17 Storytelling Tips for Startups from Founder Institute Mentor Tyler Crowley

17 Storytelling Tips for Startups from Founder Institute Mentor Tyler Crowley

The following post is a guest post by Alexis Niki, a Paris-based founder & CEO of StoryNova, which provides concept and story strategy and development support. You can follow her at @AlexisNiki.


Last week, Tyler Crowley gave a workshop on improving your pitch with storytelling at Microsoft’s new Spark center. Tyler is a regular Founder Institute mentor and an executive producer of The Launch Festival created by Jason Calacanis.

Tyler began the event with volunteer pitches. Five brave entrepreneurs took the plunge, allowing themselves to serve as examples of what not to do when pitching. Tyler spent the bulk of the evening teaching us storytelling tools. Then he worked privately with two of the founders, who pitched again after applying Taylor’s techniques. The improvement was immediate and dramatic. Not only were the pitches clearer, they made us laugh, kept us engaged, and were easier to remember. Tyler covered a lot of ground during the workshop, and many of his tips could make stand-alone posts. Nevertheless, I did my best to capture the essence of what he shared with us in the 17 tips presented here:

1) The audience doesn’t remember data.

Tyler asked us to raise our hands if we remembered the names of the founders who had just pitched. Only a smattering of hands went up. Similarly, people discussing pitches at an event will say, “I liked the wine app,” or, “I liked the one about the guitars.” They hardly ever say, “I liked John Doe’s app, Guitareo.” People simply don’t remember names and data very easily, especially not when they’ve just been presented with a lot of it. Either don’t worry about introducing yourself, or do it quickly and then get to the meat of your pitch.

2) The audience does remember story.

Tyler asked how many people in the room remembered how Tom Cruise got around town in the 1986 movie Top Gun. About the same number of hands went up as before. Twenty-seven years later, there were people who still remembered that Tom Cruise rode a motorcycle. In twenty-seven years, how many of us will remember we even took this workshop, let alone who pitched? Information and data speak to the analytical part of our brain—the part that zones out. Story, on the other hand, makes us feel something. It speaks to the visual and emotional part of our brain, and it stays with us differently.

3) Make your audience feel the WOW moment.

Tyler calls the moment when your audience gets your product, when they feel the same thing you feel about it, “the WOW moment.”

Let’s say that your father was a pediatric dentist, and when you were a kid he lost his practice to competition. As a result, you had to quit school to help support your family and that’s what motivated you to create BabyTeethPics, an income-generating tool for pediatric dentists.

4) Help your audience experience this WOW moment through two key characters, the hero and the antagonist.

A successful story allows the audience to project themselves onto a character and vicariously experience what he experiences. It’s hard to project onto a real, live person at the podium. A fictional character is abstract and leaves room for imagination. Start with your main character, the hero of your story who also happens to be the ideal customer for your product. Let’s call him Brian. Brian has a problem, and that problem has something to do with character number two. Let’s call her Sarah. She plays the role of the antagonist, spurring Brian to overcome his problem. Sarah might be the girl he wants to impress, or the teacher, boss, or client who he can’t seem to please. Make sure one character is male and the other is female so you can refer to them using “he” and “she” without confusing your listeners.

5) Introduce your hero in a dramatic fashion.

This is your moment to grab your audience’s attention and prevent them from checking their emails. Find a dramatic hook by asking yourself what your character stands to lose:

This is Dr. Brian. Dentists R Us is drilling a hole in his pediatric business. (If he doesn’t find a solution, he’ll go out of business!)

6) Build the drama by showing us your character’s problem.

What is your character up against? What’s the worst thing that can happen?

Dentists R Us has installed an indoor playground and all the kids want to go there now—even his most loyal patient, little six-year-old Sarah.

7) Cast your product in the role of the vehicle that helps your hero.

What The Force is to Luke Skywalker, your product should be to your hero. How does Brian use your product to impress Sarah and restore order to the galaxy, er, I mean his life?

Dr. Brian doesn’t have the space to install an indoor playground. But now, thanks to BabyTeethPics, he has something even better!

8) Start and close with your elevator pitch.

By book-ending your pitch with your elevator pitch, you set the stage for the audience’s expectations, and you finish on point. State the name of your product and give us a hint of its WOW factor in one sentence:

BabyTeethPics makes being a dentist a snap!

9) Avoid using “I,” “you,” or “we” in your pitches.

When telling your story, don’t say, “Then you click here to scan the child’s mouth.” Anyone who’s not a dentist will think, “No, I will never do that!” If you talk about Dr. Brian scanning Sarah’s mouth, however, people will be in the story and will believe it without a problem.

10) Avoid hypotheticals such as “can” and “could.”

Similarly, if you say, “You can also use the tool to check for cavities,” you’re opening up possibilities. You can—but you also can NOT. Close down all options except the ones you want to emphasize by staying with the action. Tell your stories in present or simple past tense.

11) Story can communicate important information in an elegant way.

Like taking medicine with a spoonful of sugar, data is easier to swallow with story. Look for opportunities to slip in any important information your audience needs to know. Want to tell them how to use your tool or how you’ll make money? Let Brian’s actions show them:

Dr. Brian scans Sarah’s teeth and with a click of the big green button, he takes a picture of her molars. Sarah is so excited to see her teeth looking like moon craters that her mom decides to purchase the picture. With a second push of the button, Dr. Brian adds the price of the scan plus the 6% commission charged by the app to her bill.

12) If you must give figures, avoid big numbers.

Instead, transform them into smaller fractions: “300,000 parents think taking their child to the dentist is like pulling teeth” might become “Two out of five moms say taking their kids to the dentist is like pulling teeth.”

13) Your story needs to have a happy ending.

We want the emotional satisfaction of seeing Brian triumph over his problem:

When Sarah sees her toothy souvenir, she breaks into a wide grin. “Wow, this is much better than a silly old playground!” she says. “Thank you, Dr. Brian, you’re the best!”

14) Don’t try to memorize your story.

Instead, remember the key story moments:

  • Character intro.
  • Problem.
  • Struggle and solution.
  • Happy ending.

15) Create variations of your story for different audiences and different lengths.

Anticipate the questions you might get from your audience. (“What’s your market size?” and “How will you make money?” are two that almost always come up.) Weave the answers into your story for longer pitches, or save the answers for the Q&A for shorter pitches.

16) Keep testing your stories.

Tell them to anyone who will listen, and keep refining them until you get the emotional reaction you’re hoping to get.

17) Finally, study storytelling in action on the Launch Conference website.

Watch videos of founders weaving stories into their pitches. http://www.youtube.com/user/LaunchConf?feature=watch

Tyler coached many of them himself. How many of the tips listed here can you spot?