Storytelling mistakes to avoid: Good intentions holding back your startup story

“Storytelling” may sound fluffy, but it’s a cunning tool for startups.

We humans have been telling them since our knuckles dragged along the cave floor. Our brains are hardwired for them.

Stories help us understand abstract concepts and apply them to our own lives. They make us care. If you can tell a damn good story, you can sell the vision of your never-before-seen product, no matter how abstract it may be.

But figuring out your own story ain’t easy. Our instincts often lead us down the path to something flat and uninspiring.

Here are 3 good intentions (storytelling mistakes to avoid in disguise) that commonly dull brand stories, plus new angles to sharpen yours.


Good intention #1: Trying to explain your story

We all want people to “get” our product and what makes it different. So you might think a straightforward explanation of what your product is and how it works is the best way to get that across.

Unfortunately, a straight explanation doesn’t get people interested in your product and can end up sounding more like a book report than a story.

Your explanation could be full of smart elements — eg, peer-to-peer platform that enables frictionless access to content — but like a book report, it’s abstract and hard to grasp if you don’t have an engineering background. Readers get bored.

Your startup’s story should be more like a Netflix series that keeps you rollin’ into the next episode even though it’s 11pm on Monday night.

That means stepping out of your product and into your customer’s shoes. Tell them the only story they care to hear: what you can do for them.

When the story is about us, we’re suddenly interested. It’s like when your friend wants to tell you about the dream they had last night. It’s boring as all heck, unless their dream was about you.

The Hero’s Journey is a plot structure used in countless famous stories. It has several stages, but the crux of it all is that every hero changes over the course of a story.

Luke Skywalker goes from moisture farm boy to badass Jedi. Bilbo Baggins goes from chilled out hobbit to dragon slayer. Bridget Jones goes from sad spinster to Colin Firth’s girlfriend. Like them, we all want to change for the better.

Think of your customer as the main hero of your story. How does your product help them become a better version of themselves?

This may seem self-evident to you, but it’s not obvious to the big world outside your company.

Spell out that better version of ourselves.

From removed tourist to connected traveler.

Airbnb invited people to “Belong Anywhere”. Before Airbnb, you were a tourist staying in a hotel, disconnected from the real place you’re visiting. After Airbnb, you’re a traveler having authentic experiences making connections anywhere in the world.

From tied-down to in control of your day (and therefore, your life).

Uber promises new freedom to its drivers. Before Uber, you’re tied down to set working schedules. After Uber, you have control over when you want to make money and how you fill your day.


Now you try it: How does your customer change?

Make a simple 2-column table with “Before” and “After” at the top. Think about all the different ways your customer changes before and after using your product. Is it their emotions? Their social standing? Their outlook? A typical day at work?

Try and be specific. For example, going from unhappy to happy is too generic. Choose one of the best “After” states and see how it could work in a headline for your startup, like Airbnb.


Good intention #2: Focusing on just the “nice stuff”

Naturally, we want to frame our products in the best light possible. So we pile on as many fantastic features and benefits as we can.

  • An energy bar subscription that’s about healthy, whole ingredients.
  • A time management app that’s about being more productive.

Everyone and their mother spouts benefits, so these statements sound nice and all…but also kind of “so what?”

That’s because there’s nothing at stake for the customer in these sentences. I can live quite happily without the healthy, whole ingredients in your energy bars, thank you very much.

If you want to raise the stakes for people, your story needs a villain. Villains exist to make stories interesting. They personify the problem your customer — aka the hero — is facing. And your product is the weapon they need to defeat it.

Brandless has done a wonderful job of naming their villain, BrandTax™.


Brandless is a real misnomer… they rock at brand.

As a direct-to-consumer company, Brandless removes the hidden markups we usually pay on grocery store items: BrandTax™. It quickly teaches me that I’m being unfairly charged by countless other goods. But Brandless is helping me fight it with my grocery and household purchases.


You can be lighthearted about your villain too.

MeetEdgar’s villain is the time suck of social media management for entrepreneurs. They fight the time suck by automating your social media management.


Now you try it: Who is your villain?

Brainstorm at least 5 possible villains. The problem your product solves is a great place to start; however, this villain may have a different face in your customer’s eyes. Listen to how your prospects and customers talk about the problems in their own words.

Choose your best villain, then describe how it negatively affects your customer. Finally, think about how your brand helps customers defeat this villain. Could you give your villain a name, like Brandless?


Good intention #3: Starting with a template

When you don’t know where to start with something, a template seems like a good idea.

Like this guy:

The brilliant April Dunford explains why this ’70s template is useless:

Never has such a useless tool been so widely used. The fact that the output of this exercise is a hilariously awkward franken-statement of meaningless mumbo- jumbo isn’t even the worst part of it. No, the worst part of this “positioning exercise” is that it assumes you already know the answers!

I’m sorry if you’ve wasted hours of your life trying to fill in the blanks with stuff you maybe haven’t figured out yet.

Your story is a collection of messages that appear in different places. Together, they connect the dots between your product and big vision. To find them, you have to start by going wide and figuring out:

  • What you are
  • Why you do it
  • Your unique value

Figuring out these pieces and making them work together is how you build a consistent brand message in the market.

Slack is a great example —they weave a golden thread across their What, Why and Unique Value.

Slack’s What: A collaboration hub that brings the right people together with all the right information and tools to get work done.

Slack’s Why: To make work simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.

Slack’s Unique Value: Where work happens


Now you try it: Thrash out your story elements

Spend time answering the following questions:

  • What do we do that nobody else does?
  • Who is our villain?
  • How do we help change our customers?
  • How will we change the world 10 years from now?

Brainstorm answers as a team and get them on the wall. Circle statements that are important to you and most importantly, your customers. Note recurring themes and group them into your Why, What and Unique Value.


A great story is a great strategy

Ben Horowitz, Partner and Co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, breaks it down in a perfect nutshell:

The company story is the company strategy.

Your story is the articulation of your go-to-market strategy. The meat of your investor deck. The foundation of your sales and marketing.

It’s your ticket to making the world care about your idea at first glance.

Give your product the very best chance at success by telling your biggest, boldest story.


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