As a human being, storytelling is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. It works in just about every situation where other human beings are involved and, contrary to what you might think, it’s actually surprisingly simple to construct a compelling story.
In my talk for Intercom’s tour last year, I walked the audience through a simple structure for building strong stories and spoke to several experiences I’ve had where a story made all the difference to the outcome. Check out the video above or read the lightly edited transcript below.
If you’d prefer to listen, rather than watch or read, we’ve also released my talk as a special episode of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.
The power of a good story
Last year my young son Luca and I were both home sick. Since we were lying around anyway I decided he was badly in need of some culture (and I wanted to watch my favorite film ever) so I put on Back to the Future.
Really, I was just hoping he’d let me watch some of the film and maybe he’d be distracted from his fever for half an hour. But he sat there, totally focused, through all 116 minutes of it. But what really surprised me was that he was actually following the story. He was laughing at the jokes and he was really excited by the idea of seeing his little brother disappear from a photograph. In fact, for days he was yelling “great scott”, just like Doc Brown, with a spot on look of exasperation on his face. It really drove home just how powerful a good story is.
Tens of thousands of years of evolution have shaped our brains to look for stories: to learn from them, to be inspired by them and often, to recognize some part of ourselves in them. When you’re starting up, you’re trying to create something that has never existed before.
Years of evolution have shaped our brains to look for stories
Your story is fundamentally all that you have. Your product might be embarrassing, you most likely don’t have much or any funding and you may still be trying to convince others to join you. It’s essential that you’re able to explain the problem you’re solving and why it even matters in the first place.
Over the last 6 and a half years I’ve seen, first hand, how our story at Intercom has had really practical applications – it’s helped us assemble a great team, informed how we talk to customers, and helped us decide what to build.
I’d like to share what I’ve learned along the way and help you figure out how to better tell your own story. Let’s start by looking at how to build a story in the first place.
When I think about great storytelling, one company jumps to mind immediately: Pixar. And Pixar, famously, uses a very simple prompt to begin writing all their films:
- Once upon a time…
- Every day…
- One day…
- Because of that…
- Because of that…
- Until finally…
Using that simple rubric, here’s Finding Nemo [Spoiler alert!]:
- Once upon a time there was a fish named Nemo
- Every day his father warned him not to swim too far out to sea.
- One day in an act of defiance, Nemo ignores his father’s warnings and swims into the open water.
- Because of that he is captured by a diver.
- Because of that his father sets off on a journey to save him.
- Until finally they find each other, reunite and learn that love depends on trust.
This is a story with a complete arc. It sets the scene, presents a crisis or a problem, and then resolves that problem. Obviously, there are a lot of details left to fill in but it’s all there. It’s so simple. But clearly, as Pixar’s awards can attest to, it’s also very effective.
So, how does this translate to our world? What is Intercom’s story in this format?
- Once upon a time there was a group of founders who ran a small startup.
- Every day they’d work from a local coffee shop full of happy customers.
- One day they noticed how easily the owner of this coffee shop was able to build real relationships with his customers by interacting with them in a personal way.
- Because of that they wished that they could talk to their own customers that easily.
- Because of that they built a small feature into their product so that they could talk to their users.
- Until finally they realized this was a universal problem all internet businesses face and they set out to make business personal again.
Now, there is one a critical difference between Nemo and Intercom. Stories that end with resolution and closure, the way Finding Nemo does, are pleasing to audiences. It’s perfect for books and films. They all lived happily ever after. But that same resolution is terrible for startups, or companies of any size for that matter. You don’t want to leave your audience with closure. You want them to know there are still problems to be solved, challenges that will force them to grow.
The last line of the story I just told you is Intercom’s mission. To make business personal. This is important, because leaving the story hanging with your mission functions like a call to action.
A story of your team
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told that Intercom story. The support team at Intercom is getting close to 100 people. This means that I’ve had to hire a lot of people over the last 6 years. At this stage, it’s one thing I like to think I’m pretty good at. But when I started I was terrible. I failed miserably. Of the first few people I hired, not a single one lasted more than 2 months and one didn’t even last 2 weeks.
Around that time, quite by accident, I started telling every candidate that I interviewed a version of the story I just told you. And I noticed something super interesting. Everyone was either immediately excited or immediately repelled, sometimes even frightened, by it. They couldn’t help it. It was their subconscious hearing the story and immediately reacting. And that reaction gave me a very important insight into their character.
It’s as much about repelling the wrong people as it is about attracting the right ones
By presenting our story, warts and all, I was weeding out people who were overly risk averse or people who weren’t up for the challenge of a big problem. It was self-selection bias working in my favor! I’d unknowingly used the story of Intercom and our mission as a weapon. And what I learned is that a great story, and an inspiring mission, is as much about repelling the wrong people as it is about attracting the right ones.
Up until now, I’ve been avoiding using the word “vision.” And many of you have probably realized that I’m describing “story” in much the same way as one might describe “vision.”
But to me there is a fundamental difference. A story implies that there is a journey. It implies the existence of an unknown path ahead that must be charted in order to fulfill the mission. In early stage companies, you need a mindset that will be attracted to an uncertain journey.
Vision, on the other hand, is just a snapshot. A postcard of a place a long way away, or perhaps a long time away. Vision gives you no indication that you must play an active role in getting there. Even classic vision statements like Microsoft’s – “A computer on every desk and in every home” – still don’t give you a sense of what’s in the middle. A good story has to connect the present moment to your vision of the future. The best stories will continue to inform behavior as your company grows and evolves.
We’re really lucky on the support team because we have a super tight feedback loop that helps us understand how well we’re applying Intercom’s story to our day to day work. I mean, it’s fairly easy to know when you’ve damaged a relationship or offended someone, right?
So we get around 7,000 chances a week, in each conversation we have, to ask ourselves if we’re making business more or less personal. We’ve been fortunate, so far, that we’ve managed to scale the team without having to rely too heavily on standardizing how we deliver that personal service.
The best stories will continue to inform behavior as your company grows and evolves
We’ve allowed our story to help guide how and when we give people processes they have to adhere to. Early on, I sat down with Des, one of our co-founders, and we wrote out a simple list of 10 characteristics that described how we wanted to talk to our customers. We arrived at these 10, not by benchmarking other companies’ support practices but simply by thinking through what it means to be personal with another human. Basically by thinking about what Colin, the owner of that coffee shop in the Intercom story, did on a regular basis.
Too many teams try to achieve scale simply by looking at what the rest of the industry is doing and trying to copy that. But just like your Mom told you back in middle school, “You just have to be you.” Instead of scripting how we wanted teammates to talk to our customers we simply gave the team our list, our style guide, told them to use their judgment and allowed their own personalities to shine through.
Now, of course we do have processes. But we almost universally use process as a way to reduce decision fatigue, rather than as a way to control behavior. Making business personal extends beyond just how we talk and act towards our customers. It’s also about how we interact with each other.
One of my favorite Support team culture tenets is, “Be radically candid.” Say what you want about the branding of Radical Candor, I’m certain that it’s this concept, above nearly all others, that has enabled us to scale as well as we have. It’s easy to be blunt and simply point out where you think someone is screwing up. It’s much harder to assume positive intent, put on your detective hat, and ask good questions before you drop that feedback on them.
How we give and receive feedback is tremendously important to us. In a somewhat paradoxical way, this is why Netflix gets away with saying, “We give adequate performers a generous severance package.” Creating a “dream team” is a deeply ingrained part of their story. That story makes it clear that simply good performance isn’t good enough.
So, great team? Check. Congrats: Your story did a wonderful job. But without something to sell, you’re going to have a hard time making payroll and keeping them around, aren’t you?
A story of your product
Thankfully, your newfound story superpowers can also help you build the right product. We launched our bot, Operator, last year well after the media hype reached crescendo, and well after quite a few of our competitors.
Computers are great for lightning fast computation, but they’re still not good at communicating with humans. Even Alexa and Google Home, good as they are, only give us tiny glimpse of what’s possible.
We are convinced that the real challenge of building a bot is making it flexible enough to understand a customer’s intent and well mannered enough to know when to just stay quiet and let a real person answer instead. So we didn’t launch Operator until we had something we were truly proud of and that we felt actually helped our customers focus more on relationships with their own customers.
This is also why we don’t ascribe tickets to customer conversations. While we provide powerful ticketing workflows behind the scenes, hiding a customer, a person, behind a ticket number is the antithesis of what we’re here to do. No one likes the idea of having to wait in a queue, so why would you knowingly telegraph to customers that that is exactly what you’ve just done to them?
Despite numerous requests to add tickets to Intercom, we carefully considered the real problem to be solved before building effective ticketing workflows in the background rather than merely serving up numbers to customers. Product strategy means saying no – so many companies fail to live through the scale up stage for precisely this reason.
When the founders themselves are still building the newborn baby product, it’s easy to be careful about what features you add. Unless every person in your company knows what they’re building and why, you are nearly guaranteed to have some misunderstanding of what value you’re bringing and build the wrong thing.
People, check. Product, check. Stories may sound like a magic bullet at this stage, but there is a catch. A price you must pay.
A story of momentum
You have to muster the endurance and maintain the discipline to repeat that great story every single day.
That’s why our CEO, Eoghan, has to be commended. At every company All Hands for the last 7 years he’s been telling the same story. At every interview where he’s trying to hire someone – same story. Raising funding – same story.
Is it a little repetitive? Of course it is. But there is always someone who is hearing it for the first time. But even for the rest of us, it continues to be useful as a constant reminder about why it matters that we show up every day. A reminder to be grateful to be working on something important and unfinished and exciting.
This focus on story isn’t just a useful tactic for baby companies. It’s regularly the reason that aging companies are able to stage remarkable turnarounds as well. Take Starbucks – for years they were a darling of Wall Street, until they overreached and grew from 5,000 to 15,000 stores in just 8 years. Quality dropped, service was dismal.
And then Howard Schultz returned to the CEO post and completely revitalized Starbucks’ story and mission. He made everything he did about telling that story. In a period where analysts were calling for Starbucks to be dismantled and sold for parts, the company found a way to cut costs and remain true to one of their fundamental values of investing in their employees. If you invested $1,000 in Starbucks at its low point in 2008, that investment would currently be worth over $14,000. Not a bad show for just reminding people what mission they were on, right?
Understanding what mission you’re on is fundamental to working on the right things, in the right ways
Building a company is fundamentally about creating something from nothing. Whether you’re a founder, an early employee, or the 20,000th employee, understanding what mission you’re on is fundamental to working on the right things, in the right ways.
Stories can tell you who to hire. Stories can tell who to fire. They can tell you how to judge performance. They can tell you what to build, and they can tell you what not to build.
But let me leave you with a final thought. I’ve recently been enjoying Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. In it, he points out humans are the only species on the planet that live in a dual reality. We live in the physical reality around us: The floor, the air, the lights, our bodies. We live in a reality that is constructed by the stories that we tell ourselves and that we collectively believe in: money, nations, Justin Bieber, religions, startups. It’s this characteristic of Homo sapiens that has made us the dominant species on the planet. Unlike any other animal, we have the ability to organize ourselves around a common belief. A belief in a story.
As an entrepreneur, as a leader, your job is to construct the story, to draw the map and place the X, and then to tell that story all the time, to everyone you meet until, with the help of some of those people, you’ve created a new piece of reality.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our other talks from the 2017 Inside Intercom world tour:
- Brian Donohue’s Builder beware: marketing tension in product-first companies
- Des Traynor’s Lessons learned from scaling a team
- Emmet Connolly’s Design in Interesting Times
- Sabrina Gordon’s Growing your customer support team
- Greg Davis’s Myths of product market fit
- Matt Hodges’ Aligning product and marketing
- Sharon Moorhouse’s 5 lessons learned from growing a support team