Storytelling is one of the most ancient art forms of human expression. Storytelling even predates writing. Not only is it a means for sharing experiences but also for communicating ideas that have the potential to move people, unite communities, and bring positive change. Often storytelling is considered an artistic talent that people are born with. People incorrectly assume storytelling requires the use of beautiful words and flowery phrases. The purpose of this paper is to share the science behind storytelling that anyone can learn.
It is a lesson which all history teaches wise men, to put trust in ideas, and not in circumstances.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philosopher and Essayist
As Emerson would agree, ideas are mightier than the circumstances. And yet so many people remain despondent with the ghost of their ideas and their dreams, either blaming their circumstances or community at large who did not show support for their ideas. The most precious gifts that we can offer to the world are our unique ideas, shaped through our experiences and perspectives. The ideas that are bestowed upon us have the potential to flourish and make a meaningful contribution to the world, but it is our responsibility to nurture and cherish those ideas and make the world fall in love with them. This is where storytelling and pitching come in. This paper explores fundamental concepts related to effective storytelling and how one can leverage these concepts to succinctly pitch ideas.
Let’s start with painting some scenarios. Imagine that you want your business sponsor to provide funding for a new project. Alternatively, imagine that you want to embark on an acquisition as part of a planned growth strategy, and you need to convince the Board of Directors that the acquisition is worth undertaking. Or on a more personal note, imagine that you received the call for a job interview at an organization that you have been following for a long time, and you need to convince the hiring manager that you’re the right candidate for the job. Or perhaps you want to convince your children that eating popcorn is bad for their health. All of these situations require making stakeholders (even if they’re your children) appreciate your view of the world, or your vantage point. If you can envision the possibility of being in the midst of one of these or other similar situations, you will need to learn the skills of storytelling and pitching.
Often people perceive that pitching is about looking sharp, memorizing facts, and making an impression on the stakeholders by demonstrating their own business or analytical acumen. It is not so. These attributes will help, but they will not “move” the stakeholders. Often people perceive that pitching is about using elegant words and flowery phrases. This is also not so. Pitching is about telling a story—a story that only YOU can tell. “A story that only YOU can tell” implies that no one else would bring the level of authenticity, passion, and relevance to your story that you would bring (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Ingredients for Successful Storytelling
“A story that only YOU can tell” implies that no one else would bring the level of authenticity, passion, and relevance to your story that you would bring.
Note—APR is an acronym that can be used to remember these three discrete ideas, which otherwise refers to annual percentage rate, but in the context of storytelling means authenticity, passion, and relevance.
Some people tend to be at ease when narrating stories, while others often find the idea of developing a story challenging. Irrespective of one’s experience and comfort with storytelling, the good news is that from the perspective of behavioral psychology, storytelling is less of an art and more of a science. There is a formula to storytelling that can be mastered and applied to pitching. And the formula is universal—applicable across industries, business sectors, geographical boundaries, and cultures.
A story is the hero’s journey, which requires an event or incident that inspires the hero to take action in the pursuit of a challenging goal, the attainment of which brings an internal transformation to the hero (Campbell, 1949).
Let’s break down the definition into its individual components:
- journey—refers to the career path or personal choices in the life of a protagonist.
- event or incident—a singular moment in time that sparked an idea in the mind’s eye of a protagonist.
- inspire—in the context of storytelling, defining why an idea matters so much to a protagonist.
- action—identification of the steps the protagonist of a story takes to materialize the idea into reality.
- challenging goal—answers the question, “how does the protagonist of the story intend to change the world?” and whether the goals are consistent with the protagonist’s values.
- internal transformation—the personal, professional, emotional, or spiritual transformation that the protagonist goes through in the pursuit of the vision.
Let’s further elucidate these concepts by applying them to a story. This is the story of a software engineer from California. In 1997, he went to a video rental store to rent a movie, which he forgot to return until it was several weeks past due, and in turn, had to pay a substantial late fee. Later, on his way to the gym, he had an epiphany that fitness clubs had a better business model—workout as little or as much as you like for a flat monthly fee. So, he decided to start an online, subscription-based video rental company. He had no idea whether the business model would work. A few years later, he had amassed several thousand subscribers, but his company was losing money due to the expensive shipping cost. So finally, he explored options to sell his venture, but to no avail. In the end, he had no choice but to persevere and to perfect his company’s distribution services so that the majority of the customers received overnight delivery of movies. In 2010, his company made a profit of $160 million. Incidentally, Blockbuster, which used to run one of the largest networks of physical video rental stores, filed for bankruptcy the same year. This is the Netflix story, and the story of its cofounder, Reed Hastings (Hibler, 2020).
Irrespective of whether the series of events, as described in the story, took place in the same order, let’s focus on the core elements of the storytelling:
- journey—development of a company with a multibillion dollar market capitalization.
- event or incident—the moment the protagonist had to pay late fees.
- inspire—marriage of two different business models (video rental and subscription-based fitness clubs).
- action—creation of an online subscription-based video rental company.
- challenging goal—a new delivery channel for media consumption.
- internal transformation—from incepting an idea to nourishing it until it blossoms; and in that process, the protagonist transforms from a software engineer to a visionary and leader of an organization with several thousand employees.
Pitching vs. Storytelling
Now that the fundamentals of storytelling have been established, let’s ponder the difference between pitching and storytelling. Pitching and storytelling share the same principles with one salient difference—the attainment of the challenging goal is yet to happen. When pitching an idea or an initiative, it is our responsibility to portray a utopian vision that we’re trying to sell and get buy-in from the sponsors or stakeholders. However, the utopian vision might materialize or it might not. Furthermore, the utopian vision might get morphed into something else with time. Pitching is about telling an incomplete story and building anticipation to get buy-in from the stakeholders on the vision. There are several ways to address it, and the central ingredient to a successful pitch is to identify the core of the message and keep it simple—one or two ideas but not more than two ideas. One of the most common mistakes people make as they get ready to pitch is that they weave several ideas into the core of the message, and the pitch gets complex and convoluted. For example, once Herb Kelleher, the cofounder of Southwest Airlines, was asked, what does Southwest Airlines represent? He said, “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in less than 30 seconds. We are a low-fare airline.” (Koch, 2017). There are several positive attributes associated with Southwest Airlines such as hassle-free check-in and efficiency, etc., but when they asked Kelleher, he honed in on one core message—low-fare airline.
Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.
—Thomas Edison, Inventor
Storytelling is one of the most ancient art forms of human expression. Storytelling even predates writing. Not only is it a means for sharing experiences, but storytelling is also for communicating ideas that have the potential to move people, unite communities, and bring positive change. Often storytelling is considered an artistic talent that people are born with. People incorrectly assume storytelling requires using beautiful words and flowery phrases. The purpose of this paper is to share the science behind storytelling via a storytelling formula that anyone can learn. And in that sentiment, we must realize that ideas that are bestowed upon us have the potential to flourish and make a meaningful contribution in this world. It is our responsibility to nurture and cherish those ideas.
As you go over the concepts presented in this paper, know that your next job, your next invention, or your next discovery is right around the corner. Only you can decipher the code to get there. It all begins with being able to tell a story—a story that only YOU can tell. So go out there and unleash the creative storyteller inside you.
Campbell, Joseph (1968). The Hero with a Thousand Faces (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hibler, J. (2020). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Reed-Hastings
Koch, R. (2017). “How Southwest Airlines Created a Mass Market for Air Travel.” Irvine. CA: Entrepreneur Media, Inc. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/287095
About the Author
Recipient of the Presidential Award for Volunteer Service from The White House, Vibhu Sinha is an intrapreneurial and bottom-line driven senior management professional with experience in leadership roles across banking and capital markets, advising institutional clients on corporate strategy, idea generation and pitching, financial planning, mergers and acquisitions (M&A), investor relations and environmental, social, and governance (ESG). His institutional experience includes working at Ares Management, a global US$150 billion private equity and alternative asset manager, and Trust Company of the West, a former indirect subsidiary of Societe Generale and a US$200 billion asset manager. Vibhu also had a stint at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he provided M&A, due diligence, and growth advisory services to private equity, real estate, premier banking, and Fortune 500 clients in financial services. He began his career in financial services in 2005 as an analyst at New Century, a full-service mortgage manager with US$50 billion in origination.
Vibhu developed his acumen in behavioral psychology at Harvard University as part of the master’s degree program and also earned an MBA from UCLA Anderson, where he was a Vistage Fellow, a highly selective program for CEO mentorship. As part of his MBA program, Vibhu also completed graduate coursework at EADA Barcelona. He holds a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) credential. He can be reached at [email protected]