s Journey. If you are in a new industry, emotional appeals would be more persuasive than in a more established, institutionalized context where logical appeals would have more sway.

  • Consider others’ story designs and delivery

Identify speakers who appeal to you and pull apart their stories. What do you like best?  We often admire what we recognize in ourselves: a quality we hope to possess or a dream we share.  Consider why you admire them, and do more of what you admire. Perhaps you like Steve Job’s folksy and laid back manner. Or you might like Oprah Winfrey’s inspirational tone. Take what you find most appealing from others and make it your own.

  • Simplify and focus your own story

Your audience has a limited attention span.  Thus, what you leave out, what you put aside, and what you choose not to do will free you for what you need to do. Do a few things with your story and you can do them all extremely well. Just think of Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad. His story was both technical and logical (equipment) and emotional (cool and visionary). But, more than anything, it was simple.  Distil or re-frame those messages that are hard to communicate easily.  Then test-drive your distilled story with your friend, partner, or parent.

  • Create drama

Have great characters and a likeable hero, with whom your audience can identify. While the hero might be you, it is often more persuasive if others are the heroes of your stories – your clients, your prospects, or someone else – but your audience has to care about them.  Give your characters goals and vision that your audience cares about. Identify something, reflective of real life, they are trying to accomplish that your audience understands. Trying something really hard, even if you fail, is something you – and others – will remember forever.  Allow your hero to be vulnerable; vulnerability is strangely attractive. And growth is a result of the effort, not the success.  So, give your characters obstacles and never let them get it right the first time.  Demonstrate how your character faces challenges. What you do under stress defines you and can invoke positive emotions that aut

  • Have a well-organized, absence of meaning

The best stories inspire wonder and mystery. So, make your audience work for the story.  If your audience is filling in the missing pieces, they become active co-creators of your story and are more likely to ‘buy-in’. Create a promise like “Once upon a time…” that you will later fulfil.

  • Test-drive your stories with your intended audiences

Consider the beliefs and values of your audience(s) to craft the most resonant message.  Demonstrate how you, your product, and your company connect with their identified needs.  Stories are based on actions (the protagonist who does something), not ideas.  Therefore, turn your ideas into actions that you can then improve.  Get feedback, revise, and reshape.

This post is an excerpt from Lianne Lefsrud & Dev Jennings. Forthcoming. ‘Being Entrepreneurial in Your Storytelling: An Institutional Tale’ Chapter in Newbert S.L. (Ed.), Small businesses in a global economy: Creating and managing successful organizations, two-volume set. Westport, CT: Praeger.  The full chapter is available online at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2340100

 

Posted in Faculty Op-ed, Guest OpEd | 2 Comments

2 Responses to Being Entrepreneurial in Your Storytelling

  1. Great post! Thanks so much for sharing and, for course, for mentioning BizeeBox. We’ve learned a little bit about storytelling in the past year and recognize the profound impacts that telling a great story can have. Where we struggle, and I’m sure a lot of other entrepreneurs do as well, is dedicating the necessary time to really do it right. It’s challenging, time consuming work and a lot of other tasks tend to seem like higher priorities on a day-to-day basis. That said, you might’ve just inspired us to block out some time to start working on this!

    Quick question: can you share any specific and recent examples of startups that have really gotten it right as far as telling their story?

    Thanks again,
    Rich
    Co-Founder
    BizeeBox

  2. Lianne Lianne says:

    Rich – thank you for your comments! For any message, the best audience response is unconscious agreement: ‘But of course…!’

    So, who has gotten such storytelling ‘right’?

    Not to blow the Erb horn too loudly, but the recent Climate Change winners (as PSA ‘startups’) combine many of the attributes of a compelling story – http://erb.umich.edu/psa-winners/.

    These PSAs capture attention with great visuals, adorable humour, and music. In a simple manner, ‘speakers’ establish credibility with their audience (Eloise as a ‘future generation’, students taking to students about simple actions and ‘bad hair’). And they give logical evidence for taking action and which actions to take. These PSAs are fun, motivational, and resonant across several audiences.

    By focusing on the solutions and not the (potentially controversial) causes, these solutions become seen as being THE solutions. Visuals create heightened impact and nearly instantaneous understanding, based upon the expedited manner in which we process visual information as reliant on our cultural understandings. Such humour and visuals unconsciously slide beneath counter-arguments. Disagreeing with Eloise becomes literally ‘unthinkable’.