I was at a seminar last night which was meant to help entrepreneurs think through the issues of starting a new venture. There were a real assortment of people in the room - some of them had started businesses in previous lives and some were new to startups. Some were straight from the lab and had a great idea but little business experience, and some were very experienced on the business side.
One of the exercises that got me thinking was the elevator pitch. Three of the firms were brought up and asked to present their company or their idea as if the rest of us were investors. Each firm was given one minute. The first team represented two guys - post docs - working on genetic testing or slicing. To be honest the guy spoke for about a minute and I had no idea what he was talking about. It sounded impressive. The second team stood up and talked about their technology and how cool it was. From my perspective - two swings, two misses.
Then one of our guest speakers got up. He has launched one successful business and is in the process of starting another. Rather than get into the technology of the new company, he told us a story, including the word "snot" and an altogether inaccurate description of what his bio-tech product looks like. But at the end we all had a rough understanding of what his firm did and why it could be successful.
I think some of the best communicators use stories to communicate their goals or their ideas. A story is something that is familiar. It does not talk down to us but it puts us on comfortable footing. A story can set up a challenge, introduce key players and resolve any issues in a way that seems natural. Telling a story about a problem in the environment and a method to solve that problem worked exceptionally well for the serial entrepreneur. It turns out his firm is doing some fairly advanced genetic testing, but the way he talks to investors and potential customers is to tell a story.
I guess sometimes I can be a slow learner. I'm constantly trying to throw in all the big words, the MBA speak into my presentations. The speaker last night demonstrated how his first firm, SciQuest, communicated initially - "Expanding the business to business e-commerce opportunities over the internet for scientists who acquire pharmaceutical equipment" or something along those lines. By the time they went public, one of their catch phrases was "Yahoo for Scientists".
I've had the good fortune as well to work with Cliff Atkinson at Sociable Media. Cliff has take the concept of telling stories and helped firms communicate more effectively by using stories as the building blocks for their presentations in PowerPoint. Cliff has succesfully used the storytelling approach with many firms to improve the way they communicate, internally and with each other.
I wrote another post about this topic a month or so ago, in which I compared good management communication to country music. It struck me that most country music songs have a story which makes a point, and a chorus which is repeated until you can walk around all day with the words in your head. Isn't that what we want when we as managers communicate to our teams? Don't we want them to "get" the message and keep it current even when we aren't there? What could be better than a good story set to a country music beat to do that?