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The secret weapon misfired

If you know how to use storytelling, it might be a very powerful tool. It can help to find a co-founder or convince someone to become a cofounder. But if you're not sure of what you're doing it might turn into a disaster.

8 months ago I landed in a Zoom call with a startup founder who tried to use storytelling as a secret weapon to recruit me as his partner. He definitely knew the drill, and I spent almost 1.5 hours admiring his effort. All this time I tried very hard not to laugh out loud. This story is about storytelling gone wrong.


In my course How To Find a Tech Cofounder, I have a full lesson on storytelling and how to use its principles to find a co-founder and convince them to join your team. In a nutshell, storytelling is a very powerful tool because it appeals to our basic emotions, evoking natural chemical reactions in the brain. Stories are able to:

  • Radically increase your dopamine levels (beautiful effects of having increased dopamine level are: focus, motivation, memory)

  • Increase oxytocin (tends to create an atmosphere of generosity and trust, building an illusion of bond)

  • Boost up endorphin (the one that you know, chocolate is so proud of being able to increase — also called "the hormone of happiness")

Sounds amazing, right? And even better — so that you know, all these effects are scientifically proven. It's not some magic mumbo-jumbo, there's a whole bunch of experiments to back up this theory. Stories can efficiently help you to find a co-founder and convince someone to become one.

Well, the point is, the founder who arranged a Zoom call with me, definitely knew about storytelling as a "secret weapon". But he probably had not practiced his pitch enough to sound convincing. Instead of getting the desired outcome (boost in generosity from my side, increase in my motivation, and a general feeling of happiness), he managed to create the impression of rookie attempts at manipulation and outright miserable failure.

So, what did he do wrong?

Being boring instead of building suspense. You know what the suspense is, right? You feel it while watching a really good series. Here, the main character is opening the door to the haunted house — and you see words "In the next episode..." flashing across the screen instead of the much-anticipated closure. You hear it in good music when it goes higher and higher and higher, building up this feeling of anticipation.

You can try to fake suspense by replacing it with lengthy details that are supposed to "place" a listener on the scene ("she was wearing blue socks and red shoes... The shoes were quite worn off but still presentable..."). But most definitely can't fake it if the story is 100% fake in the first place.

Creating empty moments instead of cliffhangers. Building suspense is great but to make a story really listenable you have to create these little moments of truth along the way. Like in Red Riding Hood. She is walking through the woods. But she doesn't get to her Grandma's house straight away and gets eaten on the second page of the story. First, we witness how the Big Bad secretly stalks poor girls behind the trees. Here, he finally decided to jump out — surely the girl would be gobbled up. No way! The wolf approaches RRH and instead of eating her, asks her some basic questions, etc. There are several loops of suspense, each and every result into a little cliffhanger. And that's what keeps children's attention glued to the plot.

Going on and on about your journey to the brilliant idea you've got — does not. Reciting your CV does not. Even referring to data you've collected on this stage — does not.

Inspiring pity instead of empathy. Empathy is a very powerful feeling. It connects both sides, creates a bond, lets you feel the power of two minds and souls. Pity is a bit intimidating. One side of the conversation starts feeling in some sense superior to the other (more experienced, or smarter). When we see the futile efforts of a child to reach the cup — we rush to help because we know they won't make it. But we don't feel like a child, we don't relate to this experience, we don't create a bond (if it's not our own child of course but in this case, the bond is probably already there).

Telling someone that you've spent 2 weeks operating on 3 hours of sleep trying to crack this code or make this function run properly and finally did it — inspires empathy. Telling someone that you've spent $40K on a developer and you don't have a functional product yet, and you have no idea what to do, so you decided to find someone who would do the same job now for free — inspires pity.

Principles of storytelling are powerful. But used randomly, inconsistently, without fully understanding how they work or even worse — in order to deceive a person — they get the results opposite to the expected. Instead of convincing someone to become your cofounder, you'll get a person admiring your effort with a smile of compassion. Thinking "Cute. But no, thank you".


Want to learn more on storytelling and how to use it while looking for a cofounder? Check out my course 👇

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