Alex Barrera, Press42.com: “Storytelling becomes one of the most powerful allies in any innovation push”

To make the most of a fundraising campaign your product needs to tell a compelling story in the first place. Think of Clang’s pitch on Kickstarter or Canary’s campaign on Indiegogo or even Pebble’s – what makes them succesful? Sometimes is not so much the product but the storyteller’s talent.

Storytelling is part of human civilization since the beginnings. Is the way we pass on knowledge through generations or simply to one another. So why not use it to sell products, set up marketing campaigns or even pass knowledge inside and outside organizations the same way?

To better understand the concept of storytelling with its subtleties we grab aside the Spaniard Alex Barrera, co-founder and Chief WOWness Officer at Press42.com, co-founder and editor Tech.eu and one of the moderators of How to Web Conference 2014 and juror at Startup Spotlight as well.

For the past five years Alex has built several startups and has been helping others develop their businesses, co-founded two major startup accelerators, was mentor in other 12 startup accelerators worldwide. He worked with business models, startup valuations, communication and message crafting, startup PR, lean startup methodologies, customer development and product design.

How to Web: What is a Chief WOWness Officer?

Alex Barrera: Ha ha! (Laughs) Well it’s the office of generating WOW for ours customers. We help people deliver WOW in their companies (smiles).

Storytelling is a modern powerful marketing weapon. But can you wield it in tech field as well? What’s the story behind short-circuits and code that should sound exciting?

I would argue that storytelling isn’t just for marketing. It’s the most human communication vehicle that ever existed. To some degree, human beings are storytelling creatures and our brains are designed for story. Stories work in marketing but they also work for personal self-improvement, change management, innovation, recruiting or such things as corporate culture.

The technology field is perfect for storytelling because it tends to be ruled by rational thinkers. Storytelling appeals to our emotional side, and via such conduit it allows the delivery of facts and information in a very natural way. What’s important to understand is that it’s not about the technology, the code or the circuit, but about what can you actually do with that that has an impact on humans. That’s where story finds it’s golden niche.

Can you make an extraordinary story from an ordinary product without skidding into SF?

Totally. The most mundane products are the ones that tend to have wonderful stories hidden behind them. Passion and problem solving aren’t related to complexity, but to human emotion. The story isn’t about the product but about the people that use the product, even if it’s simple. Simple is one of the most powerful and most elegant starting points for a story.

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Is it storytelling just an external marketing and PR tool or can it be used inside organizations too? Give us an example, please.

As I said before, the obvious field is marketing and branding but storytelling is much more. As our society increases its connectivity and mobility through big leapfrogs in innovation and technology, communication is suddenly playing a major role in most organizations. This is specially too for example when it comes to reputation.

The fact that everyone is connected and mobile makes our organizations and our brands, high profile targets for reputational problems. The one thing most companies screw, big time, is their response to something that happened from the outside. They tend to have lousy narratives, and actually when they try to react, it’s either too late or they make it worse. Having a set of powerful and truthful narratives allows a brand to deflect such attacks and even create a turning point in their relationship to their consumers.

Also it’s important to note that with each passing year, we’re building more complex products or services. As this complexity increases, so does the need to collaborate. Such is the case that most companies are struggling or outright failing at innovating. One of the keys to great innovation is having a fluent communication. Storytelling becomes one of the most powerful allies in any innovation push as it allows the teams to document what they’re doing and how this impacts their peers and even their business.

To have a story you obviously need characters and also obviously your product will be the good guy here. Is then the competition “the villain” in marketing storytelling? If not who is — cause every good story has one villain?

A villain or an antagonist can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a competitor, but most of the times it’s just an entity, either someone like yourself (imagine self-improving apps or the field of Quatify Self), a specific company (Microsoft, Google, etc.) or such a broad concept as the whole society (See the lack of English speaking Spaniards).

The problem with a lot of what has been taught about storytelling is that, while stories do have very clear building blocks, these are just conceptual frameworks. The magic happens on the gaps between the text manual and your own creativity.

What about internal, organizational storytelling, how do you create the story’s inner tension?

(Laughs) As far as I know there is no need for that, there is plenty of tension and conflict within any organization. Just look at paychecks, team management, creative departments vs financial controllers, etc. There is no lack of conflict in an organization, but to be honest, there is no lack of conflict even with people. Humans are, by nature, conflictive. The role of the storyteller is to listen closely to the real conflict that runs under the surface and use that to uncover the real story.

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Storytelling seems to be deeply connected with corporate or company culture. But do startups have one? How should they get one?

This is a great question. Most people think a culture is something you build at some point. In truth, a corporate culture, let it be a big organization or a startup, is always there. We just don’t recognise it as such. On a startup, culture is what the founders do. How do they act, how do they treat their employees, partners, customers etc. The personal behaviour and values the founders expose IS the startup culture.

Instead of creating a culture, we should really talk about changing the culture. That can be done and it’s an amazing thing to see and be involved with as it implies, in the end, a change of the founder’s personal way of thinking. This is why it’s so hard, but when it works, when you see someone go beyond themselves and turn into a better version of themselves, that’s truly amazing.

Investors like PowerPoint. How can I squeeze my story into a 10 slides 60 sec. pitch?

Work, work, work and work (laughs)! I know that’s not what people want to read, but there is no secret sauce. First of all, 10 concepts do not mean you need to just have 10 slides. That’s a common misconception. And I can tell you that in 60 seconds it’s hard to cover all of them and do I right.

Now, the job of the storyteller is to learn the essence of things, to listen closely and become one with the essence. Once you know your essence, you don’t really care about the time. You can deliver magic in 1 minute or in 20 minutes. You become flexible to your environment. Of course, listening and learning the essence takes a lot of time and effort.

Most people tend to say: hey man, that was so cool, it was super simple. Truth is, simple takes an awful lot of time but it’s worth it. My advice would be to listen closely to what your audience asks you about your business. Reading between the lines of what your customers are telling you is an art form, but it’s worth exploring as they tend to touch on the real essence of your product.

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How can I adapt my story to every audience (business, consumer) and every channel (TV, online, print, live audience) without too many changes to my script?

I’ll go all Forrest Gump on people with this one (laughs). A story is like a Vanilla ice cream. 1/3 of the global population loves Vanilla. Now, the secret is in knowing when and what to add as a topping. The same goes for storytelling.

The goal of a storyteller is to condense the story to its essence. What are the three core messages I want to say. Once you think you have that, cut it in half, because you’re not even close. When you do this enough times you’ll end up with a 3-5 word quote that has all there is to what you do. In a sense, it’s like a Haiku or a Koan, each word you use is there for a reason and it conveys the right amount of information at the right moment.

Once you’ve stripped it down to the essence, then dressing it up is just a matter of drinking more or less beer (smiles). In reality, modifying a presentation, it’s a matter of truly understanding who do you have in the audience and what are they looking for. If it’s a conference, people are looking for WOW, for entertainment and unexpected. For investors, it’s not only WOW, it’s about how much money can I make from this WOW. It’s a matter of really understanding the psyche of your audience. That is precisely what the field of Ethnography really is about (smiles). Storytellers are just very good Ethnographers and in the process, very observant and good listeners!

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