Skip to main content

Outlier’s Path

Story of Substance

Before joining Sequoia, I was skeptical of great storytellers. Personally and professionally, I’ve been deceived by people who are smooth talkers. At LinkExchange, Tellme, and Zappos, we hired smooth talkers for their creativity, imagination, empathy, and ability to connect with others, but we were at times disappointed to find that “smooth talkers were not always smooth operators,” which became a motto at Zappos and Amazon. Smooth operators are grinding on the details rather than constructing a grand narrative to describe the operations. Moreover, since I was not an accomplished storyteller, some of these smooth talkers advised me not to let the facts get in the way of a great story, which irritated me to no end. Shouldn’t the facts speak for themselves?

Then, I joined Sequoia and met James Buckhouse, who educated me on why we have stories. The thing that makes humankind unique is our stories. Wonderfully articulated by James, stories “help us incorporate new knowledge and escape the terrible linear path of only being able to learn as much as a single human can learn.” Since we were born, we’ve learned through stories. Their power has been handed down from our ancestors for thousands of years. We teach storytelling to our founders in Arc so they can take their outstanding product and bring it to life for their customers. They do so not by listing its features and functionality but by “constructing an arc of transformation of the pain, the strain, and the gain for the lives of their customers.”

Still, the two concepts of substance and story were at odds in my mind until James asked me to recall the most memorable stories. Surprisingly or not, the most amazing stories to me address a greater purpose beyond entertainment. They are rich with details that make all your senses come to life. The facts are what makes these stories memorable.

James made me realize that the best stories are stories of substance. When smooth talkers deceived me, it was just talk without the substance to back it up. So, the next time we interview a founder or an executive, remember to differentiate a smooth talker without the facts to back up their claims from a great visionary telling a story of substance.