Sabir x Seth Erickson
The Art And Science Of Storytelling For Startups With Seth Erickson
A story engages the brain more than facts and figures. It taps into something primal and grabs the senses more than a spreadsheet ever could.
It’s something that Erikson has been preaching for several years now. It was the subject of his book, How to Hack Humans, and it’s also the subject of this article and video.
Erikson discusses the techniques and teachings that have helped him to craft the perfect brand stories for himself and his clients, including:
- The Power of Storytelling: A gripping story is not just the reserve of authors and screenwriters. It’s also something that drives your business forward. As the founder of a startup, a good story could even be the thing that helps you to secure an investment.
- Why Do Brands Struggle to Tell a Story? Many brands struggle with the storytelling side of things and it’s often because they’re coming from business and analytical backgrounds. The story side is secondary—they don’t think it’s important and they lack the skillset needed to make it work.
- Examples of Storytelling: The marketing emails that brands receive every day are an example of how not to tell a story. They make it all about themselves and their services when it should be about the customer. The more relatable a story is, the more you’re willing to hear it.
- The Hero’s Journey: The way that you tell your brand’s story should be similar to movies like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix—they all follow an arc that was also used throughout the ancient world. It’s known as the Hero’s Journey, and you’re probably more familiar with it than you realize.
At the end of the following guide, Seth Erikson also offers his biggest insight, one that could generate more than 6-figures in value for startups that need an impactful brand story.
The Power Of Storytelling (And What It Means For Your Brand)
Stories are one of the things that make us human. They form an integral part of our existence and have done since we first walked on two feet and began communicating with one another.
We use stories to communicate messages and feelings, and we have used them in this manner for thousands of years.
Think about all of the stories that you know today. Most are the product of ancient myths and legends, ones told by the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks. They were stories that helped future generations to understand past ones, but they also told our ancestors who made the world, who shaped the world, and who inhabits it.
The Greeks believed that humans were created by the gods and brought to life after Prometheus gave them fire. Their mythology was so vast and intricate that it explained everything from the tide of the oceans and the arc of the sun to the reason that birds sing and water reflects.
In pre-civilization, we used oral stories and paintings to highlight which animals were easy to hunt and which berries were safe to eat.
If I tell you “don’t eat red berries” you might remember that for a few days, but it probably won’t stay with you for a lifetime and it definitely won’t be passed onto your children and grandchildren.
If I tell you a story about a young man who ate red berries and was violently sick, with his head growing big and red, it will stick. Over time, as that story is told and retold, it might evolve into the man’s head turning into an actual watermelon. It might be told in a way that paints him as a 10-foot beast who grows a head so big that the children of the village live inside of it and when he sneezes, everyone dies.
That’s how folk tales and mythology work, but what matters is that the message “don’t eat red berries” stays strong throughout the generations.
That’s the power of storytelling and it’s something that Seth Erickson, author of How to Hack Humans, knows all too well.
Erickson is a master of brand storytelling, a sharp thinker who uses his wit, creativity, and marketing knowledge to weave powerful and effective brand stories.
I sat down with Erickson to talk about the subject of brand storytelling and to help startups of all sizes create stories that sell.
If you’re struggling to create an impactful and long-lasting brand story, the following guide (and the accompanying video) will help.
Why Do Startups Struggle To Tell Their Story?
I have spoken with a number of startup founders on This Week With Sabir, and the majority have struggled to tell their stories.
It’s an issue that many founders have and while they get there eventually, it’s usually via a lot of pivoting, evolving, and adapting. So, why do so many founders fail to get their story right from the outset?
According to Seth Erikson, it’s because those founders have learned all about business, operations, and marketing, but they have not been exposed to branding and storytelling.
They spend their time working on the product and getting it out there. It’s all about research, development, website building, team building, data, and marketing, and at no point in that journey do they stop to think about how they will tell their story.
Even if that thought does occur to them, they’re not writers and designers—they’re not storytellers. As a result, what they end up creating is a weak, barebones, and oftentimes confusing story that just doesn’t send the right message.
If you want to write a great book or movie script, you spend time learning about the craft and techniques. You take some writing classes, get some advice, or just hire an expert author to do the work for you.
Yet, when we try to tell brand stories, it’s often something that we do ourselves after zero research and with minimal effort.
That’s not to say that you need to be a great author or storyteller to tell a good brand story. You just need to spend some time on the story and make sure everything is perfect.
As with anything else in this industry, if you can’t do it yourself, then find someone who can.
That someone might be a partner who is more creative than you are. Many of the best partnerships work because one person is more logical and data-driven while the other is creative.
If you don’t have a partner and there’s no one else on your team who can help, then hire someone.
Marketing experts are perfect for this, but if you already have a good idea of what you want your brand story to look like and just can’t piece it together, hire a writer and designer to do the work.
For more information on hiring freelancers to help you tell your story, check out my guide to starting a digital agency and my guide to launching an online business.
The Anatomy Of Storytelling
The hero’s journey is a common story template that has been used for thousands of years and continues to draw a Box Office crowd.
The specifics of the story change, but it usually goes something like this:
A person embarks upon an adventure. They encounter difficulty and strife on the way. They return triumphant and changed.
It’s a pattern that you’ll see throughout Greek myths, from the 12 Labors of Hercules to the story of the Odyssey, and it has also been used in many of the films that you know and love, including Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lion King, Harry Potter, The Goonies, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings.
It can be seen in historical storytelling and is an arc that many biographers try to adopt when chronicling the lives of important historic people. In a condensed form, it’s also present in the famous Julius Caesar quote, “Veni, Vidi, Vici”, or “I came, I saw, I conquered”.
The hero’s journey can even be used to tell your brand story, as recommended by Seth Erickson.
There are many traditional steps to the hero’s journey, but you can condense these down to just three, ensuring that you have a beginning, middle, and end.
The villain of your story becomes the problem that your brand solves and your customers face. The solution and transformation is the easier life that customers will have when they use your product or service.
Condensing Your Pitch Deck
During my discussion with Seth Erickson, we detoured a little and began talking about pitch decks. Seth apologized for this tangent, but it was an incredibly helpful one that’s worth discussing.
The issue he highlighted is that startups will often create huge pitch decks filled with text and speeches.
They spend the time pitching themselves and talking about how great they are and they neglect to tell the investors why they should be investing.
When you’re creating a pitch, try to tell a story.
Keep it brief, make it snappy, and engage your audience’s attention.
They don’t care about the numbers until they are invested in your company, so refrain from throwing data at them in the hope that you’ll impress them.
You might think that you can astound them with promises of great wealth, but they’ve heard it all before. They have heard it from every single person who walks through their doors and they know that it means nothing if the business doesn’t have a solid idea.
Limit the slides, reduce the text, stop droning on, and make it short. Tell your story in a bright and engaging way and don’t drown them in data.
If you have watched Shark Tank, you will have seen the impact of storytelling for yourself. Facts and figures are great, but the thing that hooks those Shark Tank investors is the story. That’s what makes a brand different and special.
Examples Of Good And Bad Storytelling
Erikson gave an example of an effective email campaign that landed major clients. It worked because it focused on the company it was targeting. It highlighted their probable pain points and emphasized the ways it could fix them.
Email campaigns are very common and they are often very annoying, but Erickson has proved that they can still be effective when they are executed effectively.
If you run a business, you will have received hundreds if not thousands of brand emails, all pushing for your business. The majority of them are tedious, formulaic nonsense that make claims about getting you to the first position in Google or delivering you cheaper web hosting.
Maybe you have even sent a few of these emails yourself. If so, you probably thought you were hitting all the right notes, only to get disappointed when nobody replied.
It might sound like the best approach from your perspective, but it’s too generic, it’s too bland, and it doesn’t speak to the company.
As an example, I have a few small companies that I run myself and with business partners. We do all of the e-commerce work, SEO, and web development. Of course, not everyone knows that and so we still receive hundreds of weekly emails offering services.
Imagine how ridiculous it is for an e-commerce and SEO expert with a large team of agency workers to receive emails along the lines, “We can deliver affordable SEO services and get you to the top of Google”.
Many of them try to highlight pain points but do it in such a generic way that it doesn’t make sense. For instance, one of the most common emails I receive openly states, “I searched for your site on Google and couldn’t find it anywhere” before promising they can get me the top result.
They are phrased like original and personal emails, but I know they’re not for two reasons. Firstly, the same template is used by dozens of other companies and I get countless similar emails every day. Secondly, my company already has the top ranking.
If those are the services that you offer, it would make more sense to study the companies in advance, find the ones that are actually struggling, highlight their struggle, and then guarantee a higher position.
If they are a small business with poor SEO results, you can assume they are managing the SEO themselves, don’t know what they’re doing, and/or have a limited budget. That’s their story, and when you’re armed with that information, you can start telling them how you will turn things around and improve upon their story.
The iPod vs Zune story is another great example of how effective storytelling can be.
Apple was all about having X amount of songs in your pocket and the potential that it would have.
Just think of how much fun you could have on your commute or at the gym with all those songs in your pocket!
With Zune, it was more about trying to outdo the iPod by clarifying that it was fast and had X amount of storage. It focused on the data, the specifics, and in doing so, it was a massive failure.
If Zune’s marketing had been rooted in a story, if it was engaging and hooked customers immediately, we might be walking around with Microsoft devices today and not iPhones.
The $100,000 Question
The message is about your customer and not you.
That’s Seth Erickson’s $100,000 insight, and it’s one you need to keep in mind when you’re telling your brand story.
As noted above, storytelling is key when you’re building a brand, but the story has to be told in the right way.
It should be about the customer and not you.
As an example, let’s assume that you run a digital agency and act as the main writer, designer, and general creator. You’re experienced, skilled, and you offer a higher standard of work.
You might begin by stating your credentials and shouting your experience from the rooftop.
Just think how impressed they will be when they discover that you have worked for a leading publishing house and have written for film producers, newspapers, and big brands.
Except…they won’t care.
Sure, you can work those things into your story, but you shouldn’t begin with the equivalent of, “Look at how great I am”.
Instead, think of it from the perspective of a director/scriptwriter or an author. That first scene is how you draw them into your world and how you start your story. It should be explosive, engaging.
From there, you can discuss a problem that they will face on a regular basis.
“Are you sick of paying top dollar just for the work to be outsourced to cheap content creators?”
“Do you tire of working with multiple individual freelancers across various disciplines?
After grabbing their attention and introducing the problem, you can move on to the resolution. But that doesn’t mean you have permission to start talking about your brand.
Instead, you need to focus on their resolution, their victory. Show them how easier things will be for them when they hire you and acquire your services.
Will they have more free time, more money, higher quality work? What will their walk into the sunset look like?
That’s how you tell a brand story. Get it right, and you can look forward to easier investments, more customers, and a more profitable startup.
About Seth Erickson
Seth Erickson’s personality, and particular brand of humor, is the kind that draws people to him. He’s a quick thinker with the ability to distill complex ideas into easy-to-understand information, and he’s not afraid to work hard and apply tenacity when needed.
Sometimes Seth uses these traits for good, sometimes to go after world domination, but one thing is true above all else. Seth is a born storyteller. At the tender age of four, Seth was baffling his pre-school teacher with his vivid imagination. While many kids were naming shapes, Seth told stories with added plot points, built worlds, and introduced characters.
This verve for storytelling grew, as Seth did… which is to say, quite large. Seth is many things; a BBQ enthusiast, a taco aficionado who can and will make tacos out of anything, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, and a scuba diver. He spent his early years as an illustrator, web designer, DJ, music producer, and recently became an author. However, perhaps most notable is the career Seth has built by merging aspects rarely found together: business, creativity, and wit.
Seth uses storytelling as a way of helping businesses, specifically Startup’s. Stats say 90% of start-up’s fail. Seth’s vision is to reduce that disheartening number by at least 10%.
He recognizes many startups excel at building their tech and ideas but fall short when communicating their value to the world. Enter Seth, who teaches these budding business owners one of the most effective communication methods. An art form that has been a part of humanity for as long as… well… humans—storytelling. Seth believes these entrepreneurs will find proving their value to investors and the marketplace easier with the techniques he teaches.
He has seen firsthand how incorporating storytelling can make a presentation and product stand out and become memorable to investors and customers alike.
So, if you’re searching for a six feet eight-inch, globe-trotting branding agency owner with a sense of humor to aid in your startup endeavors, look no further than Seth Erickson.