Business Storytelling: A Primer

17 minutes, 16 links

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Business Storytelling: A Primer

The first step in building employer brand is to tell the story of the business. As you prepare and strategize your hiring plan and process, you may discover that much of the skills and techniques necessary for success are undergirded by storytelling. Want to understand your internal company values? Work out your story. Want to write a compelling job description? Tell your story in just a few words. Want to make sure candidates understand your value proposition and what makes your company a great place to work, so they won’t opt out of your funnel, and will ultimately accept your offer? It’s all about how, when, and where you tell the right stories.

Business storytelling is not fiction. It’s not smoke and mirrors. It has to be authentic and grounded in truth. At the same time, it is not just a compilation of facts and figures (like your company’s growth rate or revenue). It is not lists of what your team has built or accomplished. These things may be compelling, but presented dryly or without the context of their meaning or significance, they won’t be memorable or exciting. You need to give these things narrative weight: a story that wraps up facts and events in a way that speaks to both heart and mind. Stories explain the purpose and mission that make these facts and figures important.

There are two types of stories relevant to recruiting and hiring: the company story and the story of the role you’re hiring for. Anyone on your team should be able to understand and convey both those narratives to candidates.

These narratives will have to strike a delicate balance among a few different needs. The stories need to be ambitious but not completely unattainable. They should be bold but not grandiose. And they should be inspiring—maybe even noble—without appearing self-righteous.

important Arguably the best way to meet these somewhat opposing needs is to just not lie. Your stories should be authentic—no amount of storytelling will mask a company that is a poor place to work or a role that’s not interesting for the candidates you’re trying to hire. Even if you’re somehow able to “trick” candidates into thinking your company is on a grand and important path or has an awesome work environment, they will find out the truth at some point, either during the recruiting process or, worse, after they join. Storytelling is simply a way to convey the value of working at your company, but that value should really exist.

So when will you use these stories when recruiting? Almost everywhere. You should use them in your job descriptions to attract the right candidates. Every touchpoint with a candidate (from the initial conversation to the interviews to the offer close) may include narratives as well.

caution While powerful, stories should be used in the right way and at the right time. Stories that are scripted, repetitive, or out-of-place can be counterproductive. For instance, if a candidate asks about your company’s roadmap for the next year, your response probably shouldn’t be, “Well, let me tell you how our founders first met…” without answering their question.

We discuss the company narrative and the role narrative in Job Descriptions. This section will provide further tips and strategies for writing and sharing great stories with your employees, candidates, and potential candidates. We also provide more detail on building the company story primarily for talking to investors in the Holloway Guide to Raising Venture Capital.

Your company brand can be made up of many different pieces, and it’s your job to cull all the disparate signals into a poignant, succinct, and authentic story that speaks to what makes your company truly special. There isn’t a single formula for what to focus on or highlight when crafting this story, but there are a few exercises that we’ve seen which are very effective.

First, you’ll craft a high-level story. Then you’ll embellish it with details that make your company unique, including anecdotes from your employees. Finally, you’ll edit it down into something crisp and short. In general, your story shouldn’t have more than three distinct ideas total or it’ll start to feel a bit chaotic.

Exercise 1: Define Company Values

You cannot begin telling the company or role narrative before you define what your company values. The overall process will be deeply introspective, and at times even uncomfortable.

important Companies are built in the image of their founders. Any list of values that are incompatible with the way leaders act is probably doomed to fail. When founders or early employees don’t recognize this, they are unable to manage any discrepancies and company values and culture can become toxic. As early as possible, record the values of the company and the values you want all employees to uphold. One of the biggest mistakes companies can make is waiting until they’ve hired a bunch of people, when in fact, your values should inform that hiring from day one.*

To create a starting point for founders to begin thinking about their values, we’ve merged a set of questions from First Round Review with slides on building company culture from Brian Chesky of Airbnb and Alfred Lin of Sequoia:

  • What are our strengths?

  • What are we outstanding at?

  • What sets us apart from the people around us?

  • What do we value about the people around us?

  • What qualities do we discourage?

  • How do we make our best decisions? (Think of a recent decision you made that had a good outcome. What process led to that?)

  • What are we bad at?

  • What can never be tolerated?

  • How do we resolve disagreements?

If you’ve already made your first few hires, it’s worth looping in the rest of the team when defining the values that will define the company. Using the list above, ask them what they think the company’s values are or should be, and what they think is important to the company culture. Everyone can write these down and then discuss them together. This can help ensure that value-setting isn’t too top-down, and can also expose instances of when a company’s leaders are lacking awareness of their own limitations.

If you have been operational for a while, a great strategy here is to look at people who have been successful (and not successful) at the company so far, and what makes them different. Were they really passionate about the mission? Did they have a particular way of collaborating with others?

During a scary moment of meaningful turnover during Bonobos’ early days, we articulated what we viewed to be the five core human values of the best people we had ever hired. I made the list by grouping the thirty people we had hired up to that point into three buckets: the ten best, the next ten, and the ten who hadn’t worked out. I asked myself what really separated the top ten from the bottom ten in terms of their humanity.Andy Dunn, co-founder, Bonobos*

In addition to being well-defined and explicit, company values should be the following:

  • Congruent with the company’s actual behavior. People at your company, especially leaders and founders, should reinforce the values through both talk and action. You should be able to ask anyone at the company what those values are, and get a pretty consistent answer. And the way your company hires, fires, and promotes people should be reflective of those values.

  • Compatible with your mission, strategy, and goals. One of Quora’s values is “agility,” which can be great for a consumer internet company, but may not be as wise in an industry with heavy regulation or high cost of mistakes (like healthcare).

  • Unique and memorable. Values like “integrity” or “honesty” are so general that they could apply to any company. So unless your company has a unique take on what they mean (like Google’s “don’t be evil” mantra), they are less likely to be remembered.

As a next step, it’s worth thinking about which of those values are most important to the success of the business. Most of the values of a company’s leaders should be compatible with the company’s mission (otherwise, there are bigger problems). But no person (or group) is perfect, and there might be traits or values that are critical to the company’s success that a founder can’t or doesn’t anticipate.

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Further Reading on Defining Company Values

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Exercise 2: The High-Level Story

Imagine you have a smart, technical friend you respect who doesn’t know anything about your company’s space. How would you describe what your company does and why it matters to them? Write it down, aiming for about a paragraph. Don’t worry too much about editing it yet, you’ll get to that later.

If you’re feeling a bit stuck, here are some questions to get you started. Think about how you might answer if your friend were asking each of these:

  • Why does the company exist/what does your product do, and why does that matter?

  • Why are you going to succeed where others have failed?

  • Why does the company matter to you personally?

  • What do you know that no one else does about your space? What unique insight do you have about your space that puts you in a better position relative to other players?

  • What is your company doing that no one else is doing, and why does that matter?

If you’re struggling writing down answers, you may find it helpful to actually talk to a friend, and take notes during the conversation or even just record yourself. Rather than being overwrought or too formal, your want to explain what your company does in as simple, human terms as possible.

Exercise 3: Add Unique Embellishments

Engineers have been told all manners of generalities about how much impact they’re going to have if they join a small startup and how whatever the company is working on is going to change the world. If you want to stand out, you have to be specific. It’s a given that working at a startup will mean an engineer’s role will have a big impact, and that you have a smart, tightly-knit team dedicated to the project. Think about what truly makes you special, and even if it’s a bit polarizing, own it—you’re looking for candidate-company fit, not to please everyone only to have them be disappointed when they actually join. It’s your story, and the more honest you are about who you are and what you do, the more trust you’ll build with candidates and the more they’ll want to engage.

Drill down into the details that make your company special. Some examples of unique embellishments can be:

  • Your tech stack. Do you use any niche programming languages unusual in your domain? If so, you can work to attract the community around that language. Certainly choosing your tech stack is, first and foremost, and engineering decision, but this decision has some implications for hiring, and choosing a fringe or niche stack or language can be a great way to attract the entire community around it. The more fringe a language (Rust, anyone?), or the more conversation around it (like C#), the more fiercely passionate its acolytes will be about working for you.

  • A unique type of customer. Do you build products for Hollywood? For VCs? For schools? Some portion of your candidates, depending on their interests outside of work or their future career ambitions, are going to be really excited that they’ll get more direct access to users who operate in these worlds.

  • Your engineering culture. Do you subscribe to any particular type of methodology that might be controversial? Are you all about test-driven deployment? Are you adamant about rolling all your own everything?

  • Meaty technical challenges. Would engineers have access to a ton of data, or perhaps the ability to work on massively distributed systems? Even in its early days, Twitch had almost as much ingest as YouTube, and this was a meaningful selling point to candidates who wanted to work at scale but didn’t necessarily want to work at a FAANG company.

  • Your work style. Some companies really value work-life balance, whereas others exalt burning the midnight oil. Some run on chaos and some take a more orderly approach. Some work by the book, and some choose more of a bulldoze your way to success and ask forgiveness rather than permission approach. Think of any perks (a remote option?) and specific engineering work styles (maybe the company thrives on pair programming).

Lynne Tye of Key Values has compiled a list of some unique company details to give you a sense of what these might look like.

Exercise 4: Get Your Team’s Perspectives

As your team grows, they may come to the company with different interests and motivations—they’ll be able to tell you what makes the company special to them. Because you’ll be using the company story as a value proposition to future employees, asking current employees what they think can be very helpful.

When deciding who to talk to (if you have a big enough company to have some options), look for people who didn’t come to the company through personal referrals and/or had good offers during their last job search.

These are the people who, despite no personal connection to the company and despite having other options, chose to work for you.

You may learn about your team’s perspectives through 1:1 conversations with these employees, or send them a questionnaire they can fill out (this may be more comfortable depending on your company culture or dynamics). Ask why they chose to work for the company and what they think makes the company different. Mission? Culture? Their answers might surprise you. Once you have a few choice tidbits from employees, ask yourself whether each one is something other people might find compelling. If it’s not particularly original, or is more about perks than profound characteristics (“I love my short commute!”), it may not be worth calling out in your primary narrative (though could be worth repeating when you’re actually interact with candidates).

Further Reading on Company Narratives

Turning Narratives Into a Brand

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