Use Storytelling to Describe the Problem You Solve

By March 27, 2013Fundraising
startup storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful skill for any great communicator.  When told well, a story helps us best absorb a message and its meaning.  It can make the difference between remembering and caring, or not.

In my article titled “Pitch Deck Flow“, I suggested the recommended order of topics and typical content for your pitch deck.  Now, I’d like to dive more deeply into the Problem section with a suggestion on how to describe the actual problem you solve.

Many startups use a sequence of industry statistics and other factoids to do this.  For example, “65% of small businesses in the US report struggling with _____”.  These factoids are commonly strung together in succession to support each other and help demonstrate a clearly recognized problem.

While it’s absolutely helpful to use factoids to justify your problem statement, it shouldn’t be the only way to describe it.  Instead, start with a story that best describes the problem.  The subject of the story can be a real customer or a hypothetical one.  Telling a story about a specific person/company that experienced a nasty problem with terrible consequences is much more effective than just spouting statistics.  And if you personally, or someone you are close to, suffered directly from the problem, the story you tell will also help confirm your personal passion for solving it.

Here are some examples of how to start the story:

  • One of our customers is Shockwave Innovations.  They had a problem with _______ (finish telling the story).
  • Meet Gordon.  He is the founder of Shockwave Innovations, an angel investing and startup advisory practice.  When Gordon wakes up every morning he ________ (tell a “day in the life” story that accentuates Gordon’s big problem).
  • We’ve met with a lot of companies in the ____ segment.  One thing we heard over and over is _______ (insert problem).  For example, at Shockwave Innovations ________ (finish telling the story).

A Checklist isn’t a Story

Don’t just rattle off a checklist of issues as your story.  In other words, the following sentence isn’t storytelling: “When it comes to Gordon’s blog, he struggles to get comments from his readers, he never seems to find time to contribute new posts and he doesn’t know how to market himself to get more followers.”  Instead, reword it something like this: “Gordon decided that his blog should be a primary way to brand himself in the startup world.  But in the past three months he has only written one new post.  And when it comes to marketing himself using social media and online advertising, nothing he does seems to bring more followers.  He’s frustrated, disappointed and thinking about putting his blog on hold for a while.”

Notice how the re-write establishes a purpose and describes things in a way that causes a feeling of empathy.  If done correctly, the person you’re telling the story to should feel the pain being described.  Don’t you feel a little sorry for poor Gordon?  Now just imagine if his problem related to a terminal illness.

Story Arcs, Themes and Morals

Think of the best stories your grandparents told you.  Their generation is made up of natural storytellers.  What makes their stories so engaging and memorable?  They incorporate a certain story arc that involves some combination or rises and falls.  For example, the famous rags-to-riches story arc involves a continual rise, whereas a tragedy involves a fall.  Others involve combinations of rises and falls.  But the arc helps take us on a journey and helps maintain interest in what happens next.

When we think about story themes, the common ones are courage, death, friendship, relationship, revenge, forgiveness, and the like.  A theme is commonly complemented by a morale, which is a lesson the story is intended to teach or convey.  The arc, theme and morale work together to fully enrich a story.

As you think about ways to describe the problem you solve via storytelling, educate yourself more on arcs, themes and morals.  See if one or all of them can help enhance your story.  Does it help the audience feel the pain more?  Does it help them understand the cause of the pain better?  Does it make them desperately want to join you in solving the problem?  These are the reactions you’re hoping for with this.

Incorporating Statistics into your Story

Start with the story and then follow it with the statistics that back you up.  This corresponds nicely to my recommended pitch deck flow of Problem then Market.  The transition to Market works well if you start with factoids about the market that relate to the problem you just described.  Then, continue on with more information about the size of the market and things like that.

The other thing that’s great about this storytelling approach is that when you get to the Solution section, you can come back to your story.  Example:  “Remember the problems Shockwave Innovations experienced?  After they implemented our solution, they _____ (benefits realized)”.  Then go on to describe the various attributes of your solution.


In summary, people remember stories much easier than they remember factoids.  So make your stories real and memorable by painting a descriptive picture like done in the examples described here.  Help the audience actually feel the pain.  Don’t achieve this by blowing things out of proportion, but rather by giving enough “color” to the story to make it understandable and believable.  Practice the story on someone and have them tell it right back to you.  Two days later ask them to recall the story again and see what they remember versus what they don’t.

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