Chatting with Burt Helm we kicked off with a simple statement: “We really love good storytelling and getting to know the person that we talk to”. He answered: “Cool. Great, you guys are like Inc – that’s beautiful. So what can I tell you? What do you want to talk about?”
For the last couple of years, startups started focusing on content strategies and on developing their own sources of content to generate revenue. Blogs popped up out of nowhere as part of marketing strategies, to attract new customers, to reach more people, or even to educate their targeted audiences about their innovative products. The goals for a content strategy are as varied as the ways startups execute them, and this trend is famous for being cheap and highly effective when well crafted.
One of the keys for great content is storytelling. Lots of great publications use content as sources of revenue and those are the examples startups should learn from to improve the quality of their pieces and ultimately achieving their goals through a content strategy, saving some money.
We wanted to talk to a specialist on storytelling and met with Burt Helm, an Inc.com senior writer.
Burt, writes for a living but wished there was a formula for how to get engaging and interesting stories, as he said, “It would make my life easier, but it’s really hard”.
For Burt there are some paths you can walk to get to better stories and ultimately to better content, but you need to “like to get to know a lot of people and feel like finding the next feature story is almost like starting a relationship or like dating”. It’s all about the timing and placement. This means you can have the most engaging and amazing story to tell, but have no one “listening to it”, or it might be simply out-dated or shared at the wrong time.
“I always start with questions”, getting to know the object of your story is key. The dating starts from ground zero and it will hopefully get you to the top. The answers will only be relevant if you’re informed about the topic, the person, the product and manage to understand every tiny bit of information that can lead to great content. For that reason, you should “read a lot about all different things”.
On the other hand, you often feel like the content you read has everything you need to know, right? “But they haven’t, and there are always things missing”. Burt realised this after a chat with a writer called James Stewart, who wrote Disney War and Den Of Thieves. He then became the editor of The Wall Street Journal, where he had to come up with “like 7 story ideas every week”. – How do you do that, you ask?! – Well, he said, “I read all these news and just ask questions and I think to myself what is an answer here? What does this make me curious about?”
The unanswered questions are what matter for any given audience. Don’t spend much time writing about stuff everyone knows. Read similar content, take your notes, make questions and find what’s missing: “There will be some questions that you Google and it’s actually very easy to answer. Someone had written a story about it before, and then you will find these big questions that nobody has answered yet or no one has a good answer. For me, that is the best way”. This is the moment you find a potential great story to write about – The big fat unanswered question laying there waiting to be answered.
The result is, “here is what’s going on”. If it’s something you’re curious about, chances are that “there are other people deeply curious about it too”.
The big question remained: where do you go for the dodgy answers that insist in remaining unanswered? “Sort of like the way you guys nominate on your pier-to-pier interviews. I always think “Who should I talk to about this?” or “Who might be able to explain this to me and tell me more about it?”
Burt himself ended up writing one of his favorite stories because of that hunt for the answer when he approached Gabriel Bristol. “I ended up talking with Gabriel Bristol. I just didn’t know anything about call centres. In the US, and probably it’s the same here, we all talk to someone at a call centre once a week for some customer service bullshit, but don’t even think about who they are and where they are. It’s like ‘They’re over there, somewhere.’ and what I didn’t realise is that actually, in the United States we all talk about how they’re getting outsourced to India and the Philippines, but it’s the seventh most common job in the United States. Call centre reps are everywhere, but we don’t know them or know what they’re doing. So I just thought I got this email saying “Hey, I run a call centre!” so I said “Ok, come in, let’s talk.” and then at that point I just want to know them and find out their story. And there’s so many good stories and I wish I had time to write them all, really”.
There are some great opportunities out there to explore, content-wise. It’s up to each startup to go the extra mile when it comes to their content strategy. From content creation, to PR, to public speaking; from pitching to a VC or even a simple media interview; every single moment a company takes the “stand” they’re stepping storytelling ground, at least they should. It’s the “best way for entrepreneurs to talk to the press. Just meet us, get to know us and connect with us as people, because if you’re smart and fun, and you seem like you’re doing cool stuff, I want to keep in touch with you the way I would do with any other human being”. This human relationship sometimes leads to powerful synergies where “when I [the media] find something useful or something that I feel is connected to you then I want to reach out, you know?” The same wouldn’t happen if instead of sharing a story, you shared a careful and polished press release stating everything but the story that actually makes people care.
— Ship (@startupship) April 18, 2015
The power of storytelling can be worth millions when it comes to pitching to VCs or partners. On that point, Burt was very clear: “I always feel like when I hear pitches from companies, it generally follows a formula of “Here’s the problem, here’s the solution that we’re going to propose”. It follows this step by step of “bla bla bla” and that’s good, that’s important, that’s how to build a successful business but I always feel like when entrepreneurs come in and talk to me, I want to know who’s on the other side of that business idea, you know?. It lacks story, it lacks passion and it lacks human natural behaviour. Burt believes that the objective part of a pitch is obviously fundamental, “It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s like I don’t know how to make them connect with my audience. They’ll have a solution for project management or something, and that’s cool, but I just wish I knew who you were. Instead of telling me all the great things about this product, tell me everything you know or about how you got there”. The key point is where the business connects with people, “It sounds silly, but it’s like: why are you running this company? What does that say about you? Why are you spending a fine amount of life doing that? That’s more interesting”.
The format is also something to consider when you’re creating your content or looking forward to engage through your stories. Burt works the format in a special way. When he interviews someone, he then turns it into a story, not just a simple Q&A interview. Another example of that kind of editorial treatment are the First Round Review pieces. It’s challenging, but it makes a bunch of information more interesting, engaging and ultimately significant for the readers. “It’s connecting the dots. My reporting process is split into three ways – three points of view:
1. There’s the point of view of the main character, and you let them just tell their story;
2. Then you read everything that has ever been written either about that person or a route that’s related to that company.
3. And then you talk to the people who know them, and who have known them for a long time.
With those three things you get a lot of information”. Burt considers this process “pretty overwhelming” considering the amount of information you can get on a given topic. It’s important to double-check the grey areas and to keep all the information organised, so you don’t miss any relevant details – the, so called, “trash compacting it down”. How? – “I start with ‘What is the point of this story?’ and ‘Who are they? What is it about how they see the world and how can I explain how they see the world using these facts they’ve shared with me? What have their friends have shared with me and what have I learned through other sources?’”.
All this is said by one of the Inc. Magazine senior writers, but how did Burt get there? The answer is curiosity: “I’ve always been very curious about everything. I started college with 5 different majors, which was stupid. I just had 5 different ideas of what I wanted to do and I ended with this unwieldy double major. I got a dual degree in English and Physics”. Quite an unusual mix that lead to a fun fact: ”It was like nobody in those 2 departments talked to each other so they were like “He’s not so good here, but I heard he’s really good in the other one”.
The actual writing career started when Burt had to do a senior project combining those 2 majors. His physics advisor said that there was recently this fraud case at Bell Labs, where everybody thought this 32 year-old guy was going to win the Nobel Prize. Bell Labs is one of the most prestigious Corporate Research Institutions in the United States. That man was one of the most brilliant physicians anybody had ever seen, but it turned out he was making it all up. His advisor challenged him: “Why don’t you do a story where you find out what happened, who knew what and how they found out. You can then go to the lab and you’ll do similar work to appreciate the physics and try to do similar physics work”. The result of this work decided his future, as Burt shared with us: “I went into the lab, and I was really, really bad at doing any physics work. I would break things all the time but I loved the story and figuring out who this guy was and how did he got away with this for so long. I just became addicted to that whole process of telling a story about another person and trying to understand”.
This work lead Burt into the thrill of discovering missing answers no one knew about, “it was just so exciting that I was like ‘I have to do this for the rest of my life”. Burt then got a job as a science writer at Business Week to write science stories for the website. “I was very bad at writing about science, so they sort of moved me around”. He then turned to digital media and digital advertising and when there was a job opening at Business Week magazine to cover all of the advertising, he jumped right at it. “I think one thing that young people don’t realise is their power to scare older people with their ‘digitability’. You can just be like ‘Oh yeah, I understand all of this stuff’. I definitely tapped into that and got to do a job that I had no business being in. I eventually learned what the hell I was doing. But you have to realise that’s a real advantage and you can really play that hand pretty well.’
— Ship (@startupship) April 18, 2015
One of the points Burt mentioned before was the importance of reading and to keep yourself up to date. Reading habits lead to writing fluency and makes your writing A-game pop out. If you don’t read that much or if you’ve being struggling to get some regular reading habits, Burt is trying something out: “every morning, I make myself try to read the most basic hard news, whatever is happening and stuff that would normally seem very boring to me and very confusing. So I read the Wall Street Journal, just the headlines. That’s when you have the best chance of finding really interesting questions that haven’t been answered yet. Recently, I read a story I thought was really interesting, where there was this strike at the port in LA. And all the stuff was getting held up, which lead to McDonald’s stopping to serve French fries in Japan. I didn’t realise it, but one of the US’s biggest agriculture exports is pre-cut French fries, and it wasn’t getting to Japan. I was like “I have no idea, what is this French fries economy? Who is running this economy?” and you find these amazing things just by stopping and reading a story about a strike which I normally think, ‘Oh I cover startups, I cover entrepreneurs’ but there are going to be entrepreneurs who did the French fries, you know?”
— hussein kanji (@hkanji) April 18, 2015
We talked a lot about storytelling, about how to get to an amazing story, about the impact of a story and the process behind it, but we’re missing an important part of our chat. What about Portugal? What did Burt knew before landing in Lisbon? – “My first impression is really positive. People here have just been so welcoming and warm, which is great, and also really smart. I’m just incredibly impressed by the ambition and the optimism too. I think it’s really powerful”.
Nevertheless, Burt found a clear difference between Portuguese and American entrepreneurs when visiting Faber Ventures, StartupLisboa and Beta-I: “I was struck by how honest and clear they were about the difficulties of raising money after the crisis, the challenges they were facing, how they were going so far and one of the VCs at lunch said to me ‘In America, when I talk to American entrepreneurs I always apply a 50% discount over everything they’re claiming. I’m always like ‘Yeah, maybe not’. Yet here they’re so direct and humble. Here I need to give them a bonus on top of what they’re saying!'”.
This fact gives Burt hope and excitement thanks to the hard work and optimism flooding the streets of Lisbon these days. Burt finished off by saying: “I’m looking forward to see some Portuguese startups become brands that we know in the US and around the world”.
Burt, we are sure you will.