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Theranos and the Power of Storytelling

A few years ago, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carryrou wrote a barn burner. It was about the meteoric rise and fall of a Silicon Valley darling, one that at its zenith was valued at $9 billion and made its charismatic female founder the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.

The company, of course, was called Theranos. In the months following its demise, much has been said and written about the blood-testing company and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. There are movies and HBO specials and podcasts and books. But for the team at Story Imprinting, Theranos serves as a testament to the unequivocal power of storytelling.

From the moment she dropped out of Stanford at 19, Elizabeth Holmes carefully honed her personal and corporate story. In boardrooms and on soundstages and to reporters and investors alike, she spoke of an uncle who had passed away from cancer far too young. She wanted to change the way diseases like his were diagnosed and treated, and she said her company would do just that. And over and over, she promised that a single drop of blood can change the world.

No matter the context, Holmes repeated that story and that mantra. She did not deviate, and she beat her story like a drum. It was economical, it was simple, and she stuck the landing every single time. She created a compelling narrative around her company’s beginnings and its future, and she distilled those stories into relatable soundbites and anecdotes anyone could — and did — repeat.

If Elizabeth Holmes was skilled at anything, it was creating memorable stories around two of the most crucial subjects for startups and entrepreneurs. Never mind that that the science was lacking. Her story was so compelling that people were willing to suspend disbelief and cling to it like a life preserver.

Investors, diplomats, VCs — even journalists — everyone loved it. They wanted to believe it was true — that a 19-year-old Stanford dropout with no real medical training, a woman in a man’s world — could change the world with a single drop of blood. And so they repeated it. And they repeated it again. And with that repetition, the story of Theranos became legendary.

Of course, there’s a significant distinction between fact and fiction – especially when you’re dealing with people’s blood (and thus their lives). But here’s what the example of Theranos reminds us: story is powerful. In its finest, best iteration, it is wielded for good. But as storytellers, we must relentlessly seek to ground our narratives in ethics and truth. And as consumers of narrative, we must constantly seek to vet the facts underlying those stories.

Interested in learning more about storytelling (and story listening)? Contact us here.

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