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A Call to Charms: A Storytelling Manifesto

Whether you paint dramatic pictures with words or prefer a lower-key approach, how you talk about your company is perhaps your single most powerful tool to create entrepreneurial success. There is often natural aversion to that idea. During the Q&A of a recent startup storytelling webinar I hosted, a participant asked, “My co-founder and I are scientists, and we absolutely shudder at the idea of hype and overselling. What can you advise us?” The concern is common. “Public relations” smells of spin, and “storytelling” feels like something you do around the campfire. Isn’t talking about things that don’t exist halfway to Theranos?

Otto Pohl

Mar 12, 2024

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Whether you paint dramatic pictures with words or prefer a lower-key approach, how you talk about your company is perhaps your single most powerful tool to create entrepreneurial success.

There is often natural aversion to that idea. During the Q&A of a recent startup storytelling webinar I hosted, a participant asked, “My co-founder and I are scientists, and we absolutely shudder at the idea of hype and overselling. What can you advise us?”

The concern is common. “Public relations” smells of spin, and “storytelling” feels like something you do around the campfire. Isn’t talking about things that don’t exist halfway to Theranos?

And yet. Stories are quite literally the foundation of human success. And not just any stories—stories about made-up things. We are surrounded by breathtaking fictions that feel as solid as the chair you’re sitting on.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes how the key skill that lifted Homo Sapiens over the rest of the animal kingdom, including other hominids, was the ability to talk about things that aren’t real.

Some examples of these intersubjective fictions? Governments, national borders, laws, money, and corporations. They are as real as Bitcoin; they have value only because we agree that they do. Without them we’re a band of apes. With them, we can organize millions.

Fiction is how we build our reality.

So entrepreneurs are following in literally the most powerful and species-defining human footsteps by telling a story about things that don’t yet exist.

Now I want to be crystal clear, creating a startup story is not a consequence-free license to make shit up.

If “storytelling” and “pitching” reek of hype, it’s only because weak practitioners have made it that way. Bold sketches of a limitless future can be briefly inspiring, but tactical steps are what make it happen.

Your story needs to be nothing more than effective. How are you going to get that first customer? Your conversion funnel needs the arguments and documents that lead the target audience—be it investors, customers, or potential hires—from initiation to conversion.

So predict the future by creating it. Think through the stories you tell at each stage to each audience to build clear and plausible progress. Communications is strategy.

Every time you share the vision of the company you’re building and invite others to invest, purchase, or join, you are engaging in mankind’s single most value-creating activity.

It was the inability of Neanderthals to create fictions—stories that could inspire large groups to organize and work together—that doomed them to die.

David Foster Wallace, in his classic 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, told the story of two young fish asked by an older fish, “How’s the water?” and one young fish turns to the other and says, “what the hell is water?”

The power of stories is so pervasive that we sometimes stop seeing them. To succeed as an entrepreneur, see the water, and embrace the incredible power it represents.

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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