Storytelling Insights

  • Esther Choy

What a 250-year-old Encyclopedia Can Teach Entrepreneurs



This article by Esther Choy originally appeared on Virgin.com.


Carl, a computer science PhD, fidgeted a little in a sunny conference room. Across from him, the president of a large family office sat waiting to hear details about Carl’s start-up, Chart Hero.


Using AI, Chart Hero would seamlessly, confidentially and accurately relate patients’ information, medical history, current status and potential treatment needs across hospitals, insurance companies and in-home health care services.


For his pitch, Carl brought an 85 page summary of his business plan. Despite having a personal interest in the product, the head of this family office was not enthused. Worse, based on the way Carl communicated, he thought Carl was smart, but much better suited for a corporate career. His quiet conclusion was that Chart Hero would most likely fail.


Like Carl, all entrepreneurs have to share information that supports and distinguishes their business ideas. So how do you present the facts persuasively?


You look to a company that will be 250 years old in 2018! On the eve of its 250th birthday, Encyclopedia Britannica is thriving, with millions visiting its website each month.


Since the days of selling their beautifully bound books, this longstanding purveyor of information has transformed and implemented new customer-centric steps in the digital world. To understand how Britannica stays relevant, I spoke with two directors and their teams: Ryan Bond, Director of Digital Consumer Products, and Sam Spicer, Director of Experience & Creative Design.


Right away, I was reminded that just as information is Britannica’s stock in trade, the same is true for entrepreneurs as they educate people about their company. To sustain a global business, Britannica must present information so it’s enticing, trustworthy, and keeps readers wanting more.


Three lessons Encyclopedia Britannica can teach entrepreneurs


1. Study your audience’s habits relentlessly.

"You are not your users" is a motto Britannica’s design team lives by. As they analyse readers, Encyclopedia Britannica relies on data, observation, questioning and aggressive listening.


Entrepreneurs need to do the same. How do you see your business through your audience’s lens? Here are five steps to win over your audience, as outlined in my book Let the Story Do the Work:


  • Practice Empathy - address your audiences’ interests, not yours

  • Prove vs. Persuade - know when "just the facts" will (or won’t) win the argument.

  • Words over numbers - prioritise words so your audience can process and retain key numbers.

  • Create meaning - give your audience reasons to care and act.

  • Tell them what they want, but then give them what they need.


2. Know the patterns

Ryan, Sam and their teams study users’ reading habits. They have learned, for example, that readers looking up biographies read differently from readers seeking information about countries. Once the teams understand the differences in patterns, they present the information differently.


Similarly, a productive entrepreneur-investor communication follows its own pattern.

The first meeting will likely be brief. So plant an irresistible hook. When you see an investor’s interest perk up, you’ve earned the right to tell your story - often over coffee at a later date.


Over coffee, potential investors want to know the basic tenets of the business idea. At this point:


  • Spark their imagination.

  • Get them so excited they want to pull their investment partners, analysts and others into a further, more formal, conversation.

  • Give them easily repeatable talking points so they can describe the startup in an accurate and attention-grabbing manner.


As conversation continues, deeper information is needed. There is a definite pattern. Study that pattern, and you’ll maximize your story’s impact.


3. Ask, "Do I know it? Or do I think it?"

Engaging audiences is a team sport. As such, Encyclopedia Britannica team members constantly challenge each other’s assumptions about their users. In an hour-long meeting that I observed, I witnessed what is known internally as “calling it out” numerous times. It’s not enough to have an inkling that something is probably true; everyone must account for why they know it’s true.


For entrepreneurs, how are you cultivating a culture where challenging each other’s assumptions is the norm?


Carl entered his meeting probably assuming he was going to impress everyone. He left, unfortunately, without knowing how he failed. Martin Zwilling pinpoints a key reason pitches fail: "If I don’t know you, and you didn’t sell your last company for $800 million, your story needs to educate me on why anyone would bet on you to succeed, and how you would reward me for success."

The irony is that when you know a lot and care a lot, you can be the worst person on earth to share your idea. You simply cannot see forest from trees. How do you zoom out? By focusing on your audience. When you understand how they process the valuable information you want to share, you can show more than just trees. You will invite them to look out onto a landscape full of possibility.


If you’re looking for input on pitching to investors, contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary working session with us today!


Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Photo credit: Stewart Butterfield via Flickr


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