This blog is where we announce new videos & talk about the power of explanation & the change it can create. 

Explaining vs. Storytelling for Startups

Seattle investor and “startup guy” Chris Devore recently wrote about four categories of effort that will help founders show that their startup is growing and healthy.  

There are four important categories of effort that every startup team needs to keep in mind. Too much -- or too little -- weight in any one of these areas can lead to disaster when it comes time to raise the next round:
The first three categories are:
  • Product
  • Sales / Distribution 
  • Recruiting
All important points, but it’s the fourth point that I find most interesting:
  • Storytelling
Devore writes:
It may seem odd to rank this skill up there with the others listed above, but I'm convinced it rates equally among winning startups. It's not enough to hire amazing people, build great products and sell the shit out of them -- you also have to convince a world full of skeptics that your crappy little startup is actually going to make a dent in the universe. So in addition to all the showing you do, you have to get good at telling.
 
I'm not sure if storytelling is an innate or learned skill, but it's the kind of thing that hustlers excel at without thinking. Someone in the company has to be your Steve Jobs -- the guy (or gal) who makes people feel the magic, share the passion and join the parade as fans and advocates. Just as products don't sell themselves, stories don't tell themselves.
I think this is a solid point and one that many people in technology forget. But I might suggest a slightly different perspective. Storytelling can certainly be valuable, but it is only part of this solution - storytelling itself does not innately solve a problem.  Complex ideas in story form do not cease to be complex ideas
 
Instead, I think a focus on explanation, of which storytelling is a part, is what startups should consider as a category.  By learning to explain their product, team, strategy and vision they can achieve something a story cannot: real understanding. Before anyone can see the magic or become an advocate, they must see and understand the big idea first. This means building context and making connections to ideas the audience aleady understands. It means empathizing and starting with the forest instead of the trees. I think these factors are one reason the video we created for Dropbox is still on their home page after 2.5 years.
 
Look at it this way: Explanation is an activity that can influence every category of effort listed above.  Marketing, raising money, recruiting and product development are easier with effective explanations in-hand.  Unfortunately, as a skill or category of effort, it's often forgotten.  From my perspective, stories are only a part of effective explanations and together they can achieve real, lasting outcomes in the form of understanding and motivation.
 
Lee LeFever is the founder of Common Craft and author of The Art of Explanation - Making Your Ideas, Products and Services Easier to Understand. Available for pre-order now and arriving in bookstores and eReaders in mid-October.