Storytelling: How a founder's narrative can shape a brand - for better or worse

LearningsFeb 23, 2023

In this chapter we are going to look at the founder’s role as chief storyteller. The interplay between purpose, values, and behavior has never been under more of a microscope, so for a lot of people, the question isn't whether to engage with your target audiences, but how to do so authentically and effectively…and in service of the ‘day job’. There will always be founders who steer clear of social media (or any media, really) and still manage to build huge, successful brands. The argument is that they are building their business rather than ‘wasting’ time on social. But for most businesses, it is genuinely hard to cut through the noise, and having a founder or CEO act as the storyteller in chief gives a brand weight and authenticity. If it is done well.

Founders play an outsized role in influencing the company's reputation - for better or worse. Think of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Blakely.

Leading from the top

From the perspective of employees there’s nothing more compelling or motivating than hearing about a company’s origin story from the founder. Figuring out a way to tell the story in an engaging and memorable way will have a multiplier effect on anything you do or say after it. People want to work for companies that make them proud. And having a strong story about what the company does and the problems it solves is a big part of that.

Why should founders care about social media?

The digital landscape (whether it is BlueSky, TikTok, LinkedIn, X (Twitter), Reddit or countless other platforms) offers a way to not only share your message without an intermediary, but more important it’s a place to listen, engage, and learn from your audience.

It's a space where strategic planning meets real-time decision-making, where the theoretical values of your company are put to the test in the public eye. No algorithm can guarantee a positive outcome, but a thoughtful approach to social media can mitigate risks and amplify opportunities.

And what about traditional media?

Journalists can play an important role in helping to reinforce your reputation. But it is key to remember that a journalist’s objective is different from a founder/CEO's. A journalist aims to write an interesting story, that will be read by as many people as possible.

A CEO's ultimate goal is to make high level decisions that will drive a company’s growth and overall success. So, for both sides to get something valuable from the relationship, it is only worth engaging with media if a) you have a story that is genuinely interesting to a fairly wide audience or b) you want to contribute to an ongoing narrative that has the potential to impact your sector or your brand.

I’d argue there are relatively few opportunities for where either of those conditions are true. That said, it is worth cultivating relationships with a small number of journalists who tend to cover your space or where you will naturally have an opinion that is interesting to them. The best way to do so is by sharing information or insights on anything that would be relevant to them (and not even necessarily linked to your company) when you don’t have any expectations of coverage. You do things that help the journalist do their job, but with no personal gain. It’s a bit like any sort of genuine networking really – you build a relationship most quickly by being valuable to the other person nine times out of 10. On that 10th time you may just be asking something of them. And by that point, they are usually more than willing to listen!

But I digress.

For many people, engaging in social or traditional media relations is scary. You don’t want to say the wrong thing. You don’t want to risk getting ‘cancelled'. You aren’t quite sure what being a good storyteller means. But the more you understand, the easier it will be for you to navigate.

So what makes a good story?

The art of good storytelling is exactly that…an art. I think it was Salman Rushdie who said the first and only rule of good storytelling is ‘be interesting’. So in this chapter we’re going to take a look at what makes a compelling story and the role a founder or CEO has to play in telling it.

When you think about your story, don’t start with what you do, or how you do it. Think about why you do it. Simon Sinek was one of the first to articulate this idea of the importance of why way back in 2009, and it still rings true.

Think about the characters in your business – and in your customer base. Life as a founder is never the path of least resistance – why did you choose it? What keeps you going? Think about points when you or others have confronted extreme emotion – anger, hurt, desperation, a drive to change something.

Think about the moments when you or your customers have overcome adversity. You know who does this incredibly well? Shopify. The company is laser focused on its customers, and in telling their stories, they tell the Shopify story too.

The more real you can be about the calibre of the problem you are solving, and why you feel driven to solve it, the more interesting your story will be.

OK, how do I start?

One of the things that communications experts are great at is pulling out the most interesting elements of a story. So use them. Have informal, unstructured conversations with your comms leader (if you have one) about what’s keeping your customers up at night. About your view on the future of a market – not just six months from now, but a decade from now. Be candid and human. If they are doing their job, they will help you identify all the compelling elements to your story, and to put it in a way that makes it easy to tell.

And tell it you employees, to customers, to shareholders, to potential investors, to journalists, to government. To any stakeholders that matter to you and your business. And you know what? Just when you are sick of repeating your story ad nauseum, it will just be starting to sink in with the people who matter most. And they will start repeating your story too. And that’s when the fun really starts.

I really like this simplified narrative arc, created by The Framework Bank:

Simplified narrative arc diagram

This sort of narrative framing can work for your company story, but it also works for smaller, one-off stories you might be thinking about pitching to journalists.

I’ll give you a specific example as it relates to media specifically. Many years ago, I had arranged an informal meeting for one of my clients – the then founder and CEO of a startup – with a journalist at the Financial Times. The conversation went well and they identified a few angles that had potential to make for an interesting story. But there was no sense of urgency from either of them. Just as we were wrapping up, my client mentioned that he’d told the sales team that morning that if they hit the stretch goal he’d set for them, he’d shave his head.

Well, that was the trigger the journalist had been looking for. Another round of coffees was ordered and a super interesting discussion ensued about what it takes to get high achievers to continue to be motivated to knock their numbers out of the park. And what other crazy incentives did sales teams have in companies around the UK. Despite my best efforts I wasn’t able to find the original story that resulted, to share with you. But suffice to say, it made for very interesting reading – and the main accompanying photo was of this founder having his head shaved, as promised.

How did this help the founder/ his company? For starters, the target customer base for his business were readers of the FT. There was a slim chance that he could ever get coverage in the FT because although what he did was important (marketing tech) it paled in comparison to the significant business stories the FT usually writes. However, the sales team incentive story allowed the journalist to give fascinating insight into the lengths great leaders will go to fuel their teams, as part of a feature in the entrepreneurship section. The article reinforced the cultural brand for potential new recruits, made employees feel proud to be part of the company and also surfaced the profile of this business to exactly the people they wanted to reach – albeit in a rather unexpected way.

You see, the first 45 minutes of my client’s conversation with this journalist was all about the exposition phase of the narrative arc. The ‘initial incident’ was triggered by his offer to the sales team. And you can map out how the story built from there.

Hone your skills

Storytelling, whether in person or in writing, is a real skill. If you are uncomfortable with either, consider bringing in some expert support. There’s no shame in getting a speaker coach, or having some media training or even using a ghost writer to help you get your story just right. Becoming your company’s chief storyteller isn’t something that necessarily happens overnight, so be patient with yourself.

In the meantime, here are a few questions to spark your thinking:

  • Do you know how you are perceived by your employees and your customers? What narrative do they share about you?

  • How do you tell your story today? What do you leave out, and why? For example, if you skip over the ‘hard years’ consider including them in your story – they will make you relateable and demonstrate resilience.

  • How do you empower your team to be able to tell your story?

  • How do your brand artifacts reinforce your story? (By this I mean your website, your job descriptions, your presentation style etc)

  • Which business leaders do you most admire and what can you learn from how they tell their stories?

  • Where are you most vocal in telling your story, and if you are honest with yourself, is it the best place?

  • What more could you be doing?

  • Is there someone you trust who you can engage to hold you accountable as you push yourself to become a better storyteller?

Hopefully these questions will help get you started. I’m always open to talking to people about how they craft their stories so feel free to reach out (but remember, if you get in touch via LinkedIn please make it clear in a note why you are connecting!).