Garvey: Storytelling is a hard business skill

Business storytelling works where rhetoric fails because it’s imbued with elements like emotion that the mind latches onto. 

It was a bad idea, but it prevailed because reason took a back seat to inspiration. 

My third grade class had been learning about plant biology — specifically how plants draw water up from their roots into their leaves through transpiration and cohesion. (Yes, I had to look that up.) As a sort of quasi science experiment, my teacher brought two bundles of white carnations to school, which we’d be dying by adding food dye to the flower vases.

The choice of color would come to a vote. The idea of mixing all the colors together to create a “rainbow” bouquet naturally came up, and those who were sold on it were really enthusiastic. What a lovely image rainbow carnations must have made in the minds of my 8- and 9-year-old peers. However, I pointed out that this was actually a dumb idea because according to basic color theory, mixing all the colors together doesn’t actually create a rainbow. Naturally, I was met with responses like this: “You just don’t like the idea because you didn’t come up with it, Johnny.” 

I didn’t have a vision or a story. I had undisputable facts. I was overwhelmingly outvoted. And we wound up with a bunch of brown carnations. 

In The Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It, author Scott Kupor talks about business storytelling in the context of startup fundraising: “We talk a lot at Andreessen Horowitz about storytelling skills as a good indicator of potential success in an entrepreneur. True storytelling is a remarkable talent in so many endeavors, but particularly in a startup, where you have so little actual proof of success in the early years on which people can base their decision to join the company. Great CEOs find a way to paint a vision for the opportunity that simply makes people want to be a part of the company-building process. These same skills will help you land your first (and future) VC financing partners.”

Kupor isn’t alone in viewing storytelling as a hard business skill. Science of People analyzed 495 Shark Tank pitches and found, among other things, that 53% of successful pitches incorporated storytelling. I’m actually a bit surprised that number isn’t higher. In separate interviews, several of the sharks have identified storytelling as one of the secrets, or the secret, to a successful pitch.  Since this became a specialty of mine, I’ve personally seen the power of story-based marketing dozens of times. 

In the end, the failed rainbow carnations experiment has nothing and everything to do with marketing. Logic takes a back seat to inspiration. Three weeks from now, you will have forgotten 95% of the things you saw and heard today. But you’ll remember the stories. That’s how the human mind works. 

Business storytelling is a hard skill for entrepreneurs and marketers. 

John Garvey is a StoryBrand Certified Guide and marketing copywriter. He helps entrepreneurs elevate their marketing through storytelling, humor and strategic messaging.