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Guest Blog: What’s your story? Ann Booth-Clibborn, Producer: Grand Designs, The Restaurant, Changing Rooms…

Ever wondered why telling a story is powerful in business? Ann Booth-Clibborn writes about their power to make people care.

Don’t tell the accountant but the spreadsheets don’t attract funding on their own. I’m a story coach so of course I’ll tell you the key is stories, but what about the VCs what are they looking for?

I asked Richard Marsh, entrepreneur and now partner at DFJ Esprit.

“I remember pitching my own company to VCs, and now as a VC I meet with many new companies every week. First impressions count and it’s important for start-ups seeking VC backing to have a really compelling story and vision. In particular if you have something new and unique you need to set out the vision of why this is important, who to, why and how you will build your business on this. When we invest in start-ups, we’re buying into the entrepreneur’s journey and will become immersed in its development and ambition for success.”

The truth is the story form is the oldest, and the most successful form of communication we have at our disposal, so it makes sense to use it’s persuasive power for business.

Why is a story so successful?

  • It follows a very specific model designed perfectly to achieve maximum audience engagement. Does that sound useful?
  • It roots content in the real world and your company story will express how your product/business/idea is rooted in the real world.   This is compelling for VC’s as they will be investing in you in the real world.
  • A well-told story is effortless to consume and easy to pass on, and anyone paying for messages to be pushed can tell you how valuable that is.

But as many battle-scarred entrepreneurs will confess – telling your own story is not always easy. We use the story model instinctively when passing on a great piece of gossip to friends, but when it comes to business, the skills often desert us.

I’m originally a TV producer and I developed and launched the award-winning international hit format, Changing Rooms for the BBC. This show started with a brief from BBC2 for a DIY and decorating quiz show. After one week’s research shadowing a handy man and an interior designer I established that most of the content for this would be deathly dull and audiences would be turning off in their thousands. So I started to work on a story that would hold all the same content but take the viewer on a journey they wanted to take. Let’s take it into real homes, let’s learn from the experts but let’s create risk so you want to watch until the very last frame….and so the format for Changing Rooms started to emerge.

Your content is not your story. Rather like mixing paint and making shelves, the research data, price points, product visuals and company forecasts a business holds are all important content for an investor but they are not the story that will take them off on a journey.  If the pitch is a first encounter with a VC, potential partner or client then the company story is a vital component of that journey. The company story roots your business in the real world and answers the questions on the investor’s mind; Who are you? Why do you care about what you do? What will it be like to interact with you as a business? I’m not suggesting this dominates your pitch because yes you do need to prove you are going to make significant returns in a short space of time. But if you haven’t got a well-drilled short piece that answers the above questions you are missing a trick. The problem for entrepreneurs and any business is that these are not necessarily easy questions to answer because we are all so close to our own stories, personal and professional, and getting that distance is tough.

Being an expert in your field that can actually get in the way of communicating it effectively and this includes pitching your business or business idea.  If I’d known even the first thing about doing up a house I don’t think Changing Rooms would have had the same simplicity or impact. At the time of developing the show I was renting a room in someone else’s house and the extent of my decoration experience was sticking up Athena posters. There were experts on hand but not in charge of story telling.

A story has a number of key elements which are always present. To tell the story of your business here are a few questions to ask yourself to get some distance, and start to identify those fundamental story elements. You may find that the full answers don’t feature in your final pitch but identifying will subtly re-orientate the way you see your story and subsequently tell it. Here are some questions and examples of some of my client’s responses.

What kicked off your story with this business i.e. what was the original spark for you?

A London based financial services team identified that it was bringing a highly specialized skill in a small community out to the global community, because they had seen it would add a totally new dimension to the world view at time when the world view was becoming less certain. This answer encouraged them to reinforce the unique and specialist nature of their data in an uncertain world.

What’s a small detail or process in the way you operate every day that makes your business different to work in?

A pharmaceutical marketing company in their second year of trading inhabited comfortable but pretty basic offices, but they told me that their major investment on moving in was a state of the art coffee machine. A lot of their competitors were in-house marketing departments of vast companies, and their coffee machine led them to recognise their values of prioritizing staff interests to promote creativity and productivity rather than management pressure and anxiety.

What’s the risk to the audience of not going with your idea/brand/offer and choosing another? What is at stake?

An international hairdressing chain shot back the answer to this as soon as I asked it. None of the other salons invested training and career development right from trainee to senior management. Clients choosing competitors risked hairdressers whose product knowledge was out of date, whose style portfolio was stale and who didn’t feel valued by their employers. Although this element featured in the story they told potential employees, at no point had they used this as part of the story to customers.

Standing back from your content, seeing your story and telling it well will make your pitch more audience focused. Once you’ve planned a pitch ask yourself this, as the investor leaves the room will he be able to effortlessly answer the question “Who were they?” If he or she can’t, there is still too much content and not enough story.

Ann Booth-Clibborn, Story Coach