The Story Economy Blog

Always Lead With a Story

To start off my article on leading with a story, let me lead with a story. A few weeks ago, I was at an event sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association (GCVA). It was a group of business people, startup companies, and angel investors (by the way, I learned that angel investing is not at all like the show, Shark Tank, in case you’re curious).

After some light networking (also known as the part of the evening where I asked all of the angel investors if being an angel investor was anything like Shark Tank), the program (a panel discussion with owners of successfully funded companies) started.

But before the discussion kicked off, a startup company, Include Fitness, had a chance to present their product, The Access (they’re looking for another round of funding from angel investors). The Access is a brilliant, brilliant product—a totally inclusive fitness machine, completely accessible to disabled people. Machines in gyms may say they are ADA compliant, but they’re still very complicated for anyone in a wheelchair to use. The Access was the brainchild of Ryan Eder (he’s one of those young guys you look at and you just know is explosively creative and driven and is going to be successful). He has a business partner now and they presented the revenue projections with charts and graphs (at which point I was lost, but that’s okay, because I’m no angel).

After the formal presentation was over, someone asked Ryan the question I’d been dying to ask: where did you get the idea for this product? (The WHY question!) He said that one day at his gym, he saw this guy in a wheelchair carrying around a bag of “accessories” he had made to be able to use the machines. The guy was frustrated and it took him forever to workout. Ryan knew there had to be a better way; he started researching, and even rented a wheelchair to workout and joined a wheelchair football team. From there, he invented The Access—which has won all kinds of awards, and is on course to change the way disabled people experience the gym. All because of one frustrated man, just trying to get his workout in.

After I heard Ryan tell that story, I wished I was an angel and had $500,000 to invest because I probably would have plopped it down. It’s the stories, people! The stories. Lead with the stories. Always. Even if you only have two minutes. Make the first minute a story, and then hit with the chart stuff. Stories make connections. Stories empty pockets. Stories make things happen. (I’m in no way criticizing Ryan, because I think he is fantastic and I know The Access is going to be a huge hit. I’m just using this example to point out that people too often forget to lead with the story.)

Whenever I am giving a talk and there are lots of entrepreneurs and/or creative types in the audience, I always lead with my story about the exact moment 12 years ago that I realized that I needed to work for myself. I was a proofreader and I got called into the boss’s office because I failed to catch a few small errors in a 100+ page document. I got chided and warned, and I will never forget what she said: “Judi, I’m beginning to doubt your commitment to this company.” And all I could think was: Why would I be committed to you when you are so clearly not committed to me? That was the moment it clicked for me: I am not suited for this game. One-way teams do not work for me. I do not have blind loyalty. I need to make my own way. I need to leap, and soon. (It took two more years, but I did leap!)

When I tell that story, I recognize the look in people’s faces, the look that says: “I get it! I had a moment like that, too!” My story forges a connection with them, because they have a story too. My story spins a web to their story, and then they want to listen. Charts and graphs don’t spin any webs; they just give facts. Let me just say that I love facts. Love them. I love evidence, and studies, and hard numbers. But leading with facts is risky; they don’t have that gossamer quality to them. They can’t spin the web that gets the connection started. They have to come later.


To that end, I just started the Twitter hashtag #leadwithastory. I’d love to hear about times you led with a story, and it paid off (or times you wish you would have). It can be a 30-second story, or a 5-minute story; a story on your web site or a story in a presentation. My goal is to eventually create a web page full of “lead with a story” stories that could serve as a reference, or just inspiration.

So, try it today: in your next conversation, email, presentation, meeting, or blog post, lead with a story. And then tell people about it!

PS: I’m having fun with my new Facebook business page, which I named “Cincinnati Copywriter.” Of course, I don’t just write for people who live in Cincinnati, but I decided to brand it that way because I definitely want to be a great local resource for businesses that need storytelling help. I share links to interesting articles and people and pictures—like the one here. You’ll have to check out the page to see why I’m including this picture . . .


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