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Building Your Storyline

Storytelling is a powerful tool for engaging and persuading an audience. In the age of digital media, where competition for attention is fierce, a well-crafted story can help businesses stand out and communicate their unique value proposition.


Why Stories Matter

Stories are powerful because they elicit emotion and imagination with the audience. They allow listeners to relate to a situation or perspective and imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes.

As a startup, you should be leveraging the art of storytelling in almost every conversation - explaining how your company is different, ground-breaking, changing the current landscape, or even defining a new category altogether. These stories are often used with investors, teams, potential new hires, customers, and journalists.

The key, regardless of audience, is to remember your main goal - provide a simple, memorable way for your audience to understand what’s unique about you and your product.


Key Words: Simple & Memorable

What does this mean in practice? Focus on a simple storyline, a core message, and leverage facts and figures sparingly.

Former Pixar animator and storytelling expert, Matthew Luhn describes a story as “the glue that holds together all the great information you have to share.” And while stories are the glue, complicated and overdone facts/ figures can be the sharp edges that lead the audience away from your core message. It's estimated that listeners only retain 5% of the words said to them. What they do remember, however, is the emotion they had while listening, and a story can give you the framework to provide those feelings.


Story Use Cases

There are endless ways a leader can leverage stories, but we recommend all leaders develop messaging for the following use cases:

  • Pitch: Convincing investors to give you capital.
  • Candidate: Persuading future employees to join your company and inspiring existing employees to stay.
  • Customer: Taking a leap of faith to leverage your product.
  • Purpose/Social Impact: Describing your company’s larger purpose in the industry and society.
  • Origin: Sharing your company’s backstory and journey to where you are now.

While there are endless use cases you’ll develop over time, it’s important to note that regardless of the situation, audience, or message, the anatomy of a storyline remains the same. In the sections below, we’ll outline the fundamental elements of a story and how to build and iterate on them for your company's needs.


Storyline Elements

Every story should include a few key elements - a hero that sets the stage and follows a journey, a goal or end state that the hero seeks to attain, an obstacle that the hero faces along the way, and a change or transformation the hero experiences along the way.

Hero
  • Stories only resonate when there is a central character that the audience cares about. This is true even with business stories. Define your hero character early on and make them a centerpiece throughout the narrative. The hero can be you (the storyteller), the customer/ client, or even the audience.
  • Prompt: Who is the main character of your story? Is it yourself? A client? Someone else? What is your hero like? Why does your character exist within this storyline?
Goal
  • Every hero needs a goal they will strive to achieve throughout the story.
  • Prompt: What does your hero want to achieve? What is wrong with their current state that makes them desire this goal? What has prevented them from achieving this goal already?
Obstacles
  • In order to have a worthy goal, there must be some challenge(s) the hero must overcome along the way.
  • Prompt: What stands between where they currently are and where they would like to be in achieving their goal? What might stand in the way of a positive outcome?
Change/Transformation
  • We're wired to focus on impact and transformations. Show the audience the hero’s progression and evolution by outlining where they were and where they ended up.
  • Prompt: How does your character change over time through overcoming obstacles and reaching their goal(s)? Is there a change in their behavior, attitude, and/or mindset?

Develop a Story Arc: Beginning, Middle, & End

Regardless of your audience, every good story has a beginning, middle, and end. This progression provides a sense of flow so your audience can follow along and visualize your message.

The What, How, Why framework can be a simple way to think about the beginning, middle, and end, particularly if you or your customer is the hero.

  • What problem did I solve? This is where you share the challenge the hero has been trying to tackle.
  • How did I solve it? This is where you outline the solution and describe how it works.
  • Why did I do it? This section celebrates the success and change as a result of the solution.

Once you’ve defined your what, how, and why start to add in your other story elements. A basic story arc might look something like the following:

When I [Hero] first entered the industry, I realized that my academic training had only prepared me for a small portion of the tasks I needed to take on [Obstacle + What]. In order to fill in some of my knowledge gaps and become the best leader I could [Goal], I started reaching out to peers across the industry and grabbed coffee with anyone who would agree to chat with me [How]. Through these conversations, I realized there was a fundamental knowledge gap that only hands-on industry experience could bridge. This is where I came up with the idea of a Mentorship Network [Why]. Over the years, this Mentorship Network has allowed me and thousands of others to learn from some of the best minds in the industry. Through these mentor sessions, I’ve had the opportunity to advance my own leadership skills and now am able to give back to the community as a mentor myself  [Transformation].

While this is a very simple example of a story arc, the framework can work across any complex topic. Start with the problem set, define how the hero will solve it, and outline how the solution transformed the hero in the end.


Understand Your Audience’s Perspective

Once you’ve defined your story’s structure, you need to clearly identify your audience. Are you pitching to potential investors? Trying to attract customers? Speaking at a conference? How you tell your story will vary depending on the audience, so it's essential to tailor your narrative accordingly.

Consider what your audience cares about and what their needs are. Once you've identified their needs, goals, and perspectives, tailor your story to address these motivations.

Considerations When Creating Your Storyline:
  • What is the main headline I want the audience to walk away with?
  • Why are they here?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • How might you or your product address their problem set?
  • What action would you like them to take after this meeting?
  • How might they resist (accusation audit)?
  • What do they need to know, and what do they need to feel?

We’ve compiled these questions into an outline to help you get started.

Tips:
  • Be Compelling: Don't make your audience ask, "Why does this matter?"  or "Can you give me an example?".
  • Be Authentic: Don't be a politician or follow your script 100% of the time.
  • When in Doubt, Stick to the Grid: When you exhaust the content in each column, stop talking.
  • Stay on Track: If you get derailed, use an "exit lane" line (ex., Let me tell you what we saw in.../let me tell you how is see this).
Theme Examples:
  • Origin Story
  • Team
  • Competitive Landscape
  • Product Traction/ Revenue Growth
  • Monetization Model
  • Competitive Moats
  • Scaling Potential

Refining Your Story

Once you’ve outlined all the elements of your story, it’s time to create your narrative. This is typically the most time-intensive aspect of story development with the goal of communicating the most impact with the least amount of words. We recommend saying your story out loud several times, recording it, writing it down, and refining as your go. This will likely take several iterations. Aim to have a strong but simple story that you can build on over time.


Constantly Iterate on Your Storyline

Your story should undergo constant changes as you outline, draft, practice, and deliver it.

Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind when iterating on your story:

  • Keep your message as simple as possible.
  • Don't overwhelm your audience with too many extraneous or unnecessary details.
  • Make sure your stakes and big ideas are clarified.
  • Hone in on the emotional impact of your story.

Outside of simple changes and refinement, as your business evolves, you may need to completely overhaul/ update your mission and overarching storyline. When revising or changing your narrative, focus on how your company is relevant at that specific moment in time. Major changes in the industry, to your core audience, or even on a global scale will impact your story. Ensure that examples, details, and your hero are relevant and compelling to the current market.


Test Your Story Obsessively

A good storyteller is a consistent storyteller. After you’ve developed your storyline, practice it with anyone who will listen. Feedback from co-workers, friends, and family is a great way to hone your message and ensure the core ideas resonate. At Lightspeed, we’re also big supporters of storytelling and love hearing your stories. Reach out to your lead investor for feedback.  

When soliciting feedback, ask the following:

  • What information do you recall from the story? How does my story make you feel?
  • After listening, what questions do you have?

Additional Tips

  • Practice your story out loud, and use the 8:1 ratio -  8 minutes practicing for every minute you will speak. Practice regularly, deliver your story to a variety of audiences, record yourself, and ask for feedback.
  • Don’t directly state your core message. It's generally considered cliche to state your core message directly in your story; it can turn the audience off because it feels overtly salesy. Leverage your story arc to get your message across in a subtle way. For example, instead of stating your mission statement verbatim in your story, start with your company tagline as your story’s hook and go on to describe what it means and how you arrived at that tagline, weaving in the values from your mission statement.
  • Stay true to yourself. It's critical to have authenticity within your story. While you may not always be the central character, the audience will still want to relate to you as the storyteller. That may involve adjusting your script on the fly to better resonate with the audience and including elements of honesty and vulnerability throughout.
  • Constantly assess if you have a good story. Co-founder and CBO of Pensando Systems, Soni Jiandani, notes that a winning story is when your customers or audience can tell that story to others because if customers can tell your story, it will resonate with the rest of the market. When assessing whether you’ve created a great storyline, consider whether your customers, employees, or investors have started using your message.

Engaging with the Media

Media engagement is a crucial part of any company’s growth and success. Finding the right tone and telling your company’s story in a captivating way can make the difference between a successful PR campaign and a potential disaster. Effective communication with media requires careful planning and consideration to ensure that your message is conveyed accurately and effectively.

In this guide, we'll cover key points highlighted during a webinar between Lightspeed's Meredith Kendall Maines and the CEO of Clarity Media Group, Bill McGowan. With over 20 years of experience coaching C-suite executives and public figures, Bill has trained a wide array of clients, including companies like Facebook, Google, Spotify, Doordash, Airbnb, and Square.

In addition to this guide, we're happy to connect you with the Clarity Media team for 1:1 office hours. Please reach out through the team page for more information.


The 3 Golden Rules of PR

Lead the Dance

Journalists and interviewers often have a predetermined lens or angle they want to explore in a story. This can lead them to guide the interview in a way that confirms their preconceived ideas rather than allowing you to share your own story. To avoid this, develop a set of key talking points that serve as a consistent, focused message.  

An interview is a key opportunity for you to broadcast your message to a large audience. Use this opportunity to your advantage and have a game plan to support it.

Know Your Audience

Every audience is different and it's your job to develop a message that's going to resonate. Consider who the media outlet's audience is and develop a message with specific analogies that suits those listeners / readers.

  • Tailor your message based on who's listening - both the interviewer/ outlet and their target audience.
  • Consider how your message will be shaped and perceived depending on who the audience is.
  • Remember that you aren’t just talking to the interviewer, you're talking to their readers / viewers / followers. Make sure to adjust your messaging so that it lands with that audience.

Scout Your Interviewer

Just as the interviewer will research your background and company  to prepare for the interview, you should also take the time to research their previous work, topics of interest, typical writing style, etc. This will help you understand their perspective and approach and give you a better sense of what to expect.

It's also important to be informed about any recent news or trends that impact your specific industry & business, as this can help you anticipate questions and provide relevant, thoughtful responses. Here are some questions to help you in your research:

  • What is their point of view about your industry?
  • What is their interview style? Do they typically write with an open or critical slant?
  • Have they reported on your industry before? How much knowledge do they have of your industry?
  • How much will you be able to have to teach this person?
  • Have they covered your competitors in the past?

💡 Key Takeaway

The interviewer is not there to amplify your narrative, they’re there to challenge it.


Reporter's Tactics

Keep the Interviewee Talking

A skilled interviewer is comfortable with silence and encourages the interviewee to speak more than they might intend. As the interviewee, it’s important to be aware of this dynamic and not feel pressure to fill every silence with words.

  • Don't assume that any part of the interview "doesn't count" or is "free time."
  • Don't be forced into talking about negative or controversial subjects.
  • The longer you talk, the harder it is to stay focused and on message. Brevity can be powerful, so embrace it and let your key points shine.

Joke Around to Build Trust

It's not uncommon for interviewers to joke around or engage in non-related small talk. Although this is a good way to build rapport and break the ice, it is also a great way to get the interview subject into a more casual and less professional mindset. Quotes during casual chit-chat often become headlines.

It's OK to engage in small talk and to be friendly with the media, but always remain professional and on message. Their goal is to create a headline, yours is to tell your story.

Get Under the Interviewees' Skin

Great interviewers are skilled at using both silence and discomfort to elicit interesting and revealing responses from their subjects. While this can be challenging for the interviewee, it's important to remember that you always have the option to return to your "home base" of key talking points. This can help you stay focused and on message, even when you're feeling flustered or rushed. So if you start to feel panicked or off-topic, take a deep breath and refocus on your core message.

  • They want to get you off message, that's their job. Never let your guard down.
  • Don't let your emotions dictate the tone of the interview. If they can get you emotional, they can probably get you off your message.
  • Never let your responses or tone become combative. At the end of the day, the journalist has the final say in the way the piece is written, it's important that all interactions are friendly and amicable.

💡 Key Takeaway

Everything you say counts and has to look good in quotation marks.


Crafting a Compelling Message for Interviews

Establish Your Button

Your Button is a 1-2 sentence summary of why your company exists. It’s more concise than a mission statement and can serve as your "home base" in any interview. When you're faced with difficult or snarky questions or feel the interview is getting off-topic, always find your way back to your Button.

Keys to Creating a Great Button:
  • A one-line response to the question, “why does my company exist?”.
  • It shouldn’t be granular or specific.
  • It should be relatable across a wide range of audiences.
  • Clarity’s Button: “We help people become more memorable communicators.”
  • Yelp’s Button: “Yelp is a great resource for finding the best local businesses.” - Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO & Co-Founder of Yelp during an NPR interview

Know Your Center of Gravity

Along with your Button, you should have a clearly defined center of gravity in every interview. This is 1-2 talking points that you want to dominate the conversation. As journalists try to pull you away from your core message, it's your job to pull the conversation back to your thematic center.

Yelp's Center of Gravity: "Yelp has created a true meritocracy.” & “Yelp changed the way people advertise." - Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO & Co-Founder of Yelp during an NPR interview

Develop Your “Greatest Hits”

Most people prepare for an interview by outlining every possible question and developing answers for them. A more powerful practice is examining the best components of your narrative - your “Greatest Hits” - and developing a story around them. Define your most compelling stories, anecdotes, analogies, and data points that will resonate with the audience you'll be speaking to. Ignore the literal meaning of the question and focus on the story you want to tell.

Greatest Hit Tips:
  • Every question should be an opportunity to talk about your “Greatest Hits”.
  • Don’t just be in question-answering mode. Intentionally think about what quote or sound bite you're trying to create. Come armed with a memorable thing to say.
  • You aren’t in the business of question-answering, you're in the business of landing a sound bite.

Avoid Repeating the Negative

A very common mistake during interviews is focusing on or repeating a negative, even when the intent is positive.

What Not to Do: “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks." - Justice Amy Coney Barrett

What Not to Do: "I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country, and I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt." - Boris Johnson

These types of negative statements are frequently picked up in headlines and can be misconstrued without context.

  • Avoid repeating, refuting, or referencing anything through a negative lens.
  • When refuting a negative question, make sure you don’t repeat the toxicity in the question; do not adopt their terminology!
  • It's better to talk about what it is, not what it isn’t.
  • “Not at all” statements, don’t make a quote for a reporter.

💡 Key Takeaways

Challenges Over Problems: Never talk about the problems, talk about the challenges. Always focus on the positive and never repeat a negative statement.


Creating Memorable Lines

When preparing for an interview, focus on creating memorable lines and sound bites. Without a story or quote that sticks with readers, your message will not appear impactful or unique.

Analogies

Good analogies make great sound bites. But, great analogies are not an accident. They are purposefully crafted and follow the Analogy Trifecta recipe - Theme, Placement, and Delivery.

  • The analogy should be core to your message and theme.
  • The analogy should be near the end of your answer, so it doesn't sound scripted.
  • The analogy should be relevant and understandable to your audience.

Example: "There's constantly an opportunity to find value in the world, just because of the way the world works and people give up on things, stocks get oversold. Think about it as if you were going to the last-call sale at Neiman's, and you could do that all the time. That's what it's like, that's what we do. It's not like some bargain bin, it's really great things that are cheap." - Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments during an interview with Goop.

Creative Label

A label or an expression you can coin. A twist on something. Dangle a key message that you know will resonate and that will look good in print.

  • Example: The Great Resignation
  • Example: The Digital Day of Reckoning
  • Example: Colin Powell's famous Pottery Barn rule—“you break it, you own it”

Avoid Jargon & Cliches

The enemy of simplicity is jargon. Synthetic language strips you of authenticity and can confuse your audience. Use simple, straightforward language that everyone can understand.

Jargon Test: When you type something, does a red line shows up under the word? If so, it's synthetic language - throw it out.

Why Jargon & Cliches Are Problematic:
  • People who lean too heavily on cliche expressions do not stand out in interviews.
  • Relying on overused expressions can lead to the assumption that you don’t know what you're talking about and that you're not an expert.
  • They can create false complexity around your product or company.
Common Cliche's to Avoid:
  • Authenticity
  • Ecosystem
  • We're on a journey
  • Our brand DNA
  • Laser-focused
  • Value proposition
  • Holistic
  • Meeting consumers wherever/ whenever
  • Doubling down
  • Fostering innovation
  • Reimagined
  • Promoting a disruptive culture

Develop Your Message Grid

Similar to storytelling, one of the most powerful steps you can take in preparing for an interview is developing your media message grid. This should serve as your "Greatest Hits" list and should include your Button, center of gravity, memorable lines, anecdotes, and interesting data points that you want to touch on in an interview.

A well-developed grid will function as a roadmap, so all you have to do is follow the directions you've laid out for yourself. The grid takes searching for the right answer to a question out of the equation.

We recommend creating message grids for different circumstances, audiences, focus areas, etc., and refining them constantly based on new product features, company milestones, and previous interviews/ media coverage.

Find the Message Grid template in the  "Tools & Templates" section at the bottom of this post.

Tips For Setting Up Your Grid

  • Focus on telling your most compelling stories. Only highlights should make it on your grid.
  • Avoid adding anything that an interviewer might ask, "why does this matter" or "can you give me an example?" Importance and examples should be baked into your point from the start.
  • If you anticipate a potentially challenging question, it's a good idea to come up with version B and even version C.
  • Everything in your grid should be 100% factual. You don’t have to reveal everything, but everything you say should be truthful.
  • Avoid describing yourself or the company theoretically. Focus on the impact you create and the experience of the user.
  • Put your customer / client at the center of the description and address the benefit and the problem they are trying to overcome.
  • Avoid unnecessary words. Your grid should be short and concise. If your grid doesn't fit on a single page, there is likely a more simple way to phrase things.

Develop Exit Lane Opportunities

An "exit lane" is a line that makes it sound like you're answering the question but actually allows you to get back to your message grid and center of gravity. You never want to avoid questions, but you do want to avoid going down the wrong path. An exit lane simply allows you to stick to your core message and avoids falling into the interviewer's narrative.

Examples of Exit Lane Phrases:
  • “Here’s what we saw specifically.”
  • “Short of getting into the specific number… what I can tell you is…(broad characterization)”
  • “I would probably defer to my colleague (name here), who is our expert in that area….”
  • “I’m really glad you asked me that because that's one of the most common misconceptions about our place in the industry.…”
  • “Here are the facts…”
  • “Let me give you some specific insights on how we’re approaching this....”
  • “Let me tell you how I view this.…”

Preparing for Media Questions

Preparation is key when it comes to effectively communicating your key messages during a media interview. While it's important to develop your "Greatest Hits" and build a story around them, anticipating and preparing for potential media questions should also be a central part of your strategy.

To help you craft strong responses, review the list of common questions that reporters may ask when announcing a new financing round. Keep in mind that it's essential to also anticipate and prepare for any specific or difficult questions related to your industry, competitors, or recent media coverage.


General Media Questions

  • What is your company? Philosophically, why did you want to build it?
  • What's your story? What were you doing before this? What made you qualified to start this company?
  • How did you come up with the idea? What problem were you trying to solve?
  • What is your funding situation? How much have you raised, and from who?
  • How did you get connected to Lightspeed?
  • What's your headcount?
  • How did you build out your solution to the problem? What are the main features/functionality of the product?
  • How do you make money? How do you sustainably achieve growth?
  • How many active users do you have? Any other core metrics around revenue / growth / retention?
  • What causes people to stop using your product/service?
  • What's your competition from the status quo, direct competitors, and incumbents in the space who could enter the market?
  • How are you differentiated from them in product and target market? Why are you better?
  • What are the next steps for the company? What will you spend the raised money on?
  • What is the biggest risk for the company? What is most likely to make you fail?
  • What adjacent markets could the business eventually enter to grow even bigger?
  • What exactly is the news? What are you launching? When and where / on what platforms?
  • Can you tell me more about the technology behind the games? Anything new or innovative?
  • What else should I know? What else do you want readers to know?
  • Can you provide visual materials beyond headshots and logos? Ideally, splashy, eye-catching imagery that could work as a featured image with a landscape ratio of 1 tall x 1.85 wide. Landing page imagery, screenshots, product photos, diagrams, charts, illustrations, and other branding imagery are all helpful.

Financing Round Questions

  • What’s the company’s backstory (very briefly)? Why was it founded, and by whom?
  • How much of the investment is equity versus debt? What’s the company’s valuation (can attribute this to "a source familiar with the matter" if need be)?
  • What does this round bring its total raised to? What is the new money for – and why was now the time to raise it? What products, features, and expansions will it help to fund?
  • Any notable/luminary investors or VCs you'd like to highlight? Please include a unique quote from one of them explaining why they believe in (1) the market and (2) your particular company, as well as (3) why they believe now is the right time to invest.
  • How many employees does the company have? How many does it expect to have by the end of the year?
  • What’s the company’s annual recurring revenue? Projected annual recurring revenue? Gross margin profile? Operating cash flow results?
  • How many customers does the company have? How many users?
  • Who are the company’s competitors? How are you different or better?
  • How does the product/service work? Is it widely available?
  • What is the company's privacy/data retention policy (in brief)? Does it store user data, and if so, for how long? Can users delete this stored data, and how is the data used?
  • If applicable: Which are the major new product features/items of corporate news you’d like to highlight since the last funding round?
  • Is there anything novel about the technology?
  • What are key, major challenges that the company’s industry faces?
  • How has the pandemic affected business? What about the broader slowdown in tech – how is the company positioned to weather potential headwinds?
  • What’s your burn rate?
  • What time and date does the embargo lift (PT or ET)?

Final Tips for Success

As you prepare for your interview, keep these tips in mind to ensure a successful and impactful conversation:

  • This is your opportunity to shine. Be selfish with it, and don't share it with others. Don’t talk about competitors.
  • Have a game plan and faithfully execute that plan. Don’t let the interviewer lead the show.
  • Stay focused on your gravitational center. Don’t wait to be teed up for your big points, and don't repeat negative language.
  • Use the Clarity Message Grid to create your interview plan, and remember that all questions can lead back to your grid.
  • Always have a backup or alternative message/ analogy to illustrate your point.
  • Brevity is key! Once you have said everything in your column, stop talking.
  • If the reporter is asking you a negative question, do not nod your head as you’re listening to the question. This can be viewed as agreeing with the negative statement.
  • More is never more.
  • Don’t put words in anyone else's mouth.
  • Don’t fall for traps laid by the interviewer. Use exit lane statements to get back to the column in your message grid that you want to address.
  • As soon as you realize what the question will be about, use the remaining time while the interviewer is talking to recall your talking points on your grid.

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