What makes stories work, and why it matters to your business

Every year, we in the Sussex Innovation team have a training day to welcome our new Catalyst team, get to know this year’s group of graduates, and share experiences from our careers. I often start my talk with the same joke; I graduated with an MA in Creative and Critical Writing in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, a time when employers weren’t exactly banging down doors to hire arts graduates. I quickly realized that my only vaguely useful skill in recruiters' eyes was “being able to write stuff down good”.

To be fair, it was what landed me my first few jobs. Most workplaces can use someone who can reliably type a letter with all the apostrophes in the right place, or write several pages of product descriptions in an afternoon.

More than a decade later, and with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve come to realise that I was always selling creative writing short as a commercial asset. The longer I’ve worked with start-up businesses, the more I’ve understood what a crucial skill storytelling really is.

Look at most successful entrepreneurs, and you’ll find a successful storyteller. Either they have an innate talent for painting a picture of their vision, like Elon Musk with Tesla and SpaceX - or they’ve worked hard to distill and perfect the key beats of their brand narrative, like Virgin CEO Richard Branson.

Stories are ingrained in all of us. When someone is telling a good story, we lean in and give them our full attention; we are invested in what happens next. Studies have shown that we retain complex information better when it’s attached to plot, and we’re more predisposed to share a juicy anecdote with our friends than we are an unadorned fact or statistic.

For all these reasons, a keen sense for good storytelling is one of the most valuable skills you can build as a start-up founder. The media aren’t interested in the latest technology for its own sake, they’re interested in the story of how that technology is impacting someone’s life. If you want your team to buy into your vision, you’ll need them to internalise the story of why your work is important. Need to raise investment? VCs watch plenty of presentations every week that are backed by a strong business plan – the pitches that stand out from the crowd are the ones that draw them in with a compelling story.

So how does one tell stronger stories? Well, if you’ve got two hours to spare, I’ve got a coaching workshop for you… but in the meantime here are a few quick tips that will start improving your storytelling immediately:

  • Think in three acts. I won’t get bogged down in the theory, but the classic three-act structure is a useful starting principle for understanding how stories work. Many satisfying stories start with an established idea, have that basic idea challenged by something new, and end by combining these two thoughts into something stronger than the sum of their parts. Always start by thinking about what the three 'beats' of your story are going to be.
  • Emphasise the human. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson discovered that when we listen to another person tell a story, our brain chemistry synchronises with theirs. In other words, your brain processes a story as though you are experiencing it yourself. The effect is particularly pronounced with emotive and sensory language - experiences that we feel, rather than think. How can you lead your story with an emotion or sensation?
  • Speak your truth. I’ve recently been watching the author Neil Gaiman’s excellent Masterclass course, and this was the takeaway from the very first session. Gaiman's readers didn't start responding to his work until he stopped worrying about what they'd think of him. Universal experiences that resonate with people often fall just a little outside of our comfort zone. Honesty and vulnerability are a key ingredient in making stories engaging.
  • Celebrate failure. This has become a bit of a start-up cliche, but it bears repeating. In so many areas of our lives, we’re taught to hide our mistakes and ignore adversity. But have you ever watched a movie or read a novel where the protagonist has everything figured out from the first scene? The bumpy road to success is far more interesting to any audience than the view from the top.
  • Simplify. Effective storytelling is all about the clarity of your message. Writers' workshops often talk of "killing your darlings"; being prepared to sacrifice words that you worked hard on, in service of your story. We're all guilty of trying to cram in too much information and muddying the waters at times. As much as there may be something you're keen to talk about, ask yourself if it really fits this story. And if not - great! You've got another interesting story to share another time!