October 25, 2023

The Worst Story You'll Hear Today

Darren Steele, Founder & Fractional CMO, SteelFin

Let me tell you a story. 

“A woman made up of 60% water content with an optical field of view of 200 degrees and up to 8 miles an hour in bipedal forward speed somehow made the world a better place.” 

Not bad, right? It gets a little slow in the middle but it ends in triumph. 

This story should sound familiar. It’s an echo of many brand stories I’ve encountered in tech companies over the past two decades. Big on features and data. Big on social impact platitudes. Light on any elements of an actual story. We often use the word “stories” to describe our messaging and “storytellers” to describe our marketers. But are these truly stories?

When working as a CMO, I have heard the same two problems more than any other when discussing the company-level marketing effort during my onboarding:

  • “I don’t think we’ve figured out our story.”
  • “Our company doesn’t know how to tell our story.”

Why do we care so much about the story? For good reason. We want to tell stories because they light up the learning centers of the brain and engage like nothing else. 

The Costs of Telling the Wrong Stories

More importantly, the wrong story is like putting water in your gas tank. It’s costing you every day in missed opportunities and wasted spend. If you are building a marketing engine with a talented team, an integrated MarTech stack, robust content and carefully-researched personas, all of your demand gen becomes weaker if the story fuel isn’t right. Your Go-To-Market (GTM) efforts may improve with some A/B testing in an iterative upward slope, but the slope intercept may have started too low if the story isn’t right.

Another benefit of story? For emerging businesses, I have found that the right story will attract the superior talent you might not otherwise afford. 

Mistakes of Brand Storytelling

The problem typically starts at the story itself. If we’re all being candid, business stories often aren’t stories at all. They don’t have a hero and villain. They don’t have a plot and a climactic ending. 

Many B2B brand stories in tech tend to fall into two categories: 

  • The company’s origin story: Fascinating to founders, but trivial to prospects.
  • A loosely connected list of carefully worded statements about the company (mission, vision, values, positioning, messaging, etc).

But video games are different. Like novels and movies, games also tell stories. But these stories have two key differences: They orient on the user’s perspective and they adapt to each user’s unique journey. 

How to Tell a Story: Lessons from Early Xbox Video Games

My first startup exit was with a video game company acquired by Microsoft when Xbox was just a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye. I remember being invited to meetings when the project was still under wraps and “Xbox” was still the working code name and not the final decision. I remember the first time I saw an early version of Halo, the future shooter juggernaut that wanted to tell a story. 

The challenge with telling stories in semi-linear games is that the storylines need to adapt to decisions made by the gamer and still make sense. This required story branches, and branches on branches, and infinite permutations rooted in the same core narrative. 

It took a lot of work for video game storytellers to build out stories that would work with so many variables. But I watched them do it again and again. They kept improving the process. And I believe a version of their framework is transferable to the brand story – and just may be your ideal solution. 

So How Do You Tell a Variable, First-Person Business Story?

I’ve been testing a framework for years, and so far I have seen spectacular results measured in everything from pipeline growth, Account-Based Marketing KPIs, GTM launches and even employee recruiting and retention. 

Here are framework highlights for those who want to consider this approach. 

Step One: The core elements – answer some familiar (but challenging) questions.

  • Who is the hero of your story? This should be easy. Hint: It’s your customer, not your company. 
  • Who is the villain of your story? This may take some work. It’s not your competitors. Ask yourself, what is a societal injustice tied to your customers’ pain? 
  • What is the hero’s quest? This is often the mission of the company. When the villain is defeated, what will the world look like for your customer? 
  • What are the rules of the game? These are your company values. If yours feel generic, this may be a good time to refresh and tighten them up. 
  • What is your gameplay strategy? What unique insight can you bring to the dialogue? Brainstorm a hypothesis that can be proven in a scrappy research study. 
  • What gear must your heroes acquire to win? This is where most business “stories” begin and end – the products/services you offer and how they uniquely help the hero win. 

That’s a high-level look at the first step in a four-step process. As you look over those components, are you missing any of these elements in your story today? Does your current story focus more on the gear (or product features and functions) than anything else? 

If so, it may be time for you to re-think the business story framework. Especially if you struggle to consistently tell an inspiring version of your story across all communication channels. 

As you consider your story, keep this in mind: The right story framework is like an avocado. It’s messy and takes some work to get a good one. But once you have decisions made on the hero, villain and other core elements, you’ll have the ability to personalize that story for different audiences. It will become easier and easier to make it into a smoothie. Or guacamole. Or avocado toast. 

Remember the “story” of the bipedal woman at the beginning of this post? Think of that as a product list of features and functions. There is an opportunity to tell a story that elevates customers into a heroic role and infuse greater meaning into tech that may initially appear mundane. For example: 

The answer to the declining enrollment and retention in higher ed today lies with unexpected heroes in a neglected corner of the campus: the financial aid team. They are fighting a two-front war, against their antiquated systems and against the confusion caused by these systems for students. 

This financial friction is the number one barrier to enrollment and a degree. And automating the financial aid process through CampusLogic will open the floodgates for millions more first gen and historically marginalized students to attend college and reach the graduation stage. 

Here’s another example of a story that can be retold in personalized ways to galvanize a community and fuel a high-growth GTM machine. 

Cops aren’t trained to shoot to kill. They are trained to stop a threat. And they use the tools we give them, including a sidearm. But every day that a cop shows up to work, there is the possibility that that officer will need to make a life-or-death decision in ¾ of a second. That’s a terrible choice. Humans should not have to make those decisions under extreme stress. 

So, instead of trying to address police shootings in the endless debates on Capital Hill, let’s think of it as a tech problem. What if cops had the technology to reliably stop a threat without taking a life? That’s the mission of Axon. To protect life in public safety by making the bullet obsolete so everyone gets home safe. 

A game-inspired story is rooted in a modern set of core elements but it’s easier to remember, customize and share when it’s truly a story. As you replace your current messaging with a more visceral rallying cry, you will give your marketing and sales GTM machine the fuel they need to perform at the highest level. 

Darren Steele has served in CMO roles for private, PE-backed and public companies for more than 15 years. He is the founder of SteelFin, where he and his team provide fractional CMO services to late-stage startups preparing to scale up and search fund acquisitions. Parts of this post originally appeared in a post written for Sendoso where Darren is an advisor.