November 15, 2016 / Esther Choy

Picture a dark and crowded bar. The bartender rattles a cocktail shaker and prepares a tray of drinks. This isn’t just any bartender, however. By day, he’s an entrepreneur, and he’s bartending so he can raise the cash to pay his employees while he waits for his business to turn a profit.

Launching a business requires such sacrifices. The story above is based on the experiences of Donald Raleigh, President of Evolve Systems, as shared with MyCorporation in 2014. Taking no pay and skimping on sleep are commonplace for anyone starting a business. Some young entrepreneurs move back in with their parents. Others quit school halfway through, realizing one huge commitment is enough for the present. Still others find themselves frequenting Aldi, clipping all possible coupons and opting for Stay-cations or No-cations.

Your customers must suspect you’ve made sacrifices to build the business they enjoy so much. But how do you share that story with them?

The tradeoff story, or the story of making a big sacrifice, is one of the classic “shapes” stories can take—one of the plots you will find passed down through the ages. Why are stories of sacrifice so popular throughout human history? Why are we drawn to stories like A Tale of Two Cities, which culminates in Sydney Carton sacrificing his own life for someone else’s, or to the classic Christmas tale “The Gift of the Magi,”—in which newlyweds both sell their prized possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts?

Our sacrifices illuminate our priorities. What are we willing to let go of so that we can use both hands to grasp that one most important goal? Nothing else tells us as much about a person’s values.

That said, this kind of story can be challenging to tell. In fact, a tradeoff story can hit three pitfalls. Resolve these questions, and you’ll have crafted and delivered a truly excellent story of the sacrifices you have made for your business.

1. Was It Actually Worth It?

Not everyone is willing to sacrifice the same things. What some consider a necessary sacrifice, others consider a non-negotiable. Some might consider launching a business more important than starting a family. Others might long for the pitter-patter of little feet. Some might pull frequent all-nighters. Others lose their bearings without a full eight hours.

Similarly, what one person considers a hardship, another person may consider easy to give up. Sleep? Who needs sleep? That’s what coffee’s for! In this case, you will need to show that it was a sacrifice: what happens when you haven’t had enough sleep? How do those around you suffer, for instance?

When it comes to how you choose which tradeoffs to narrate and how to narrate them, knowing your customers will be essential. As Simon Sinek has famously said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” If you have drawn customers into why you make your product, then your values have clicked with them. So connect your tradeoff with your values. Know why you made the sacrifices you did. Communicate this to your customers.

In the example of Donald Raleigh, the sacrifice of working a second job illuminated his commitment to his employees. Another entrepreneur I know starts filling orders as soon as they come in, even if it’s nine o’clock at night. This shows the value he places on being responsive to his customers’ needs.

If your customers share your most important values, telling what you have sacrificed to uphold those values shows the strength of your commitment.And don’t forget to include the payoff! Leave your customers assured that you find the sacrifices well worth it.

2. Was It Actually Worth It?

In the late 1980s, a self-taught ranch hand applied for admission to Princeton. His application essay said that, while living in the Mojave Desert, he found himself reading philosophy under the stars. This 18-year-old, whose mother had left and moved to Europe and whose father had died in a car crash, had taught himself well enough to earn top SAT scores. Princeton’s admissions officers invited him for an interview. Clearly, this was a young man who had faced a difficult life and, against all odds, had devoted himself to the life of the mind. But didn’t his story sound a little too heroic, like the kind of sob story that can often turn out to be a manipulation?

If Princeton’s admissions officers felt any misgivings, these doubts did not prevent them from accepting the self-taught young man. Then they received notice that he needed to defer his admission for at least a year. His mother, he explained, was dying of cancer in Switzerland.

The young ranch hand enrolled in Princeton in 1989. He took six or seven classes per semester and ran cross-country—sacrificing his free time for his studies and Princeton’s athletic glory. He got all A’s and was the star runner.

The problem—as Princeton learned over a year later—was that just about everything about this young man was made up. The student, James Hogue, was thirty-one years old. His father was still alive. He was not self-taught, but had been in college before—at the University of Wyoming, a community college, and the University of Texas. And his mother had not been dying when he deferred his admission; he’d been serving a prison term.

As David Samuels tells it in The New Yorker, Hogue had fashioned himself as exactly the kind of hero Princeton was looking for. He sounded good, to be sure, but for some reason it didn’t click that he was actually too good to be true.

And even if, in this case, the admissions office did not see red flags, other audiences very well might have. Many people, having heard stories like Hogue’s, distrust those whose stories sound like the odds and the sacrifices are those the rest of us mortals would not be able to overcome—or at least, not alone.

When you are recounting the battles you have fought to start your business, do you ever worry you will start sounding too heroic?

If this sounds like the problem your storytelling is facing, take the most honest and realistic trip down memory lane you can imagine. Are you exaggerating hardships? Or your spotless ability to meet those hardships without any wavering or without any outside help?

It’s the human flaws that let your audience believe you and relate to you, so be honest about when it wasn’t easy to meet your challenges. Be honest if there were times when you began to sacrifice too much and had to pull back. And be honest about all the others who came alongside you. When did someone else speak into your life to help you know how to manage your priorities or find a better work-life balance?

This is one of the biggest holes in James Hogue’s story. Where are the people who first helped him contextualize the philosophers he was reading? Who supported him while he grieved the death of his father? Hoaxes exalt the lone hero; real life depends on a network of people sacrificing right along with us. To acknowledge this, take time to talk with your partners and your employees and find out or be reminded of the sacrifices they made.

3. I’m Keeping a List…

Will an accumulated list of sacrifices sound like a litany of complaints? Finding the balance is tricky. You want to be honest about the difficulties without getting bogged down in complaints.

To avoid this potential pitfall, focus on what kept you going as you made the sacrifices. Who helped you? What payoff were you looking toward? What happened when you finally made it?

Far from becoming a litany of complaints, a well-told story about tradeoffs will inspire your customers because it will communicate your passion. When I think of Donald Raleigh’s story, I realize it can’t have been easy. It is hard to find time for anything else while starting a business, much less working an entire shift at another job! But Raleigh doesn’t frame this as a complaint at all. It’s simply what he did to see his vision become reality. That unflinching focus on the end goal is what communicates his passion.

Structuring Your Tradeoff Story

With these issues resolved, you can focus on how to structure your story. Three acts will work well:

  • Act I: You realize you have a goal or a big idea.
  • What personal value is your goal or idea tied to?
  • How will you hook your audience’s attention?
  • Act II: You begin to sacrifice to make your idea happen.
  • What sacrifices did you make? Why did you consider them worth it? Who helped you? Who else was sacrificing too? What glimmers of hope and attainment did you see even while the going was rough? Were there further setbacks? Did you waver? Did you lose friends, business, etc. that you didn’t expect?
  • Act III: Your idea becomes reality.
  • When did you feel like you had “made it”? When did the sacrifices all feel worthwhile?

We learn about the value of each other’s goals not just by examining an end product, but by seeing the path of strewn, relinquished items leading up to the goal. Sharing stories about the tradeoffs you have made in your business gives your customers a glimpse of the passion you bring to your work. And that passion is what will keep them doing business with you.

Got a story to tell? We’d love to help you share it! Schedule a complimentary consultation todayFor more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide.

Photo credit: Adam Bautz via Flickr

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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