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How to tell a compelling story

We sit down with Anna Noyons, founder & CEO at (ink). and former Chief Product Officer at Peerby to discuss how to tell a compelling story.

DISCLAIMER: This interview was recorded and introduced as a lecture for our free online 10-week program, StartupLeap. It has been edited for clarity purposes. Watch the recording for the full conversation.

(ink) is a design company that helps corporations, governments, and startups create impact through design and innovation.
Peerby is a peer-to-peer sharing service for products around your neighborhood.

You were part of Peerby, a company with a famous story in The Netherlands. Where does it all start, how do you start writing your story?

I think a big part of Peerby’s success has been its story. The founder of Peerby, whom I worked with, is a great storyteller. Funnily enough we both share a common background in theatre. I think he was very good at using that skill. For example, his founding story was about his house that burned down, where he lost everything. He was helped by many people who shared whatever they could miss. A big part of the success of that story is that it’s personal, it speaks to your imagination and it’s very much in line with what we call ‘the hero’s journey’.

The hero’s journey is something you should look into. It’s about the way you build up your story, so that people feel attached to it, because it’s a story of coming of age. Where someone starts off in an unwanted situation. As the spectator you see change, you want things to change, you crave change. Then the hero goes on a journey, encountering many obstacles, fighting and having to overcome difficulties. Through these many challenges the hero grows and eventually ends up on the other side. Wise and experienced.

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Would you start with the structure or with the goal?

Start with yourself. I always love stories that are genuine and that are unique. That’s a very underestimated thing. Especially with startups, who use formats like the elevator pitch or a 4-minute pitch. It’s almost become formal. Starting with who you are; why you do what you do; and why you are passionate about it is the most important.

What are common pitfalls?

My husband is a director who also trains CEOs in telling stories and he said it’s the ‘Ted Talk cliche’. When you see someone deliver a pitch you can often feel like this person has just copied the tricks too well or has seen too many TED Talks. They try too hard to stick to a certain format. To solve this, don’t start with the structure. Start with what you want to tell, what’s interesting about me and why I am here. That is what people connect to.

Another pitfall comes from an experience I had while teaching at the Technical University in Delft. It was the first time I was invited to teach a course on ‘Reflection on Design’. I knew that only really talented designers were invited to give talks, which made me extremely nervous. Here I was, barely graduated and not convinced of myself. So I designed the whole lecture to show that I was legit and that I was supposed to be on that stage. Which turned out to be a disaster, because it was way too long and there was no story whatsoever.

The teacher who invited me luckily did not send me all the feedback, but what the experience taught me was:

> You have to believe what you say. You’re there for a reason and you have something interesting to share. If you don’t believe in yourself, go back to the drawing table;

> Keep it short. Understand the story you’re trying to tell and focus. People are usually not interested in long stories. Leaving out details is a good thing, because you want people to be curious for more.

One other thing is that delivering a pitch requires muscular training. The biggest pitfall is people don’t practice out loud. So during the pitch they look at their slides or they will look at their paper when it’s all written down. Every actor knows that’s not how you practice – you do it out loud. First, do it in front of the mirror. It will be super awkward, but do it. Second, do it in front of your loved ones. Also awkward, but essential. Being on stage is for most people awkward. To prevent yourself from experiencing this feeling for the first time – when you’re talking on stage and having a blackout or feeling overwhelmed – means you’ll have to practice.

Is it possible for anyone to tell a compelling story?

I’m convinced that anyone can learn how to tell their own story. Everyone has a story. We are humans and our main interest is other humans, otherwise social media wouldn’t be so big. We are super interested, we’re even interested in people and what they eat. So if you are true to yourself and you practice a lot, you can tell an interesting story. As long as you don’t believe that you have to meet some kind of standard. It’s good to be original, it’s good to be you. You don’t have to tell the story the same way everybody else does.

Did you get to see some surprising presentations?

I am a mentor in four different startup accelerators. When I was still working at Peerby, we often pitched together with other startups, so I’ve seen many pitches. The ones that stuck with me were always the ones that were surprising in the sense that somebody shared something that was vulnerable. It was someone that allowed himself to share doubt. The ones that I really don’t like are pitches, where the speaker paints a picture as if everything is smooth and perfect and you already know that you’re going to be the next Uber. Even though you know that’s just not true. Nobody will ever believe it, so just don’t do it.

What makes a story stick?

Humour, you have to have fun. And everyone can do it. The more relaxed you become, the funnier you can be. So the more you practice your story, the more you get used to it. You can then flirt with your audience. You are in a dance. Do I want something from you? Do you want something from me? Are we going to be meaningful to each other? You can then also change your story based on how the audience is responding to it.

Do you change the story according to the audience?

I don’t have many different stories to tell. If you have a genuine story that’s really about you and how things have evolved the way they are, that is the story. But I do really adapt my story to the audience. Because I always ask myself: who is in the audience and what is interesting to them. What is their problem and what are they looking for? I don’t change my story, I just put emphasis on different things.

Especially now that I have a company where we work for different kinds of clients and they have different kinds of problems. We know that they’re all interrelated, because they all have something to do with product development, innovation and validation. But as a corporate your problem is different from the problems of a startup founder. So, when I deliver my pitch, I just try to meet them where they are and I try to show that I’ve been in their shoes so I probably understand what they are dealing with. It makes them feel heard and seen. Again, it’s rather a matter of emphasis than having different stories.

How different is it to share stories face to face or through a screen?

If amusing your audience is important I would always do it face to face. Because 90 percent of communication is body language. So you lose sales, timing etc. Also, everybody knows that technology isn’t optimal for communication. There is always this bumpy start where you have to check if everybody is online or if everybody’s there on time. You could use an icebreaker, but usually, it’s not great for timing. I think that is my main problem with doing things over phone or through Skype because it’s difficult to time your story.

You never see if the other person is about to start talking or you start talking at the same time. So if it’s really important, always meet face to face.

Any rules as to what should and shouldn’t be in the slides?

I’m a designer and a visual thinker so my slides contain hardly any text. Actually, I use my slides only to help myself stick to the storyline and I know with every slide what I want to say. That way, I know I don’t need notes and I can also improvise a little bit because I know the next slide will guide me in my story. I also use my slides to illustrate my story. Use them as illustrations and never use them to explain things that you can’t explain verbally.

The biggest pitfall is too much text. Making it difficult to focus on your story. Never do that. 

How would you wrap up a compelling story?

It’s really important to think about how you wrap up, because it shapes the energy people leave with. It’s always good to tie things back to the beginning so refer to something you said in the beginning and bring people back. For example, you can start with a joke and end with a joke.

If I tell stories about my company (ink), we have this slide that contains a huge graffiti wall, which is actually next to a house l lived in. It says “The best way to predict the future is to create it”. Which is a total cliche, but it’s also a really good and cool call to action for the audience. It puts responsibility on the audience. In a way that if you want to predict the future, you have to get started. You can call me and we can help you create the future that you envision, because that’s what we do. So it’s both a pun and sort of puts people in an active mode and creates a bit of desirability.

One of the key aspects to make sure that your audience actually takes away whatever you want them to from your story is your last line.

One last piece of advice that starting founders should take away when telling a compelling story?

Practice, practice, practice!