This simple reality is lost on many intermediaries and business owners when putting together the marketing documents for a company that is being listed for sale.
We at DealRoom helped dozens of companies to successfully manage their sell-side process and in this article, we will underline the importance of storytelling in M&A, and how a deal is packaged and communicated is often the difference between finding a buyer or not.
The Value of Storytelling
Companies in all industries engage in storytelling.
Whether they call it branding, communication, PR, or some variation of all three, they’re telling stories. Why they do so is beyond the scope of this article, but in crude terms, it’s to communicate and convince their consumers about their value proposition, and to differentiate themselves from their peers.
Nothing controversial so far.
Yet, when it comes to selling a business - the purveyor of those same products and services - storytelling gets lost along the way.
Too often, companies are sold on the basis of the bottom line of their income statement. This is an important metric, but it should only form one part of the company’s storytelling.
The problem with an over-focus on the financials is that you’re not lighting up a buyer’s synapses in the same way as you can by storytelling.
The income statement provides a glance into the company’s recent past. Last year’s high margins were impressive, but ultimately, the buyer is looking to be convinced about the company’s future.
What are the Components of Storytelling in M&A?
Your job as a seller or an intermediary is to make the acquisition of a company a compelling proposition.
You can employ various formats to support the story of the business, such as presentations, infographics, videos, storyboards, or even immersive virtual tours, each offering a unique perspective on the value and potential of the business. You can even consider leveraging a storyboard maker for free here to create compelling narratives about your business.
A good way to think about this when building your company’s story is ‘How would I sell this company if I didn’t know what the financial performance was?’
This doesn’t mean you have to use florid language. It does mean you have to communicate with the company well.
Consider the following:
- Executive Summary: This is the hook of the story that draws in investors. It should incite their interest and encourage them to read further.
- Company Overview: If there were 10 other companies in your locality being sold (and this is often the case) this is where you let the buyer know what sets your company apart.
- Business Model/Strategy: The importance of this section cannot be overstated. This is what is ultimately being acquired and needs to be rock solid. Why is the company going to win in its markets? How are the proforma projections going to be met and exceeded? What are the risks to the company achieving its goals and how are they mitigated?
- Financial Overview: To emphasize, financials are an important part of the storytelling. To this end, they should support the case being made, and offer an easy-to-follow insight into how the company will perform in the coming years.
What are the Characteristics of Good Storytelling when Selling a Business?
Everyone who has worked in M&A in some capacity has read marketing materials that oversell companies.
This tends to be seen more often in venture capital (“this business is the Uber of the [insert industry]” is a common refrain), but happens everywhere that businesses are sold.
Avoid it. At best, it reads badly. In extreme cases, it can lead to allegations of fraud and bad faith.
The following characteristics should be considered when storytelling in M&A:
- Objectivity: Avoid subjectivity, the bane of most marketing materials. A good rule of thumb is to look at the adjectives that you’ve used in the text.
- Logical flow: Like most compelling stories, the reader should believe that one part flows from another. If you think that the company’s sales are going to go through the roof, great, show it through a series of logical steps, which underline the hypothesis.
- Clarity: The rationale behind the content should be clear for someone who isn’t immediately familiar with the industry.
- Well supported: Use recent and relevant data to support points being made. It is remarkable how many documents, written by investment bankers who should know better, include figures from 2017 and beyond.
Finding Examples of Good Storytelling in M&A
The nature of M&A, with confidentiality clauses in place on both sides of the deal, means that the sell-side storytelling aspect of most transactions never reaches the public. But we can glean some insights from the storytelling that occurs on the buy-side after a transaction has closed. These usually engage in storytelling about the entity created by the transaction.
The elements in these post-deal statements share many of the same traits that you should be looking for. They offer short, well-written comments about the benefits that a deal will yield, why it makes sense to both sets of shareholders, and how the newly created entity will be better equipped to take on its target markets. In short, the essence of good M&A storytelling.
- When Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, its CEO, Mark Zuckerburg, said:
“For years, we've focused on building the best experience for sharing photos with your friends and family. Now, we'll be able to work even more closely with the Instagram team to offer the best experiences for sharing beautiful mobile photos with people based on your interests. We believe these are different experiences that complement each other.”
- Upon Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016, its CEO, Satya Nadella, said:
“The LinkedIn team has grown a fantastic business centered on connecting the world’s professionals. Together we can accelerate the growth of LinkedIn, as well as Microsoft Office 365 and Dynamics as we seek to empower every person and organization on the planet.”
- When Salesforce acquired Slack in 2021, its CEO, Marc Benioff, said:
“We couldn’t be more excited to have Slack as part of the Salesforce family, combining the #1 CRM and the trailblazing digital platform for the work anywhere world. Together we’ll define the future of enterprise software, creating the digital HQ that enables every organization to deliver customer and employee success from anywhere.”
In their book, ‘The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus,” author John Micklethwait touches on the explosion of management books on the bookshelves. In 1980, he estimates that less than 10 books on management were published. In 2023, five a day would seem to be conservative.
What’s the lesson?
People love storytelling. They want to be told things in storytelling form. Whether it’s the book, "Tipping Point" is a story for critical mass, or the book, "Black Swan" creating a new definition for random and unpredictable events, as humans we are hard-coded to follow stories.
This is why storytelling should be central to your company’s sell-side marketing materials.