The Power of the Narrative when Building in Public

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The show “Friends” was on TV for ten years. Over 230 episodes were created, starring the same characters having the same problems day in, day out — and people kept tuning in.

Viewers were hooked. For a decade.

If you want to understand what gets people invested in a journey, you should investigate what makes every good TV show and movie series irresistible: a strong and intentional narrative.

Narratives drive emotional investment. The more people watch shows like “Friends,” the more they care about the characters’ developments.

That is something we can —and should— leverage when we build our businesses and brands in public. Anything we can create that allows our future customers, founder peers, and potential partners to buy into is something worthwhile.

So, what does a good narrative look like?

It comes with a few key components:

  • a setting in which the story unfolds,
  • key characters that we want to relate to,
  • a point of view from which it’s told,
  • a strong plot that drives the story,
  • a comprehensive theme,
  • and a lot of conflicts.

You’ll find this structure in every good story. No matter if it’s Luke Skywalker setting out to master the force or Katniss Everdeen volunteering as tribute, all of these elements are required to get the viewer —or the reader— hooked on a journey.

Every story starts out with the promise of an exciting adventure: challenges will arise, the heroes must overcome them, tension builds, and disaster is looming in the distance. When we dive into such a story, we expect evolution, revolution, and resolution. We hope to see a journey of growth, overcoming obstacles to ultimately reach the goal that looked so impossible to attain at the start of the journey.

The true masters of building in public are skillfully crafting such a narrative around themselves and their work. They leverage time-honored storytelling techniques to allow for emotional investment in their journeys. These builders intentionally share things that make people excited for more.

Let’s take a deep dive into every element of a good narrative and how you can apply it to your own journey-sharing efforts.

The Setting

Luke lives with his Aunt and Uncle on a moisture farm on Tattooine, not too far from Mos Eisley. He is not living by himself in a random apartment in a nameless city on an unnamed planet. His backstory led him to where we get to meet him.

Storytellers know that these details matter.

We all come from somewhere, and our past experiences shape our reality. If you want people to care about your present —and hopefully your future— you will need to shine a light on your past.

Many people who start building in public neglect to give people a glimpse into their past. They start a project and make it all about what is yet to come. That’s not enough.

The credibility needed to get people invested in your journey comes from your past accomplishments and experiences.

Talk about what you learned that made you want to build a business in your industry. Share the struggles you went through that finally pushed you into entrepreneurship. Tell your followers-to-be about your past work and how it impacted your field.

The industry you choose to build your business in is the setting of your story. The challenges and issues of the people you want to serve and empower are the backgrounds of your journey.

Allow your audience to understand your space better. Talk about common issues, regulatory complexity, or just share the day-to-day life you experienced yourself.

Luke would just be a random guy without his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm. But when we see the desert plains of Tattooine, we understand that we are getting a glimpse into the challenging and deprived life of an orphan boy on a dust bowl of a planet.

And that makes us pay attention. Within the setting, a journey unfolds.

This journey happens within an overarching theme. Luke’s growth into a force wielder is a story of good and evil, power and self-determination. The themes of Star Wars go way beyond moisture farming or even lightsabers: it’s an epic tale that asks questions like “How much oppression can we take until we fight back?” or “Can a single person change the course of history?”

Fortunately, you don’t need to frame your own journey as that kind of story. It’s enough to make it clear that you’re building your business to serve and empower a well-defined group of people.

Showing your “why” is essential. People resonate much more easily with a just cause than with something that was only created for the money. Being clear about your intention will make you stand out from all the noise —and let me be clear, building wealth is perfectly fine as a goal; it should just happen within the context of a win-win situation.

With a solid setting within a thematic context, let’s look at who your audience will be following.

The Characters & The Point of View

No good story has an anonymous main character.

We’re not following the exploits of “blonde orphan boy” — we’re joining Luke Skywalker on his journey to the stars. It’s a promising name, for sure. The original name that George Lucas has for his protagonist was even more promising. For months into producing the first Star Wars movie, he was called “Luke Starkiller” —a name that might have been a bit too foreshadowing— which was later changed to the name we now know and love.

A guy with a name like that shouldn’t be limited to moisture farming. He should walk the skies — and maybe kill a star or two. Luke is a person we want to see succeed.

If you want people to cheer you on, you need to put yourself out there. In terms of building a business in public, you need to leave the safe comforts of anonymity and relative obscurity behind: you need to put yourself out there.

That means no pseudonyms. No line-drawings as avatars. No alter egos.

Give people something they can empathize with.

You need to present yourself as a real person if you want other (equally real) people to start paying attention to you. This will be the hardest thing to do, particularly if you’ve been a lurker —someone who only reads but never posts— or if you are strongly introverted.

But it’s worth it. By giving people a chance to see you as the main character of your story, they invest their attention, belief, and encouragement in you.

Even better, people start relating to you. If you show who you are, they find parts of themselves in you. Maybe they come from a similar background, or they share your perspective on what meaningful work looks like to you. They have the same goals and dreams, or your journey reminds them of a long-held ambition they have not dared to make real.

Whatever it is that people find in you, they will start considering your journey to be their journey as well.

And that makes all the difference: once it’s not just about you but also about the people who get drawn into your story, they will become active characters in the narrative. They will start working towards your goal with you.

Support comes in many shapes and forms. It can be motivational, where people cheer you on. It can also appear as an opportunity, a fortunate connection that someone helps you make with a potential customer or partner. You’ll never know until you involve people in your journey. They might be rogue agents, but they will propel the story forward.

The Plot & The Conflict

And that is why people keep investing their attention: they see the story moving along. Every good movie builds tension. Every action taken in a compelling story is a move towards completing the goal the hero set out to accomplish.

And then, challenges are thrown into the hero’s path.

Fortunately —or unfortunately, depending on where you look at this from— the entrepreneurial journey is full of obstacles that we can draw from. We don’t need to make up fictional problems for our building-in-public efforts. Enough things are going on already.

Just sharing whatever happens to you while you build your business will create enough tension, as long as it’s interesting. Every “Friends” episode essentially has the same plot, but the way the characters are struggling is always slightly different. If they had the exact same issues, people would tune out.

So keep it interesting by avoiding sharing the same things. Spice things up by sharing thought experiments, decision-making journeys, alternative realities you imagine, technical challenges, regulatory problems; anything that gives people some insight into the complexity of your whole problem space will do.

Over time, consistently sharing anything that appears as an obstacle in your path will create a tension-filled narrative arc. You’ll be telling a story of a business in the making, from start to finish, with all the significant events and the little side stories along the way.

Conflict is a constant companion along your entrepreneurial journey. Lean into it, take notes, and use it as a teaching opportunity for those who follow your journey.

People can only care about things they know about. Don’t hold back. Start sharing your journey early and invite as many people along as you can.

The more you share, the more you build an ongoing narrative. Make sure you involve all the elements: setting, theme, characters, point of view, plot, and conflict.

You’ll end up writing your own epic adventure, for yourself and anyone who wants to tag along.

And hey, who knows if it will turn out to be a trilogy. Serial entrepreneurship awaits.

May the force be with you.

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