I was recently invited to present my keynote presentation – What’s your story? –  at the IBM global entrepreneur of the year awards in Cape Town. The winner of the African leg of the contest was a telecoms startup called Mode.

IBM brought me in to help MODE create and tell the story of their business for the later rounds of the competition. We were all very proud that after the session, Mode went on to win not only the semifinals in Brazil, but also the finals in New York, beating top startups from all over the world. Their CEO Julian Kyula was kind enough to say this: “Justin played an amazing role in making this happen we are very excited to attribute a part of our win to the transformation he gave us in our message delivery.” In this photo Mode is being congratulated by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The power of story

Of course Julian Kyula and Josphat Kinyua get all the credit for their win but I want to share with you a secret that may have given them an edge. Like many new businesses these guys had a great idea, they just never had a great story. In my book “The Astonishing Power of Story” I distinguish between two kinds of stories: dead stories and living stories. Dead stories are dry and abstract. They provide facts but they don’t connect those facts to specific people or situations and so they tend to be emotionless and boring. For example here is a brief version of MODE’s original presentation:

MODE is a Kenyan, telecoms startup lead by CEO, Julian Kyula, COO, Josphat Kinyua, Chairman, Chris Baxter and Director, Adel Kambar. Our clients include MTN, Airtel and Glo. Our service is available in 15 countries around the world. We enable telecom clients to get microcredit through their cellphone provider. This means if someone has run out of call time, using their cellphone they can immediately get credit to top up. Using the same system we eventually hope to provide them with credit that can be used to pay for other things too like water and electricity.

You probably don’t realize what a brilliant idea this is so let me reframe it using the living story that they told to win the competition. (Again, this is my abbreviated version.)

Only 26% of the world’s population have access to bank loans yet 85% of people have a cellphone. Not being able to get credit not only depresses an economy it really depressed my mother-in-law. She’s a florist. Like many people in the developing world she often runs out of cellphone call time, making it impossible for her to call the market to find out if they have the flowers she needs. It’s not unusual for her to get a taxi all the way to the market only to find that the flowers haven’t arrived, wasting money she could have used to grow her business. With MODE she can now top up her call time with microcredit using her cellphone. Not only does she save money and time, best of all, I have a happy mother-in-law. Soon we’ll be rolling out credit for other things like water and electricity. MODE turns your cellphone into a financial lifeline, providing the world’s unbanked with nano-credit in a nano-second.

Notice that in the Living Story there were still facts, two critical statistics: the ratio of people who have bank accounts to those who have cellphones. But the story gives life to those numbers. It demonstrates exactly how this product can improve the lives of all those people who don’t have bank accounts. It answers the single most important question of any presentation: Why? Nobody ever invested in a business without a very good reason. Telling us what the business is and how it works does not answer why it should exist. Telling us a story of the impact your product or service has on a customer’s life answers that question.

The final sentence summarizes the unique selling proposition using a metaphor – “turning your cellphone into a financial lifeline…providing nano-credit in a nano-second”. I call a metaphorical catchphrase like this an instant story. In a few words you capture the key idea in a rich, sensory, emotive image.

Facts with a heart

People sometimes resist stories because they don’t seem sufficiently factual. But stories are facts, they’re just facts with a heart. Stalin said: “One death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic.” We can’t feel for a number. We can only feel for a flesh and blood person like ourselves. If we don’t feel, we don’t act. People move emotionally before they move any other way. When Julian told the story of his mother-in-law at the IBM Entrepreneur of the Year award finale, he made it personal. Not only did the judges and investors get to connect with his customer’s pain and see how his service was easing that pain, they got to connect with him. Clearly Julian wanted to do more than just make money, he had personal experience that had motivated him to dream up this brilliant business.  People invest in you even more than in your idea so when you can connect yourself to the story, you help them get to know and like you.

At university we were taught to strip out the personal, the story, the anecdote. We were told to focus on abstract facts, what I call “dead stories”. Maybe that’s important in academic writing and research but when it comes to persuasion make sure you’ve got a good, living story!


 Feedback on in-house Story Workshop

“It’s wonderful to hear the stories that we’ve heard today … and how we can use these very powerfully as a leadership tool. Justin you’’ve given us a fantastic tool. You’ve inspired us. You’ve given us something that we thought could not be possible.”
Annalize Van Der Waal, HR Director, Danone