What makes a great story?

I had written a blog on the kinds of stories that every startup needs to have. So what makes for a great story? I am going to share some thoughts on what makes for great stories. The objective of a great story is to be viral and drive greater discovery. Whether that is amongst the investors or customers. The more that people hear about you, the more good things happen for you.

Stories that go viral have a few necessary characteristics. Here are the characteristics of a viral story:

Simplicity – A viral story is simple and can be passed onto others quite easily. Simplicity is also important for it to be easily remembered and repeated. If your listener is not able to remember the story then they would never tell the story to another person. So you need to take effort to ensure that your story is as simple as possible.

Unfalsifiability – Good stories are hard to disprove. This what provide them with an air of authenticity. If your story has timelines that do not add up or seem improbable then not too many people are going to want to share it.

Conviction – The extend to which you are certain is the extent to which someone else is certain. Your conviction and certainty in how you narrate the story will play a huge role in the certainty with which I tell another.

Contagiousness – For a story to be shared it has to appeal to a broad audience. This does not mean that the story has to be about many or align with their views. It means that the story has to elicit a very fundamental human emotional response. That response can be love, hope, hatred or disgust depending on what your story is trying to convey but it should universally elicit the same response. To be spreadable, a story needs to be contagious—something people feel deeply compelled to share and that applies equally to many people.

Incentives – The incentive to the person telling the story can be purely in the form of amazement that they can attract from the listener or the knowledge that they seem to have. If they can add value for the listener by enabling them to benefit in some way by knowing it, its a cherry on the cake. For instance, do you know this company – Airbnb – They make it possible for you to stay at other people apartments that are lying empty, it can bring down your travel bill so much!

So do you think that your story has all of these aspects right?


Stories every startup needs

In every organisation, there is folklore or stories that shape the culture of the company. These stories are very powerful because they remain with the organisation for a long time. Stories are remembered and they are self-propagating. Further, they have great power in shaping how future employees think about the organisation and the steps that they take when faced with challenges. The more authentic and real these stories are, the more power they have. Although having said that almost every founder embellishes their stories. Don’t stray too much.

Founding Story

Quite self-explanatory, the founding story is about how the venture came about. What was the motivation or the push that got the venture started? Most businesses are created to address a problem and founding stories usually talk about how the founder discovered the problem. As a foundational story, this is by far the most important story for any organisation. It makes customers identify with you. It makes the early employees align with the mission. It also makes the broader community understand your goals and why you set out on this path. 

I have come across founders, who just started a venture because they were good at something. Not because they found a problem or were specifically looking to solve something. For such founder, my advice would be to take some time and think about your customers and the problems that they face. How is your being good at something helping them overcome their problem? This will be central to your initial growth.  

First Success Story

Your first customer, your first delivery, your first success is always special and it sets the tone within the organisation for what it means to be successful. As Ben Thompson noted in his blog

Culture does not beget success, it is the success that begets culture.

Bill Gates sold an Operating System that he had not built, did not know if he would be able to build or not, to IBM. He then came back and almost killed himself to deliver an operating system that came to be known as MS-DOS. It is the story of this success that drives what is expected of employees within Microsoft. How they can excel and distinguish themselves. 

Similarly how you got your first customer. What drew them to you. What made your product the best choice for them are all parts of the narrative. This tells people within the organisation what the organisation stands for. 

Customer Stories

The proof of the pudding is in eating it or at least hearing from those who have. If you are solving a problem, it should create an impact and it should change lives. The story of a customer who is living this change is one of the most powerful stories for the organisation internally as well as externally. When I think of powerful customer stories, I am often reminded of a short film Apple put together for WWDC 2012. (It is about 5 minutes but well worth it)

Customer stories need to be collected and nurtured over time. You need to be on a lookout for such stories. Hotel chains such as Marriott also do a great job of collecting and showcasing them. In the long run, they are very powerful and a true differentiator. 

Stories are a great investment for any organisation. Nobody will remember your revenues and gross margins, they will all remember a good story. Further, they will share the story with others, which helps your business grow. So work on your narrative, work on your stories, collect them and nurture them.

With the lockdown and time on hand, why don’t you start working on your stories?