What does it mean to 'Tell a Story'?


What exactly do these startup mentors mean when they say 'Tell a good story'?

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asked Oct 20 '10 at 06:49
131 points
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  • It's a catchphrase that comes from the "gurus" so that they can continue keeping their place in their startup world. (lizard brain, purple cow, linchpin etc) I wouldn't put much weight on the catchphrase as much as the content. A google of "tell a story" and "startups" is a good place to start... – Tim J 13 years ago

3 Answers


It's simple and hugely important.

Take a step back. Think - what is the main point I want to get across? The "take away" I want my audience to walk away with.

Then how do you get there in a logical way, basically melding together the pieces in a way where one leads to the next.

So for example:

  • Audience - prospective investors
  • Take away you want - belief that your startup can make money
  • Story you want to tell (grossly oversimplifying this) - There are trends in the market that indicate there's a need for our product. We've got the right product to meet those needs and don't see a competitor that's better positioned. Our team has a successful track record in delivering products and we believe can meet our financial targets.

You get the point. You tell a story that all flows.

answered Oct 20 '10 at 09:08
4,214 points


They mean that pitches about software applications are effective when they focus on:

  • Ability: What a user can do with your product that they otherwise couldn't and how that actually happens.
  • Simple Examples: The most basic practical usage scenario.
  • Narrative: Tell me in a one-thing-leads-to-another series of events how someone comes to use your product and what they do.
  • Emotion: What does using your app (or the crummy alternative) feel like?
  • The Who, What, Where, etc.: Answering the journalistic questions in a coherent way.
  • Retellability: Okay, I made that up, but something that the listener can pass on in the ancient way of storytelling instead of a feature list.

Telling a story is a real block for people, and my best advice is to keep it simple. Don't go depth-first and come up with fictional characters with motivations, family history, etc. Go breadth-first -- walk through product usage, brainstorm ideas at each stage and try to put them together and make them flow. Remember that you're really just looking for a couple of great little bits to string together and go for minimalism.

For most apps, you want to keep that breadth-first style. Something like, "Now that I've uploaded my photos I can email the album to my group, I can tag faces or I can create a slideshow. Let's create a slideshow..."

Here's an easy structure to start with:

  • A person in a scenario
  • A need or interest
  • Status quo: the old and busted way of doing it
  • New direction: introduce your app's new hotness
  • Slaying the dragon: walk through how your app does it.
  • The new user: How the user's new ability improves their life

Now, if you do want to tell a longer story, like a screencast, you should have one or more pieces of storyline conflict, what screenwriters called "reversals." Have a story where your user:

  • Sees something in the app and remembers there's something else they need to do first
  • Makes a humorous mistake and the app is clever enough to point it out
  • Finishes a task, then does something else the app suggests
  • Sees something that changes their goal entirely and switches to that goal

Anything else which shows that your app is exerting some control of the storyline is a good thing, because it shows that the app is actively affecting the user's experience.

And please watch the famous Ira Glass video about the basics of journalistic story (anecdote plus insight). He's a master. Then become inspired to come up with an anecdote to match the insight of "this never could have happened without the user using my product."


answered Oct 20 '10 at 08:23
Zach Baker
11 points


Simple: Beginning. Middle. End.

If you tell any idea in that format it's a story. Start simple and write two different endings. Know the story like the back of your hand, then tell it to people. See how they react. Ask them what they liked, didn't like -- and what their favorite story IS.

Repeat the process until you have the effect you want.

answered Oct 20 '10 at 10:02
Blunders .
899 points

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