Storytelling like Andy Raskin

I’ve had to craft many pitches and sales decks over the past 6 years of working in startups. I’ve always returned to the advice of one person - Andy Raskin. His blog Firm Narrative has always been my go-to guide for company positioning and storytelling.

What I’ve put together here is the curated summary of his best works framed around the four ideas:

For reference anything in Italic is from the Firm Narrative blog, anything in bold is my commentary.

Why tell stories?

The right company story is the difference between winning and losing.

As Andreessen Horowitz’s Ben Horowitz says, “The company story is the company strategy.” A good story everyone is aligned around drives sales, marketing, fundraising, recruiting, product—everything. With a great story, there is no need to have a fake mission statement.

Positioning statements are a waste of time never end up being used

If you’re a member of a leadership team today—or have been over the last 25 years—odds are you’ve participated in a positioning exercise. If your experience was like mine, you teamed up with colleagues, perhaps under the guidance of an outside consultant, to craft some version of this sentence:

For [your target market] who [target market need], [your brand name] provides [main benefit that differentiates your offering from competitors] because [reason why target market should believe your differentiation statement.]

What use does a statement with such generic appeal have?

For individuals looking for high-quality beverages, Coca-Cola offers a wide range of the most refreshing options — each creates a positive experience for customers when they enjoy a Coca-Cola brand drink. Unlike other beverage options, Coca-Cola products inspire happiness and make a positive difference in customers’ lives, and the brand is intensely focused on the needs of consumers and customers. (source)

The problem with a positioning statement like this is that it is focused on the company, not the customer.

Positioning statements practically force you to see things from your own point of view! That’s because — both metaphorically and grammatically — it casts your company/product as the conquering hero (subject) and your customer as territory to be conquered (object):

What would it look like if, instead, your positioning was rooted in a story in which the customer was the protagonist?

Buyers want a story about themselves, that helps them make sense of their changing world and helps them thrive in it. Rattling off the reasons your product is “best in class” at solving some problem—even for a well-defined segment—is a poor differentiation strategy for a few reasons, not least of which is that it comes off as bragging and self-centred.

The positioning statement comes from Geoffrey Moore who wrote the book Crossing the Chasm which whilst a classic is now 29 years old (as of 2020)

Moore tells teams that to successfully launch an invasion into mainstream markets, they should arm themselves with his positioning statement — “a claim of undisputable market leadership within a given target market segment.” Yet defining your company and products this way has major shortcomings — particularly now that innovation happens so rapidly:

  • How can features possibly serve as the foundation of an effective long-term position?
  • The positioning statement essentially presents an argument (a boast, really). But as any great salesperson will tell you, arguments rarely influence buyer behaviour.
  • If your product category is new or unfamiliar, how will your prospect connect the dots about how features and benefits will ultimately improve his or her life?
  • The biggest obstacle to any sale is a prospect’s attachment to the status quo, about which Moore’s positioning statement says nothing.
  • Competitors can easily mimic your feature and benefit claims. What then?

Stories are hard-wired into how we perceive the world. Shifting that perspective can drastically change the direction of your company.

Teams need to switch metaphors: from the competitor-centric combat one (traditional positioning statement) to the customer-centric journey one (narrative based).

The most successful teams view their customer’s transformation story as the primary thing they’re building. Their product? While they see it as critical, of course, to them it functions as a medium for telling their story (and making it come true).

It’s about becoming so customer-centric that customers don’t even think about your competitors. Tell a story based around the difference that it will make in people’s lives.

A customer-centric story can become the North Star that provides a clear decision-making framework for everyone in the business.

Your story should guide everything everyone does at your company—product development, sales, marketing, recruiting, everything. Do that, and competitors won’t dare steal your story, because it will be obvious to everyone that they can’t deliver on it as well as you can. Plus, you’ll have committed to it so fully that if they do try it, they’ll come off as desperate.

Especially in a world where innovation happens so quickly

Yet defining your company and products with a positioning statement has major shortcomings — particularly now that innovation happens so rapidly:

  • In a world where product features can be upgraded, changed and enhanced daily (or faster) — not to mention quickly copied by competitors — how can features possibly serve as the foundation of an effective long-term position?
  • The positioning statement essentially presents an argument (a boast, really). But as any great salesperson will tell you, arguments rarely influence buyer behaviour.
  • If your product category is new or unfamiliar, how will your prospect connect the dots about how features and benefits will ultimately improve his or her life? (This drawback gets more serious as you move past early adopters — especially as you get into situations where buyers and users are not the same people.)
  • The biggest obstacle to any sale is a prospect’s attachment to the status quo, about which Moore’s positioning statement says nothing.
  • Competitors can easily mimic your feature and benefit claims. What then?

It can even help everything from hiring to sales

I predict more companies will invest in strategic messaging that’s specifically geared to improve recruiting.

All of that was like air cover for my in-person sales ground attack. By the time I arrived, prospects were already convinced they had to act. It was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to sales nirvana.

How To Tell An Effective Story

Telling an effective story is hard, but there is a paint-by-numbers template you can follow to give you the structure to work from.

Step 1 - Name the Enemy - tell them what sucks about the world

Never start a pitch by talking about yourself, your team, your product, or anything about yourself.

Instead, start by naming the thing that’s getting in the way of your customer’s happiness. Do that by painting an emotionally resonant picture of how the world currently sucks for your customer, who/what is to blame, and why.

Step 2 - Answer why now - tell them why things are different this time

Everyone is a sceptic they are thinking, “People have lived this way for a long time — are they really going to change now?” By providing reasons why this time it is different is important. There are three types of why nows you can use to position your narrative.

Demand Why Nows

Demand why-nows are recent shifts in the customer’s external world that increase the need for what you’re offering. They are useful for strategic messaging because they explain how recent trends create a larger total addressable market. Demand why-nows can include:

  • Changes in societal norms, preferences, or behaviours, including new uses of technology
  • Shifts in population demographics
  • Shifts in your customer’s industry dynamics (especially ones that reduce profitability)
  • Changes in your customer’s competitive landscape
  • Regulatory changes that spur demand for your offering

Qualification Why Nows

Qualification why-nows are personal or organizational changes internal to your customer that make buying more likely. They are great for identifying high-value prospects because they describe changes to personal (if you’re B2C) or organizational (B2B) attributes. For example:_

  • Changes in prospect age or lifestyle (e.g. customers is now retiring and likely to buy)
  • Changes in prospect size or geographic distribution (e.g. company is now launching in Europe)
  • Changes in prospect business strategy (e.g. company is focusing on cost reduction)

Supply Why Nows

Supply why-nows are recent developments that make your solution possible, more affordable, or more profitable. Other supply why-nows include:

  • Newly available technologies or data
  • Changes in the economics of supply, production or distribution
  • Regulatory changes that make it possible to deliver your offering
  • Changes in your competitive landscape

Step 3 - Show the promised land - paint a picture of what things could be like

The next step is to present a “teaser” vision of the happily-ever-after that your product/service will help the prospect achieve—what I call the Promised Land. Your Promised Land should be both desirable and difficult for the prospect to achieve without outside help. Otherwise, why does your company exist? The Promised Land is not having your technology, but what life is like thanks to having your technology.

Showing the outcome before explaining how you’ll make it happen can feel wrong for novice presenters — like blurting out the punchline before you’ve told a joke. But when an audience knows where you’re headed, they’re much more likely to buckle in for the ride.

Step 4 - Identify the obstacles - Show the challenge and how you’ve overcome it

Now that you’ve shared your vision of the future, you need to:
(a) lay out the obstacles to achieving it and
(b) show how your company/product/service will overcome each one.

There had better be some big, nasty obstacles — otherwise who needs what you’re selling?

Step 5 - Provide evidence - Show that you can actually do this

Audiences are sceptical – So you must give them evidence that the future you’ve laid out is, indeed, attainable.

By far, the most effective type of evidence is a success story about how you’ve already helped someone else (who is similar to the prospect) reach the Promised Land.

What if you don’t yet have a huge number of successful customers?

For early-stage companies and products, demos like this can serve as evidence, though results from early (or beta) customers are more compelling. Least persuasive— but better than nothing — are testimonials from potential customers explaining why they would buy.

That is how you tell a story in 5 parts: name the enemy, why now, promised land, the obstacles, and the proof. Getting that pitch down to a place that it works is a lot of hard work, but it is worth it.

When their pitch starts sounding less like an infomercial and more like a movie. Always a movie, though, in which the customer is cast not as territory to be won, but as the hero of his or her own epic adventure.

Below I’ve broken down some examples of this story structure to help you get a feel for how to do this.

Elon Musk - Powerwall Pitch
Name the Enemy - Global Warming
Why Now - We have to act now to stop climate change
Promised Land - Solar panels & batteries on every roof in America
Identify Obstacles - existing batteries suck
Proof - the entire event was powered by batteries

Steve Jobs - iMac Pitch
Name the enemy - Beige, slow, ugly computers
Why now - People want an easy way to access the internet
Promised Land - Access the tremendous amount of information on the internet
Obstacles - Building a best in class computer
Proof - a live demo of the iMac

How to write a sales pitch

Whilst on the surface a sales pitch and a story seem very similar they have 2 very different outcomes. A story is used to get buy-in for your worldview, to make it become their orthodoxy. A sales pitch is what is needed to convince someone to use your product or service.

Step 1 - Name the shift

First, name the undeniable shift in the world that creates both (a) big stakes and (b) huge urgency for your prospect. But when you highlight a shift in the world, you get prospects to open up about how that shift affects them, how it scares them, and where they see opportunities. Most importantly, you grab their attention as what attracts human attention is change.

This shift should be (1) undeniably happening and (2) happening independently of you — that is, whether you exist or not. It also (3) gives rise to stakes. All three must be true if you want prospects’ trust as you lead them down the path of questioning their love for the status quo.

The degree to which you can explain what has changed in the world so that your customer not only wants the future you’re promising but actually needs it now, the more credible your strategic story will be — to customers, investors and even potential hires.

Step 2 - Explain There Will Be Winners & Losers

It’s not about your company or your product. It’s not about the problem your product solves. And it’s not just the shift “from” one thing “to” another. Instead, it’s the new discipline for winning that makes your product a must-have. In other words, it’s the part of your story that drives urgency as all prospects suffer from “loss aversion.” Every great category narrative follows this same, simple structure:

  1. The old game used to be a winning game. You’re not saying people were always wrong to play the old game. They’re only wrong now because something in the world has changed — there’s new knowledge, new technology, or new things buyers want. You need to credibly demonstrate that your audience’s orthodox, status quo is now unwinnable. And if they don’t adapt they will likely result in an unacceptably negative future for the prospect
  2. Winners are already playing the new game. The new game can’t just be something you dreamed up. To drive buyer urgency, you must show that winners are already playing it. Often that means citing winners with more resources than your target buyers.
  3. Helping customers win the new game is why your company and its products exist. A category narrative is worthless unless it’s the driving force behind your company, its culture, and its products. When you talk about a product, in particular, talk about it solely in the context of how it helps people win the new game. (Yes, helping them win the new game is your mission.) And that adapting to the change you cited will likely result in a highly positive future for the prospect.

Naming your customer’s enemy differentiates you — not directly in relation to competitors (which comes off as “salesy”), but in relation to the old world that your competitors represent. Don’t point an accusatory finger at the problem. Instead, invite them to join you in a revolution, to fight with them against a common foe.

Step 3 - Show the promised land

Whether you’re writing a screenplay or telling your company story, every great narrative starts with change, the promised land. The promised land is also crucial for helping prospects pitch your solution to colleagues after your sales meeting ends. Competitor X? They’re great if you‘re looking for a future that looks like Y. But if you want the Promised Land we’re talking about, here’s why we’re the only ones who can get you there.

Of course, competitors can always parrot your Promised Land in an attempt to adopt it for themselves. So you must demonstrate—every single day—that you can get customers to it as fast and reliably as possible.

Step 4 - Your magic gifts

If it’s not clear by now, successful stories follow the same narrative structure as epic films and fairy tales. Your prospect is Luke, and you’re Obi-Wan, furnishing a lightsaber to help him defeat the Empire. When you introduce your product or service, do so by positioning its capabilities like the lightsaber, wizardry and spells—as “magic gifts” for helping your main character (prospect) reach that much-desired Promised Land.

Positioning these “gifts” in the context of transitioning from an “old world” to a “new world,” is the foundation for an engaging conversation with prospects. It helps them understand why it’s so hard to reach the Promised Land with traditional solutions – and why they need your solution.

Step 5 - Provide Evidence

In telling the sales narrative this way, you’re making a commitment to prospects: If they go with you, you’ll get them to the Promised Land.

But the road to the Promised Land is, by definition, littered with obstacles, so prospects are rightly sceptical of your ability to deliver. The last piece of the pitch, then, is the best evidence you can offer that you can make the story you’re telling come true.

Example - Zuorna
Name the shift - Customers don’t want to buy products anymore
Winners & losers - Netflix beat DVDs, Uber is beating cars…
Promised land - A subscription experience
Magic gifts - We help you turn customers into subscribers
Provide evidence - Dell, Box and Financial Times are customers

Example - Drift
Name the shift - People are constantly connected today
Winners & losers - Forms are outdated and old school marketing is outdated
Promised land - A world driven by conversations
Magic gifts - Better than email - real-time, smart and not abused
Provide evidence - Huge clients and credible statistics

Example - Salesforce
Name the shift - We are moving from mainframe to the cloud
Winners & losers - Software is slow and outdated unlike the cloud
Promised land - The internet of customers
Magic gifts - The salesforce platform provides tools to be customer-centric
Provide evidence - Having actual salesforce customers sell the product

What makes a good story?

The messaging needs to be focused

One of my clients had been touting its charitable donations above all else, but even the founders admitted that few customers cared primarily about that. A big part of my job is helping leaders come to terms with de-prioritizing parts of their story — sometimes parts that they love — in service of becoming more effective.

Your product does many things. The question is, Which do you most want to be known for? frequently the toughest part of my job is helping leaders come to terms with de-prioritizing parts of their story — sometimes parts that they love — in service of becoming more effective.

Differentiation can be a distraction

One of my clients, not wanting to seem like all the other companies that do X, didn’t even mention X on its home page. Prospects would call the sales team and say, “I thought you guys did X, but guess I was wrong. Can you refer me to companies that do X?”

It should hammer home the delta

All good messaging should very quickly communicate the delta (Δ) between how the target’s life turns out if they go with you and how it turns out if they don’t:

Delta of storytelling graphic

It’s hard to convey specifics about your delta in just a few words. You have to paint a picture of at least one of the following:

  1. The positive future you’ll help your target attain
  2. The negative future you’ll help your target avoid
  3. The difference between (1) and (2)

Everything can be a story

Storytelling is a tool that you can use for any type of communication. Even something as abstract as a financial model can benefit from a story. If there is one thing you take away from this it should be: Is this a story yet?

You can use this framework to answer that question.

For [MAIN CHARACTER], [WHY NOW]. So we thought, what if we could [HELP THEM REACH THE PROMISED LAND].

  1. Main character: Who is the person whose life will be transformed by what you’re offering? Usually, this is your customer. If you’re a non-profit, it’s the people or communities you’re helping.
  2. Why now? Why is the main character compelled to act? In other words, what is causing that person to struggle?
  3. Promised Land: What will the world look like for your main character (customer) if he/she buys what you’re selling?
  4. Obstacles and gifts: Now it’s time to talk about that lightsaber. But do it in the context of the obstacles you’ll help your character overcome to reach the Promised Land. What obstacles will your customer have to overcome, and how does your product/service help?
  5. Evidence: The one element of a pitch story that doesn’t appear in the game is evidence. In pitch stories, unlike movies, the ending hasn’t happened yet. What evidence can you offer that you’ll make the story come true?

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