When I served as an admissions officer for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, one thing became abundantly clear: Every year, thousands of applicants with stellar GMAT scores, strong career experience and genuine praise from their managers got rejected (and still do).
The problem, as I saw it, was that having strong credentials alone wasn’t enough to carry these candidates to the finish line. In a competitive race, they also needed to demonstrate the “fit.”
Surprisingly, though, during the many feedback sessions I led at Booth, no one asked me exactly how they could demonstrate “fit.” The answer I would have given? Successful applicants weave compelling narratives that demonstrate how their sparkling qualifications, values and goals align with Booth’s.
That rule applies across the board: Whether you’re applying for an elite MBA program or trying to win investors and woo early adopters for your startup, it’s essential to convey that you and your audience are a perfect match. After all, as entrepreneurs, we’re all in a perpetual “competitive admissions” game. Hardly a day goes by that we aren’t trying to persuade others to join us in some effort. That means that we have to prove our “fit” day after day.
Stories create that sense of fit. Even if you have a Ph.D. or MBA from a top-tier university, even if you’ve led the most respected company in your field, even if you’ve done the most extensive market research possible, the story you have to tell is always going to be worth more than strong qualifications alone. Time and time again, the people with the most compelling stories stand out.
Stories, in short, enable you to prove your value, paving the way to accomplish your goals. How do you find those stories? Here’s how.
Storytelling connects us with what our audience needs.
Say you have a business (maybe you already do.) You love the products you’ve designed. You’re proud of the services you’ve worked so hard to offer. But, focusing on your products, your services, your company isn’t what your audience needs. If you want to persuade anyone to act on the information you give them, you have to shift perspectives.
Several years ago, I worked with a real estate investment trust hedge fund to revamp its pitch book. At the time, the fund’s leaders were having trouble raising more assets to manage. As I looked through their existing pitch book, I noticed that every slide was answering the same question: “We are SO awesome; why wouldn’t any client want to invest with us?”
Of course, that’s what most investment funds’ pitch books look like. Like most of their competitors, they were preoccupied with themselves.
So, my work with them began. And, in time,, they shifted toward anticipating prospective clients’ questions instead of focusing on themselves. Questions began to emerge for the pitch book — questions that a client would ask: “How did the fund have such stellar performance for so long?” and “Can the team continue its track record?”
The pitch book we completed used these questions to tell the firm’s story. It worked so well that the firm achieved its asset-raising goals within 18 months!
Storytelling differentiates us, giving us a competitive edge.
Unfortunately, your company’s long lists of accomplishments don’t give prospective clients a way to see how you’re different from other equally impressive startups. You need accomplishments plus an emotional incentive. When faced with many similar-sounding options, people make choices based on how they feel about a business and its leaders. So, make sure that business is yours.
A powerful Radio Lab episode we produced, Overcome by Emotion, illustrated this. It told the story of a hard-working accountant who developed a brain tumor. After having surgery, he lost his ability to make decisions. Why? The surgery cut him off from his “emotional mind,” making him “pathologically indecisive.” Emotions are critical to our decision-making capacity. As author Alan Weiss has noted, “Logic makes people think; emotion makes them act.”
Di Fan Liu, an onshore private banker in Beijing, is someone I know of who uses storytelling to speak to his customers’ anxieties. Liu and his firm know that their potential customers struggle to pass their wealth to the next generation. So, when they pitch their services to ultra-rich Chinese entrepreneurs, they tell stories about multi-generational family businesses that have succeeded in handing down wealth.
The catch? All the stories come from countries other than China. The company then asks potential customers to think of a fellow Chinese entrepreneur who has successfully done the same. Most of Liu’s audience can’t name a single one. This is the point at which they’re ready to hear about what his company has to offer them.
Do what he did: Once you anticipate your audience members’ emotions, tell the story they need. As I discuss in my book, Let the Story Do the Work, plot strongly influences the emotions your audience feels. For instance, shaping your business’s story as a “quest” narrative can make your audience feel restless, ready to achieve more than what life currently offers.
Storytelling establishes our personal credibility.
People don’t just want to buy a product or engage a service; they want to know what the people leading the business are like. And, according to psychologist Robert Cialdini‘s research on social influence, we tend to like people we imagine as being like us. We’re more likely to form a stronger connection with them and more likely to find their ideas persuasive!
Leading a business provides countless opportunities to demonstrate that you are like your clients. After all, clients often ask us, “So . . . tell me about yourself.” We can answer this with a story that is universal enough to make clients consider how similar our experiences are to their own.
Entrepreneur Kelly Standing of Standing Media tells a story that, thankfully, has not happened to everyone. When asked to say something about herself, she describes how her father saved her life after a bully left her hanging from a tree. Standing’s “worst nightmare” scenario is one any parent (or anyone with a similar, personal story of resilience) could relate to. And, so, it resonates.
In the perpetual competitive admissions game, stories prove our “fit.” But that doesn’t mean only “born” storytellers can succeed as entrepreneurs. I firmly believe that anyone can learn the methods for telling a brilliant story, and that once you’ve learned these methods, you will reach goals you never thought possible.