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The Truth About Sharks

PUBLISHED IN THE BOSTON BUSINESS JOURNAL
By Lawrence Gennari – Chief curator, Authors & Innovators

To succeed on TV’s Shark Tank, you better have a good story. If you can’t give the sharks/investors a compelling narrative that includes an innovative product or service, a growing and underserved market, and demonstrable and repeatable revenue, then you won’t generate competitive investor interest. Instead you’ll end up with Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary, or one of the other sharks, offering you $25,000 for 90% of your company.  Not a great reward for a venture just started — and you’ll be embarrassed on TV.

The narrative matters off-camera too, especially if you want to attract talent, pitch investors or, after some growth and progress, sell the company. That’s what I counsel my corporate clients at all stages, in many industries, all of the time.

We are all storytellers. It’s a natural part of the human condition. The stories we tell and the stories we hear help us make sense of the world. We also know what makes someone better at storytelling than others: a heightened perceptiveness, a gift for observation, a feel for language, and a visceral understanding of the listening audience. That’s why reading and exploring new ideas is so fundamental for entrepreneurs, C-suite executives, board members, and … well, everyone.

I just finished Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events, the new book by Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Shiller. This is a thoughtful and compelling read about how popular narratives start, take off and impact the economic decisions people make every day. Shiller makes a strong case for incorporating narratives into economic theory and public-policy mechanisms. His take on how politicians and investors can be influenced by the oft-repeated and overbroad narratives of machines replacing people (dial-phones replacing switchboard operators in the 1930s; robots replacing factory workers from the 1960s through the 1980s) is spot-on.  Stories can, and do, move investors and markets.

Shiller also thinks a lot depends on who is telling the story. Columbia Professor Stephen Martin and MIT Researcher Joseph Marks would agree, and in their new book, Messengers, Who We Listen to, Who We Don’t and Why, they explain how “hard messengers” convey status, wealth, achievement and dominance and can drive a message about tangible benefits, while “soft messengers” emphasize warmth, vulnerability and trustworthiness and can build long and lasting business relationships. Hint: just adding a red “power tie” or bold-colored suit to your wardrobe for that next presentation is old thinking. This is a book that any prospective Shark Tank contestant — or CEO pitching for business or investors — will find useful.

Of course, the most important story might just be your own and for that, I would recommend Jerry Colonna’s new book Reboot: Leadership and The Art of Growing Up. Colonna is an executive coach, an experienced venture capitalist, and a skillful storyteller. In Reboot, he urges decision makers and CEO’s onward to a journey of radical self-inquiry through stories, anecdotes, and strategies and examples from his own experiences, good, bad and ugly. Colonna’s writing is unflinchingly honest, raw, and numinous. I marked no fewer than 20 pages so that I could return to them later with greater intention. No surprise, he encourages writing, reading and introspection as a path forward.

We all have a story to tell, and whether in the realm of business or personal, those stories are connected. I’m reminded of a quote from Barack Obama in Jeanne Laska’s recent engaging book, To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope, in which she chronicles the former President’s practice of putting politics aside to read 10 letters from the more than 10,000 he received each day at the White House, some supportive, many not, all fraught with emotion. “Everybody’s got a sacred story, an organizing story. Of who they are and what their place is in the world,” he said, and the trust in telling and the faith in listening is the glue that creates community. That strikes me as enduringly true and important.

Even if your waiting audience is a smiling pod of sharks.

Authors & Innovation is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival.

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