It should come as no surprise that Virgin StartUp, as a part of the Virgin family, believes passionately in the power of a good story - it's vital to making your startup stand out.

Mark Leruste is the founder and host of The Unconventionalists – a personal branding accelerator that works with Virgin StartUp to run our storytelling masterclasses.

Here he talks about the importance of a powerful story, and what you can do to avoid the three most common mistakes.

Storytelling is still to this day one of the most powerful and useful tools to grow your business.

Why? Because it's the fastest way to connect to your audience's heart.

And when it comes down to it, emotions trump reason any day of the week.

That’s why señor Simon Sinek really did have a point in his 2009 TEDx talk when he said that “People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

And nothing spreads your “why” quite like a good story.

I firmly believe that not only are we all born natural storytellers, but we can also learn to become even better storytellers.

No matter what our age.

Although storytelling is no doubt an art, the good news is there’s also a clear structure to it.

Especially when it comes down to telling the story about your business.

And once you learn the 200,000 year old proven formula, it becomes 10x easier for you to convey your message to your ideal customer and start getting real traction.

Problem is, many people still get it wrong.

That’s why I want to share with you the three most important things to look out for when telling your story to the world:

#1 Curse of Knowledge

I hate to be the one to spoil the party, but my guess is that you’re probably confusing people.

That’s right, chances are, you’re using big fancy words or specific industry jargon that nobody (really) understands.

That is apart from you, your colleagues, your peers and maybe that fancy digital agency you just hired to re-vamp your branding image.

Sure, it sounds great internally.

But for the rest of us? We have no idea what you mean and we’ve long checked out.

Hear me out.

In 2006, brothers Chip and Dan Heath, co-authors of three best-selling books including, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” and “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”, published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Curse of Knowledge”.

Their article was based around the work of a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton who in 1990 studied the difference between what we make up people will understand vs what people actually understand.

And what she found was shocking.

The Heath brothers go on to explain that after a while, it becomes difficult for us to remember what it was like for us to know nothing at all.

But if you want to grab the attention of people and be remembered, you have got to keep it super simple.

You have got to go back to the basics.

So simple it hurts. 


Think 4th grade level.

That’s the sort of language you want to be using when telling your story to your potential customer.

My best advice is to go and speak to your 5-year old niece or nephew and explain to them what you do.

If they don’t get it, time for you to go back to the drawing board, and simplify it.

If you want to find out more about the Curse of Knowledge, Lee LeFever explores this concept in greater detail in his book, The Art of Explanation.

#2 External Validation

Now that you’ve simplified your story and dropped all the jargon and inside knowledge you’ve been using, you need to test your story on your audience.

You need to see what sticks and what needs to go.

The problem here is that most people spend thousands of pounds on expensive marketing collaterals (websites, brochures, business cards, leaflets, etc.) without even testing out their message on their potential customers.

It’s a problem because effectively, you could be wasting a lot of time and a lot of money!

The good news is that all you need to do is take every opportunity you have to practice telling your story to gather vital information: feedback.

That’s right, ask for feedback, but not just any feedback.

Ask the person you shared your story with what they understood about what you do and why you do it?

What were the words that stood out?

What were they confused about?

Where did you lose them in your story? (i.e. when were they bored?)

It’s the exact same process I did when I practised my TEDx talk.

It was painful but by far the most helpful thing I did to improve my talk.

Here’s the real magic though: stay curious and don’t take anything personally.

By staying curious and listening to the open feedback you will get invaluable information on how to better your story.

This might be hard but trust me, park your ego for a minute and dive deeper into what works for your customer.

If you do, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition and you’ll be ready to craft an even more powerful story.

The Mom Test - a book by Rob Fitzpatrick is a good read if you want to learn more about how to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea (even when everyone else is lying to you).

#3 Death By Repetition

By far the biggest lesson I learned while being Country Manager at the Movember Foundation for four years where I helped raise €2.8 million for men’s health and inspired 110,000 people to take part, was that to tell a powerful story, you need to practice it, A LOT!

This is what I believe separates the OKish storytellers with the OMG storytellers.

It’s the ability to practice over and over again, to iron out the bumps, until it feels totally natural.

I could tell you the story of how Movember started in my sleep.

I know exactly at what point people will laugh and I know when people start dropping off.

That’s how well I know it.

You see, most people think that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr just rocked up August 28th, 1963 and delivered his “I have a dream” speech for the first time.

But the truth is, Dr. King had given that speech hundreds of times over the last few years.

And by the time he climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and leaned into the microphone, he was ready to let all his hard work do the magic.

Here’s my challenge to you, write down your story and practice telling it every single day.

If you want to find out more about the relationship between the power of repetition and having an impact, read the book “TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking” by Chris Anderson

In conclusion, the fastest way to cut through the noise and stand out from the crowd is to have a powerful story to tell.

And the best way to do that is to keep it simple, make it relevant and to practice it over and over again

If you do that, you might go down in history as one of the best storytellers of all time.


If you want to learn more about the structure on how to tell a powerful story, join me at my upcoming Virgin StartUp workshop Storytelling for Startups.