Lead with Stories

“All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by.”

 – Harvey Cox

Before you write, before you do summaries or slides, get your stories straight. The stories apply to all the variations of communications with outsiders: plan, pitch, or whatever.

Every year I see several dozen business pitches, I read hundreds of summary memos, and I read 50 or more formal business plans. The best of them lead with stories. For example, they start by presenting a problem and follow with their business’ solution to that problem. Some start with a market story, highlighting the need. There is no magic formula defining which story to use, exactly; but the plan for outsiders is to describe and explain, so stories are essential. Numbers are nice too, but stories give the numbers context and relevance.

business stories

business stories

Start with an image that illustrates the problem. A plan for a new high-tech smog-free technology starts with a picture of a smog-choked city. A pitch for distributing restaurant leftovers to homeless people starts with a picture of the garbage area behind a restaurant, full of discarded food. A pitch for a worldwide crafts market starts with a picture of an African woman who would be able to sell her crafts worldwide using just her mobile phone.

When you can’t illustrate an abstract problem, highlight a person or people who have a need and will benefit from the solution. A plan for a video game that helps autistic children starts with a close-up of a specific child and his parents. A pitch for a new medical technology starts with two aging baby boomers. I still remember one that started with a graveyard and a claim for a percent of deaths that could be reduced by a new device.

Make it dramatic. You want to inspire as well as communicate. You want your audience to see it for themselves, in their own imaginations.

And maintain the drama with the solution. In the first example above, the entrepreneurs showed a picture of their new-technology clean-air brick ovens installed and working. In the second, they showed a branded delivery vehicle outside a homeless shelter. In the third, it was a picture of a rudimentary mobile phone with programming on it superimposed over one of the major crafts online sites.

Be strategic, and sensitive to your unique story. Depending on what works, you might use a picture of the product, or the website, maybe the technology team, or whatever works to highlight what you want to show to your specific business audience.

The stories with pictures are especially important for the business pitches, which are normally slide decks done in PowerPoint or Keynote; but they also work with formal business plans and summary memos. Even a 60-second elevator speech works better going from problem to solution to how this company is uniquely positioned to develop and sell that solution.

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