A man peering round a wall holding his hand to his mouth

TOP SECRET: Common story problems (and how to fix them)

identity storytelling strategy Feb 01, 2022

Would you rather watch a film with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 7% or 8%? That was the quandary I faced with, when asked to watch one of Leslie Nielsen’s ‘back catalogue’. Oh Leslie, what were you thinking? It seemed a particularly cruel choice given that we live in a world dominated by stories. Thanks to Amazon (and other retailers), 48.5m books are just a click away. Streaming services give us instant access to thousands of films. Even before Disney+ gobbled up 95m paying subscribers, we were already spending more time on Netflix than we were bonding with our children. Maybe that’s the solution: watch stories together. With mobile devices and headphones, we can fill every second of our free time with stories. Social media, which consumes up to 2.5 hours of our time every day, enables us to share our own stories and feast on those of others. About 720,000 hours of footage are added to YouTube every day, documenting trials and tribulations in every corner of the globe. Our lives have their own narratives, and they form a small part of a vast, inter-connected web of human stories.

But for all that mass of story, there is a brutal truth: not many of the stories are any good. ‘Good’ is clearly a subjective concept, as the purpose of a story can be anything from entertaining a baby to scaring an adult. But there is some data we can use to guesstimate. For example, as of 2019, Goodreads had 90m members, which is a fair sample size. If we assume a measure of good to be 1m reviews (i.e. a book stimulating a review, even if it is a bad one), then there are only 91 good books. If we weren’t so exacting and measured good as 500-1m reviews, we can add another 178 to the total. That is 269 books out of the 80m (0.0003%) reviewed and 2 billion posted (0.00001%).

Perhaps we should listen to the critics. There are 63 films in the Rotten Tomatoes 100% club, which have entirely favourable reviews. That’s hard. This year Citizen Kane dropped out when a single critical review was discovered from The Chicago Tribune on 7 May, 1941. If we assume that IMDB is the best source for the number of movies (of any discernible production standard or professional release), there are 8m films in existence. That means only 0.0008% are good on the strictest measure.

How good are business stories? Here we have no source of data to judge. One could look at advertising awards, but these tend to be self-serving and focus on big video ads, which, while enjoyable, only make up a tiny percentage of the stories businesses tell. Most founders and business people would confess to having storytelling issues. Everyone is born with the innate ability to tell stories. We have been telling them for over 100,000 years, so the ability comes pre-loaded on our brain’s operating system. Many founders we meet are brilliant natural storytellers. Ask them about themselves or why they started their company, and you could be watching Tom Hardy or reading Thomas Hardy.

But something happens when those same natural storytellers are forced to communicate via media, whether it be a written document, presentation or web page. There is a disconnect between input and output. The fluency and confidence quickly leaks away, and stories seem harder to come by and less convincing than a Foreign Secretary at a time of international crisis.

It’s hard to explain why this happens. There is definitely a psychological reason, where people approach the same task differently. There is also an educational one. We are all products of a system that not only doesn’t teach us to tell good stories, it teaches us not to tell stories, preferring to nudge us towards the dry arcana of academe or the oblivion of flaccid business presentations.

It is, however, entirely possible to say what the story problems are that founders face. It will be one or a combination of four issues. The diagnosis is usually obvious and immediate, but can require some digging. So if you aren’t happy with your storytelling, see which of these resonate with you:

Level 1: Storytelling. The problem here is the lack of technical storytelling skill. The content is there but the elements are not in the right place. There is no clear structure (3 or 5 acts). There is no discernible pattern or shape to the heroic struggle. Perhaps there isn’t enough conflict. Everything is too easy, which is a mistake given that stories are all about struggle. Events don’t escalate (or are in the wrong place). There is no climax, resolution or enticing thought about how the world will change. Perhaps there is a theme but it isn’t the one the creator intended. These are all storytelling staples and can be in your business stories. The solution here is to get some storytelling training, learn about storytelling or work with a storyteller (who should also educate you and give you a model to work with).

Level 2: Hidden story. This is the most common thing we see. That’s because most stories start out as presentations, and many are in fact presentations purporting to be stories. Presentations and stories are polar opposites. You wouldn’t start a joke with the punchline and expect it to work, so why start a story with the presentational crutch of ‘this is what we are going to tell you’. That first chart is the exact moment you kill off any storytelling power you had. Stories are about uncertainty, deliberately withholding key information to create suspense, and with it, audience attention and empathy. The solution here is to throw away the presentation and start from scratch with your story basics: who is the protagonist, what do they want and what is stopping them? Plot your story and any logic inconsistencies disappear. Be brutal and leave those standard business slides on the cutting room floor. Have you seen the French plantation scene in Apocalypse Now? No, me neither. It’s not in the final cut. Francis Ford Coppola spent three months and many millions of dollars filming it, only to realise in editing that it hindered his story arc.

Level 3: Identity. This is harder to spot, as it involves knowing more about the storyteller beyond the story itself. People think they have a storytelling problem, but they don’t: they have an identity problem. The most common issue is they don’t have any identity or a good enough one. There is no overarching purpose or point of view. There is inconsistency in the core messaging. There are different voices shouting for attention. There is a lack of drama and emotion. Everything feels functional and small. The solution here is to supercharge your identity and develop a compelling brand narrative about how you want to change the world. With this locked and loaded, the storytelling part becomes much easier.

Level 4: Strategy. This is often the root cause of storytelling problems. You need a strong identity and good storytelling skills to succeed, but most of all you need them to be completely aligned to a sound strategy. No amount of storytelling finesse will cover embarrassing strategic gaps. So the reason why the market, the product or the business model don’t burst into life, may be because they are questionable, they don’t fit the mental picture that the audience is building up. Stories do trigger a suspension of disbelief, but this needs to be a willing suspension. If the audience is confused, does not believe or openly questions core assumptions or entire sections, they won’t buy your story. The solution here is to go back to basics and make sure you have all your business fundamentals in place before you start worrying about your story.

Which of these do you recognise? Or are you willing to admit to?

If you need any help with your storytelling, get in touch. And if you were wondering, there isn’t a Leslie Nielsen film in the 100% Rotten Tomato club, and I ended up persuading the kids to watch Top Secret. Oh Val, what were you thinking…?


Startup know-how to give you the edge

Subscribe to THE ROLLERCOASTER, our fortnightly newsletter with actionable advice to manage the ups and downs of startup life.

We will never sell your data to anyone.