The one question every startup Founder or CEO should ask, according to Storytelling Master: Susan Lindner

Content Marketing 10 min read
Jolien Evaert |
The greatest storytellers are those people who are able to get others to carry the message for them." —Susan Lindner, CEO and Founder of Emerging Media Inc.

I first met Susan Lindner last month at The Next Web 2018 (TNW2018) in Amsterdam, when she delivered her keynote on the topic of Strategic Storytelling.

The story behind this story

I was drawn to this particular session at TNW2018 because Susan and I both hail from New York City. She and I, although we did not know each other then, were both working in Manhattan and experienced September 11, 2001 and felt the impact of that day. Every New Yorker can attest to the unexpected bond born out of such an event.

But more than that, and bigger than that, she and I both believe that stories are life.

Susan's personal and professional resume spans time in South America, hitchhiking during periods of civil war, and in Thailand—providing prostitutes building blocks for a better future. Having studied religion and cultural anthropology, she's also conducted AIDS research study as an epidemiologist for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).

This was all before she discovered her true calling in storytelling by way of public relations and branding and marketing—otherwise disrupting right alongside some of the biggest disruptors of our time.

Susan's agency, Emerging Media PR is an award-winning home run-hitter and she still finds the time to give back to the "entrepreneurial community as a mentor to disruptive US and international startups and as a judge at premier competitions like NY Tech Week, The Mashies and many more."

She's crossed many things off her bucket list to boot, including—but not limited to, riding a horse, taking a stab at stand-up comedy just for the hell of it and going down Colorado's longest and tallest zip-line like the boss lady she is.

And Story Chief is here for it. We're so glad she took the time to talk to us:

So how have you been since Amsterdam?


I have been in Germany, Norway and Los Angeles since The Next Web and then back to my home town of New York City.

You're such a road warrior! Before we get started on some more substantive matter, do you care to share some lessons from the road as far as business travel?

Hmmmm. Yes. Lessons from the road:

  1. Never check your luggage for your sanity’s sake.
  2. Have a charger with you wherever you go. Our hierarchy of needs have really changed in a matter of years. You need first to have power and then full internet access, and lastly, food, clothing and shelter are lower priorities. So don't forget your chargers!
  3. If you’re offered a business class meal from Scandinavian Air that consists of meat wrapped with horseradish cream, then pass.


Okay, duly noted. Thank you. {Laughs} Now, I have to ask, what are some trends you've seen in your travels and talks? Good or bad. Please share.

Well. Globally, there’s been a shift politically and in how we consume media.

The impact of PR as a marketing tool is diminished by young people getting confirmation from their peers rather than from experts [unlike with previous generations].

And so it bears itself out from what we believe versus what we gravitate towards—what want more of. We want to validate what our choices are rather than having experts validate them for us.

I can attest to that. Are you saying that this a good or bad thing?

It's both. I think we're getting back to our original tribes.

But by the same token...we can be manipulated by who is telling the story if we're not careful.

It's important that if we get information from our friends, that our friends are getting it from the right places too.

Speaking of the right've spoken before about companies like Patagonia and Cisco who are "doing it right" by building a platform for their employees to activate the company's story and strengthen their brand.

Yes, this is strategic storytelling.

If you're a large Fortune 500 company introducing innovation, the disruption often happens to the employees. Whether personal fears surrounding some new product or potential layoffs as a result of new innovations, leaders need to get more strategic about the storytelling.

And we're not talking about the stories told to the press, but rather internally:

  • To get employees more engaged in the midst of disruption at their company.
  • To have them be champions of the brand.
  • To help them become a part of the change.

Absolutely. So then let's change gears now and talk about you approach to working with startups.


What I've come to find over all these years is that startups have a great story to tell. What they want to do is impact the market by creating friends rather than enemies.

They can go in like a bulldog and say, "If people don't like us then they can try to push us out." Don't ask anyone's permission but if need be, then ask forgiveness for things later.

Or, they can make alliances on the ground before they launch and then come in with a disruptive product or service—with some friends and ambassadors to back them up.

It's a choice. Personally, my approach to working with disruptive startups would be the latter.

That's fair. But for startups...for these smaller companies with really small teams on a tight budget but a great product, how do they balance storytelling with business objectives?

Storytelling is better than just stating facts
Fact: Stories are more memorable than fact.

Most of the time when startups are ready to engage marketing (i.e., pay for it), they've begun to get some traction with select customers.

That's really helpful in getting those breadcrumbs ready to tell a great story by:

  1. Telling the story of the founder(s) and why they decided to build the company as they did.
  2. Recognizing that problem that they were trying to solve. And it may be that the target market shifts. Maybe at first they thought their target market was companies in financial services but it turns out HR groups needed them more; that the drive and urgency and importance comes from someplace else that the founders just never saw. Or maybe they wanted to sell to small businesses and to be the champion of small business but they couldn't get enough traction because small businesses are so dispersed and so hard to sell to, so they had to sell to some bigger organizations just to stay afloat. And so there was a need to pivot.
  3. Test the story over and over again to see what's really resonating with people. Whether it's on your company's website or via email campaigns. Include the sales guys in one-on-one conversations about which story fits. It's not exactly the same as the strategic storytelling I mentioned earlier, but similar except with a smaller team it's possible to see results faster.

Yes. I remember I'd actually grabbed you as you were coming off stage at TNW2018, to ask you just that. "Who has it easier in this era of storytelling? Is it the startups or these big established organizations?" You'd said that startups have it better because you get to do it right at the start.


Startups have a huge opportunity because the team is so small and they have the ability to engage everyone.

Well, what about the startups that think, "We're so small, and we're so young. Nobody's going to care about our story."


My response would be to say:

"Well, your story's all you've got at the start because you don't have anything else to show them."

You know, tech founders want to dive in right into the features of their product from the get-go, because they built it. They're so proud of it, as they should be.

But I like to ask them, "Did you know that the iPhone camera is comprised of 10,000 individual pieces and that the wires that suspend the lens itself are 1/10th the width of a human hair?"

And most founders are like, "Cool. No, I had no idea."

Well, that's because NOBODY cares. It's not interesting to the customers. What we care about is whether or not my selfie, whether or not I—the customer, matters.

So I always to tell founders to back off of all of the product-related messages that they are so focused on—since they built it. And we get it, it's their pride and joy. But I say, "Take a step back. And ask yourself this number one most critical but simple question in great storytelling."

How am I fundamentally making someone's life better?

Every prospect and every customer has to be asked that question. "How do you need me to make your life better?"

And I don't just mean your business life, but your home life too.

Because we spend our days putting out fires and working long hours, and we never see our loved ones. Or maybe if our processes are more efficient, better, leaner, saves time—saves money. Everyone wants recognition. If you can find a way to make that happen, by eliminate some pains, then you'll have your breakthrough.

It's this question that startups forget about the most. Every CEO and Founder should ask it. The "How am I fundamentally making your life better by virtue of being in it?"

Is it within a day of signing a contract? Six months? Six weeks? One year? How am I making your life better?

Indeed. Thank you. And to end this chat I'd love to shift, to pivot, once again. If you'd be so kind as to indulge us in something personal. Please tell us if you can pinpoint one moment in your childhood or formative years that encapsulates who you are today?

Oh yeah. I know it exactly.

I was, maybe, four years old? And I can remember sitting in the bath tub and making up commercials for Ivory Soap. I can remember sitting in the bathtub with my sister and entertaining her by making up a jingle and making up a tagline {Laughs}.

And I remember being enamored with television at a really young age. So I think there was a marketing gene in me from a very young age.

Stories are life and give life

I could go on, really, I do have more on transcript.

I won't, but I will say that Susan Lindner really did come to life even more as the conversation turned personal and intimate. Her family line and its rich history is memoir-worthy to say the least.

Like a pro, she delivered on her promise to enlighten us with some startup advice. We wish her continued success and stellar business class meals in her near future!

If you're a startup and you'd like to get started on your own form of storytelling then Story Chief is here for it.

Do you have aspirations to work in a SaaS startup? Read up on some of the facts about working in a tech startup and take The Startup Life Quiz: So you think you can SaaS?