David Riemer on the Art of Storytelling for Startups

By Todd Anthony, Founder, Head of Strategy

We spoke with David Riemer, former ad exec, marketing VP, educator at Haas School of Business, and now the author of the just-launched (and already a Best Seller on Amazon) book, Get Your Startup Story Straight: The Definitive Storytelling Framework for Innovators and Entrepreneurs.”

For skimmers: 

Todd Anthony: How is it that you wound up helping entrepreneurs and innovators get their story straight? 

David Riemer: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve been in advertising and marketing – which is essentially business storytelling – since I was out of business school in the mid-80s. I was President of J. Walter Thompson in San Francisco and worked as a marketing leader at Yahoo. But once I left Yahoo and spent even more time with founders and product people, I realized that they had a real need to figure out their product stories. They weren’t necessarily skilled in marketing and certainly weren’t trained in the art of storytelling like you and I were; but they were developing something new that they needed to sell. 

So I decided to focus on that, bringing in everything I’d learned in advertising, working at Yahoo and helping startups as well as my experience writing musicals and treatments for television shows. This book was like the logical output of years of storytelling.

I imagine it’s sort of the culmination of your whole life. 

Yeah! It really is. The first story I wrote as a kid was called, “How the Koala Bear Got Its Pouch.” It was terrible. No story arc. Then in college, I wrote and produced two musicals. Big giant musicals with orchestras, a 20-member cast… the whole thing.  I’ve always been fascinated by stories. 

Why is storytelling such a useful practice for these entrepreneur types, if not businesses in general? 

The biggest epiphany I had was that when founders and business people start telling a story, it forces them to make their customer the protagonist in that story. As a result, their company becomes much more customer-focused. The second thing is that the storytelling process is a forcing function for them to think more strategically. When you teach people narrative structure and you get them to think that way, they may realize, “Oh my god, I’m building the wrong product!” Or, “I’m targeting the wrong customer.” Or, “I don’t understand my customer well enough.” They then go do more work to refine and evolve the story, pivot a little bit, and then we work on telling that new story. 

I really liked the simple, straightforward storyboard structure that you developed that’s in your book. How did you develop that?

What I discovered is that, especially when working with people not classically trained in marketing, I needed to come up with something that they could use to organize their thinking. Once we got the thinking straight – the structure of their story – we could work on the artistic part. 

And what drives that structure, would you say? 

Aaron Sorkin, the famed screenwriter, talks about it. He says, “Intention and obstacle are the driveshaft for drama.” In other words, somebody wants something and something is standing in their way of getting it. You have to know who your protagonist (or customer) is, you have to know what their intention is and you have to have a clear idea of what’s standing in their way. That’s what drives drama and creates the drama in your innovation story.

If you ask an entrepreneur or any kind of innovator who their protagonist is and they say – “Oh well anyone can use this” – that’s not going to make a good story. I want to know who’s the best first target customer? Who is really going to benefit from this thing? And they say, “Oh well it’s this set of people.” Great, let’s talk about what they want and what are all the things standing in their way? From these insights about human behavior and people’s relationship to that category or solution, we decide the specific problem that you’re attacking. Your problem statement is the master conflict in the story. 

What’s a good example of this story structure in action?  

Usually, when I teach the class, I show the trailer for the Pixar film Coco. In this 30-second set-up, there’s this boy named Miguel who loves to play music. But because his great-great-grandfather had gone away to play music and never came back, his family looked at music as a family curse; and it was forbidden for anyone to play music in the family. So the thing Miguel wants to do more than anything, he can’t do. And the whole rest of the movie is about Miguel going on a hero’s journey to the land of the dead to find his ancestors to figure out what really happened so that he can overcome the obstacle and play music. Super simple. 

Indeed! So how do you apply that example to the world of business storytelling?

When I talk to people I say, okay so there’s a character who wants something but there’s an obstacle in the way. So what does that look like now with a product? There’s this customer, they want something and they can’t get it. The other ways they’re trying to get it don’t work or they’re kind of shitty. Here’s what they really want to accomplish, but they can’t. That’s the problem that you’re setting out to solve and the solution is your product. It’s a story.

This gets entrepreneurs to focus on the core product narrative or core product story first. And until you get through those six boxes in that storyboard, until you have the “product story,” I couldn’t care less about the “business story” – that is to say:  what your business model is, how many of these customers there are in the world, who’s the team that’s going to build it and how the business is going to grow and all of that stuff. 

Once we have those elements then we can say, “Okay, how can we turn this into something that’s emotionally moving, that’s more memorable, that’s clear.”

Obviously, students coming to your class are willingly giving themselves over to this process. But out in the world, introducing startup founders to the concept of story, I imagine is a little more challenging. How do you get them over that hump? 

Ironically, the opposite is true. If I’m teaching a class of MBAs, I have to get them past the fact that they think they know everything and to believe that this is something that could be useful in their career. They’re a much harder audience. 

By comparison, innovators and entrepreneurs are DESPERATE for this. They know it’s important, especially when I tell them, “Did you know that your audience is 22 TIMES more likely to remember a data point if you give it to them in the context of a narrative?” That number is based on one cognitive-behavioral scientist. But whether it’s 22 times, or 5 times or 2 times, the point is that you’re dramatically more likely to hold onto some important fact if it’s woven into a narrative. That’s just the way our brains work. 

When you say, “that’s the way our brains work,” what exactly do you mean? 

In the book, I touch on the fact that the emotional center of the brain and the memory center of the brain are in the same part of your brain. In the insula. So if you can tap into someone’s emotion, then their brain can’t help it but be far more likely to retain what you just told them if it’s in an envelope of emotion. Why, for eons, have we created advertising where we’ve tried to make people laugh or cry? Because those are both emotions and that helps them remember it afterward. They’re going to remember the Google Academy Award ad about the young child of deaf parents. 

Well, yeah, you wrote about that ad in the book, right? 

Yeah. It’s a beautiful story that was one of the more memorable things from the Academy Awards that year and it tells us that Google makes all these wonderful products for everybody, but it was incredibly powerful. 

How far into this concept of storytelling do you go? Obviously, we don’t write a novel, right? 

No. The key thing that I instruct people to do is to come up with a core version of the story that anybody can tell. Because you want to get to a point where, if they meet someone who asks them what they do, they can tell that core story. 

I work with an organization in Oakland called The Destiny Art Center and have for 20 years. They look to advance social justice through an afterschool program in martial arts, dance and other movement arts. It’s for the kid who maybe doesn’t fit in everywhere and isn’t part of a community. Their challenge is how do they ultimately find themselves? They discover themselves through this incredible program where they meet other kids, work together, and get more confidence in their bodies and their performance. Along the way, they learn what makes a just society so that when they come through the program they can be fully-formed people who are motivated to make social change happen. 

It’s a good story. 

Certainly better than, “Well, we have martial arts and dance classes.” Yeah. There are a million places that have martial arts and dance classes! What we want is for everybody at Destiny Art Center to be able to tell that story because it’s very different from the next dojo on the corner. To me, this is critical. 

Once you have that core story you can go all the way to write the movie. In fact, Destiny Art Center has had two documentaries made about them by Academy Award-winning documentarians, including most recently, one called FREE

Can the story influence more than just the marketing? Like the product as well? 

Absolutely! I like the Evernote example: “Evernote. Remember everything.” Such a great simple benefit statement. And once you have that then you can say, “Okay, how do I remember everything?  How does this product work to help me remember everything?” As we’re building the product, we have a guiding principle. Everything we build needs to help our customer remember everything. To remember it, you have to be able to capture it, organize it, find it, etc. And now this guiding principle, this storyline is suggesting features and functions. 

Would you say that the crux of a story for a product or a brand is that audience insight? Is that what everything turns on? 

The magic is in the insight, there’s no question. That’s where we discover that amazing thing, that, “Oh my god, this is what we need to solve for.” 

I use the Huggies Pull-Ups example in the book. If you’re a parent with a child going through potty training it can be a touchy time. The Huggies people did research in people’s homes and heard parents complain about other parents who would snidely say, “Oh, your kid is still in diapers? Sorry about that.” And the parents feel terrible that, in their mind, their kid hasn’t developed at the right pace. So Huggies gives kids that onramp to a diaper-free life. It wasn’t a better wicking diaper that would solve the problem, Huggies had to create underwear that worked like a diaper. Huggies Pull-ups were born.  That was all based on a simple human insight. 

I’m constantly working with founders to try to uncover the human insight behind what they’re doing. 

What stage do you recommend that startups work up their story? Obviously, as you said, you need to understand the audience first. But often startups are testing into that understanding of their audience. 

As a marketer you think, we need to figure out who our customer is, what their needs are, and then sort out how we solve for those needs. But it doesn’t always go in order like that. A lot of times you’re going to find a founder who comes up with some great science or technology that they think can be useful. But they’re not exactly sure how it can be useful or for whom. So they need to take their concept to customers and talk to them to find out if it’s solving an issue for them. It’s like the scientific process where you have a hypothesis and then you test it and refine it. Invariably, the innovator is constantly evolving their hypothesis.

What’s a good example of a company evolving its story based on customer feedback? 

There’s a story in the book about a guy who was working in the autonomous car space. He had a theory that there are people who live in suburban areas who want to commute to work, but they only have one car in the family and both adults work. So he thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a subscription Uber-like service. So I said, that’s interesting, tell me about the customers you’ve talked to about that. The guy said, “Oh, should I talk to customers?” And I grabbed my head and screamed, “YES!” As a result of talking to their customers, they ended up pivoting a couple of times. And that’s all because they started to explore their brand story. 

Is a brand essentially just a story? 

I think a brand is also a set of values. Values are really important in the brand conversation. 

I think of a brand like Airbnb, and I LOVE their campaign where the line is, “Don’t go there. Live there.” In other words, if you go some place and stay in a hotel, you’re just going to that place, you’re not really living in that place. They’re basically encouraging you to embed yourself in the community and live among the people there. To me, that brand story is incredibly evocative. 

I love that story, yeah. 

Airbnb is really a classic love story – also known as a two-sided market story. There are the hosts and the travelers and the company’s platform puts them together. I stayed in this Airbnb in Copenhagen that was just in this unspectacular neighborhood, and it was great. We could walk to these unusual little neighborhood restaurant spots and feel like we were living in Copenhagen. 

There’s a section in your book about seven story archetypes. How do you parse the disparity between those and the actual company stories that we find out there in the world? 

Well, there are a million story archetypes. For the particular scholar I reference in the book, there were seven. For others, there are twelve. Others see four. It’s all different. So I use that notion to introduce the concept of archetypes and then give examples of some of the archetypes that I see in the innovation space. One reader might recognize that they’re a two-sided market story. Another might see themselves as a pivot story. 

The pivot story is great because it’s inherently humble. They suddenly realized they were doing the wrong thing, so they changed direction. Do you have a good example? 

The pivot story that I mention in the book is about a company called Localwise. They originally wanted to become the Yelp for small businesses – where any and all services could be shared or discovered by a small business. As they were talking to people, all anyone wanted to talk about was how much they hated hiring. Craigslist was the enemy. So they pivoted to become a hiring platform for local small businesses and Craigslist became the antagonist in the story. It was helpful for them to tell the story about how they had intended to build a different business and their customer discovery led them to pivot to solve this more compelling need.

I also talk about the “promised land” narrative, the two-sided market, the purpose narrative – I love the purpose narrative because most companies should aspire to have a purpose so that employees feel great about working in the company. And sometimes it’s not obvious what that purpose is and you have to ladder some things up to get to the purpose. 

What’s a good example of the purpose narrative? 

ShotSpotter is a great example. They’re a gunshot detection system. You would assume that it’s all about solving crimes. But as I got into it with Ralph Clark, the CEO, it became very clear that it was more about social justice. If you have an underserved community where gun violence is common and 80% of the time there’s a gunshot, police don’t show up, then there’s clearly a different standard for that community than, say, where you and I live. So if the police don’t show up when there’s a gunshot, that creates a negative spiral where the community no longer trusts the police. So then they don’t share information with the police which makes it harder to solve crimes. Then you get this giant divide between the police and the community. So the narrative becomes about closing the procedural justice gap.

By putting all these different archetypes in the book allows people to pick and choose the model that feels right for their startup. 

I imagine that it’s essential to have someone like you in the process, helping to midwife this story out into the world. But obviously, that’s not always possible. 

I just encourage people to do two things: 1) Tell your story to other people and see what resonates and how things land with them and 2) Look for that element that’s just innately human behind what you’re doing. It often goes back to that insight, which can be hard to find – but you have to look for it.

For example, there’s an entrepreneur named Steve that I worked with at Skydeck, Berkeley’s accelerator. His product helps cancer patients manage their care. And he was sort of casually telling me how managing care can be a full-time job for cancer patients. I said, “Stop right there. That’s the core of the story right there because any human being understands what a full-time job is and nobody wants two of them.”

So he started using that phrase in all his pitches and it completely transformed his pitches. He built his whole story around that notion. 

Wonderful. David, I thank you for your time. 

You bet. 

David Riemer is a former ad exec and marketing leader who now helps entrepreneurs focus their ideas through the power of narrative. Earlier in his career, David was president of the ad agency J. Walter Thompson in San Francisco, held senior marketing roles at two tech startups, and was VP of Marketing at Yahoo! in its heyday. Today, he teaches innovation methods and storytelling at Berkeley-Haas School of Business and several Bay Area accelerators.

He recently published the book, “Get Your Startup Story Straight: The Definitive Storytelling Framework for Innovators and Entrepreneurs.” It’s currently a #1 Amazon Best Seller. You can buy it here.

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