Complex is easy. Simple is hard.

How you tell your story is more important than what story you tell


Whether you are the CEO of a startup or an executive trying to make a career move, the challenge is the same: You need to persuade people you do not know to get to know, like and trust you.

It’s not easy, I’ll be the first to admit. I started a company a long while ago, and while it ultimately became quite successful the early days were, not to put too fine a point on it, excruciating. In some ways it was like stumbling around in the dark in a strange house in the dead of night looking for the light switch to the bathroom, and discovering to your horror that you can’t find it — and doing this every single day of your life for months on end.

Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel – and the bedroom. If we want to get our bearings, we just need to know where to look. If I had known where to look back then, I would have saved myself, and my fledgling company, a lot of grief.

What I know now is this:

The best way to attract customers and employers and venture capitalists and bankers – in fact anyone who has the power to help you – is to find their soft spot. Everyone has one. It’s the emotional side of their brain, the part of their decision-making that operates on gut instinct, not number crunching logic. If you don’t think business people use their emotions to make business decisions, think again. To get financing for a startup requires a leap of faith on the part of a financier, no matter how good your sales numbers may be. To career switch from an HR position to a marketing position requires an equal leap of faith on the part of a new employer, no matter how sterling your track record.

To reach the people you need to reach, you need to get past their defenses and find their soft spot. And that means you have to be able to tell a story. Not just any story, mind you, but a story that is cohesive and engaging and compelling.

People think that tech startups either succeed because they or their products are clever or fail because they or their products are not so clever. The truth is not so simple. Successful serial entrepreneur Chris Larsen, founder of Prosper, E-Loan and Ripple, explained things well in an interview he did with the Nielsen company:

“There is [this] thinking that only the smartest things bubble to the top. It is actually quite the opposite. You definitely have to have the smart technology, but you have to be smart in how you sell it and how you present it. How you present it has to just be incredibly simple. Then once you find that simple formula, then you repeat it and repeat it, just over and over again.”

While finding the formula may sound simple, Larsen says it’s “easy to get wrong.” The truth is, making things simple takes effort because simplicity is hard. Steve Jobs knew that all too well. “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple,” he said. “But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Maybe it’s time for all of us to work harder at simplifying our message. The best way to do it is with an engaging story. Our stories might not succeed in moving mountains, but they might move more people over to our way of thinking and doing. And isn’t that what matters?

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