For more than two decades, Jennifer Kammeyer has been helping businesses tell better stories. From pitching investors to talking to press to managing a crisis, Jennifer works with company leaders so they can communicate their story in a way that will engage the listener and build trust. Because Ignite PR often works with startups, many of which are often new to telling their unique story, we asked Jennifer — who also teaches communication at San Francisco State University — to talk to us about how a startup can improve on verbal expressions of its story. (According to Jennifer, a “verbal expression” is the act of telling your story in-person or on the phone.) Hope you enjoy the Q&A and let us know what you think.
Q: You talk about the importance of a story — can you explain why a company needs to tell a story in order to communicate effectively? Shouldn’t a great product be enough?
JK: Humans are storytellers, and if we want to better understand information, we can use the narrative. According to the Narrative Paradigm by scholar Walter Fisher, all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling with characters, conflicts, and a beginning, a middle and an end.
Q: You break down the story into four parts. What are they?
JK: There are four core elements to a story: sequence, meaning, coherence, and fidelity. “Sequence” is the order — beginning, middle, end. “Meaning” is from the perspective of the audience and is shaped by history, culture, and character. “Coherence” is how the story holds together, or the logic. “Fidelity” (or “credibility”) is the audience’s perspective of if the story rings true — is the story credible to the audience?
Q: Before we talk about your suggestions around telling stories for startups, what do you see companies doing in terms of communicating their message that makes you shake your head?
JK: When do companies need to tell a story? Usually, it’s when they talk to the media, when they’re trying to get financing, when they’re networking, when they’re trying to do their elevator pitch or when they’re trying to motivate employees.
What tends to happen is the story changes depending on the mood of the founder, so there’s variation in the story. Also, it fluctuates depending on who’s telling the story. Coming from the founder, it sounds one way, from the CTO another, and if a VC is telling it, it’s another version.
Often, when the story takes on the perspective of whoever is telling it, the story becomes very disorganized. For example, it could start off as, “Well, I was in college and I had this great idea with someone and I decided to start a company.” So it’ll have a chronological order to the story, but the chronology only makes sense to the person telling it, not to the audience.
Q: What is a better way to tell the story other than chronologically?
JK: This falls under the “sequence” element of storytelling. Set up the problem in the beginning, explore the problem and potential solutions in the middle, and resolve the problem in the end.
From a start-up perspective, you want to clearly identify the need for your product in the market, define your solution, and demonstrate how it is solving the need. So start off with, “There’s a significant problem out here and we’re forming a company to solve the problem.” That kind of start to the story is directed much more at the media. A reporter wants to know, “Why should I write about you?” And the answer to that question probably has nothing to do with you and your friend in college.
Q: You talk about the importance of knowing your audience. Can you talk about why that’s important?
JK: If you know the frame of reference for your audience, then you are able to create “meaning”. If you don’t know your audience, there is no way for you to create meaning or you’re taking a complete chance on creating meaning. The best way to create meaning is to understand your audience’s perspective.
For example, if you’re talking to venture capitalists, their perspective is, “I can make money on companies that have defensible IP.” If you don’t address that issue with a venture capitalist, you cannot be effective because you’re not considering what they need to know from you. You can see it when someone is talking to the The New York Times and telling them everything other than what reporters really need to know, and most often what they want to know is, “How does your company fit into the market space?”
Q: How do you get to know your audience?
JK: The first thing you must figure out is who is the audience and where are they, both geographically and in frame of mind. Taking your audience’s history, culture, and character into consideration is important. From a start-up perspective, you can use the briefing sheets given to you by your PR firm prior to a press meeting to understand your audience.
If you don’t have that option, you can also get to know your audience at the beginning of a conversation by asking questions. Starting with what you have on the agenda for the meeting, say something like, “What I would like to do today is share with you the uniqueness of our technology and how our customers are getting ROI. Is there anything else you’d like me to cover today?” The answer will help you learn what your audience wants to hear. Too often, that kind of question is asked at the end of a conversation. If you do it in the beginning, you can adjust the information you provide so that it has meaning to that particular audience.
Q: What if the product is as dry as can be — do you have any tips as to how to get a good story out of something that may be boring but extremely necessary in the marketplace?
JK: “Interesting” is in the eye of the beholder. With the media, you want to make it interesting to them, but they are really a conduit to your ultimate audience. If your product is not interesting to your ultimate audience, then you’re not going to be able to sell your product.
You can focus on why someone would be interested in your product and tell the reporter exactly that — “I’m here to tell you why your readership will care about this product.” Taking the perspective of whoever wants your offering is really the key to make it interesting. This point goes back to the tendency of the storyteller to take their own perspective — and that is a significant problem that I see. The product may be interesting to you, the tech might be interesting to you, but you have to articulate why you need to be in business. You should be able to articulate who wants what you’re offering and why.
Q: You suggest that details and statistics are what hold a story together — what kind of data is best for telling a story? Numbers or testimonials?
Details and statistics back up the main points of the story. From a start-up perspective, you need logic and data to support what you are claiming. This can come in the form of market data from an analyst firm or testimonials from customers. What happens often is people say, “There’s a great demand for this,” but have no customers. That’s a huge “coherence” break. If everyone is clamoring for your product, then there should be customers. So you shouldn’t tell your story until you’re ready for your story to be told. Do you have funding and do you have customers? I would put customers on the top of the list, but you need both statistics and customer testimonials.
Q: How personal do you think a CEO/founder should get when coming up with a story for the company?
JK: This is part of the “fidelity” element of storytelling. I tend to recommend less personal on a regular basis only because in general, I see it lean toward very personal, very self-centered. I try to move it to a broader focus or perspective.
There has to be enough in the story about the founder that makes people think, “Oh, he or she is the person who can pull this off.” This piece needs to be there for the audience so that whoever is telling the story is credible and the audience needs to believe that the story can be true. Sometimes, with the younger founders, that means talking about their technical capabilities and past success with another company — that information helps with fidelity/credibility.
Partly, credibility is established in advance of any face-to-face or phone meeting and is based on the relationship between the presenter and the listener. It is also established in the communication interaction with both verbal and non-verbal language. From a start-up perspective, you want to be deliberate in your style, your choice of words, how you dress. All forms of communication establish credibility, not just the words you chose.
Q: What is most important for a startup executive to remember about telling their company story?
JK: Always keep your audience in the forefront of your mind, use a narrative structure, and back up your key points with evidence. Oh, and have fun because when you are having fun, people will remember what you say.
For more about Jennifer Kammeyer, you can visit her website.
— Ignite PR (@IgnitePR) December 3, 2012