Simon Sinek, in what has become one of the most watched TED talks ever, explains his theory of “Start with Why”. The talk captures the key message of his book by the same name. At the core of Simon’s explanation for motivating people to take action, is the simple understanding that people want to do something that has meaning. They want to be a part of something that they feel is meaningful.
As a founder you are always selling. You are selling to your customers, obviously. But you are also selling to your corporate partners and to your investors. You are also selling when you search for top talent to join your team as you hire them and then motivate them to stay and perform. We will explore this further in a separate post.
But what are you selling? Especially in the early days when there is as of yet no product/service to be shared?
You are selling your vision. You are sharing your personal “why?” and motivating people to support you in pursuing it. It can be as grand as you like. Actually, it should be almost unbelievable. But only “almost”. There needs to be a sense that the vision is rooted in reality, no matter how high the aspirations, so that it can be believable. We follow visionaries because we want to be a part of the type of world they describe and which we believe is attainable.
The first step is for you to understand your “why?” – why do you do what you do? Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to doing this? And why do it in this way rather than alternative options to achieving your goals? – Simon says: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it…
Asking these questions should help distill the core purpose you are trying to achieve along with the core values that drive you achieve it in the first place. They will also allow you to map out the general path by which you decide to travel on your journey to make it a reality.
In their important article – Building Your Company’s Vision (Harvard Business Review, 2000) – James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras build a two-layer framework in which to insert these answers as you create your company’s vision.
Collins and Porras define the first layer as your Core Ideology. This layer is comprised of your Core Values and your Core Purpose. Your Core Values are the handful of guiding principles by which the company navigates. They are used to weigh decisions on a moral level. E.g. – first do no harm. Your Core Purpose is your organization’s most fundamental reason for being. For example, when we started Sapir Venture Partners we first needed to answer the question – why does the world need another early stage venture fund? – This forced us to map out the ecosystem and define where we add value. From this we crafted our investment thesis against which we evaluate every investment opportunity we consider.
The second layer is defined as your Envisioned Future. This layer is comprised of your Monumental Goals and a Vivid Description of life once these goals are achieved.
The first layer, your Core Ideology is a fundamental part of your “why”. By layering in the Envisioned Future you are beginning to craft your story to be shared with the world.
The key word here is story. An audience can relate to a story. They can connect to it and even try to see themselves as a part of it. This is what happens when you read a good book. You can see yourself as the protagonist and experience the adventure first-hand.
Great storytelling is an art. It is a skill we all learn at an early age. But there is a difference between good storytelling and great storytelling. The key to great storytelling is connecting to people on an emotional level. Use your own feelings, dreams, aspirations to generate reactions from others. This will attract people who feel the same way and aspire to the same outcome.
Using a personal experience is the most genuine way to do this. Sharing an experience that made you feel a certain way will immediately create a “hook” for someone who can relate, either because they have been through it themselves or because they can empathize. But this can be a hard thing to do as it requires opening up about things that may not always be easy to share. For example, if you are driven to cure cancer because someone you love suffered from the disease or if you were driven to create change because of a personal failure you experienced in the past. Retelling this story in an inspiring way will surely be challenging for you emotionally as you relive the pain each time. It could certainly not be fun to tell this story hundreds of times before complete strangers while asking them for something in return.
Another key to great storytelling is iteration. Practice makes perfect. Each time you tell the story you get better at it. You learn from how the audience reacts to certain parts whether you are sharing too much detail (this is always the hardest part for me to overcome) or you rush the outcome to get to the punchline. Timing, pace and passion will reel your audience in.
Another important tip I recommend to all founders is that you create multiple “hooks” in your story. You usually will not know in advance which hook will catch any given member of your audience. By creating multiple hooks you are essentially spreading a wider net (see what I did there? Mixing fishing metaphors!) to catch more of your audience but also allow an individual to hone in on the element that is most attractive to them within your story. An investor is usually looking for a path towards outstanding financial returns. But they could also be interested in supporting a potential global change in a field that is dear to their heart or back a breakthrough cure to a disease that afflicted someone they care about. You never know. So add hooks to your story and then watch how they respond and listen carefully to their feedback so you can emphasize the elements that most appeal to that audience when you continue the conversation.
A founder telling a great story can inspire others to act – build, invest, buy, sell – so this is a critical skill for a founder/CEO to master.