Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Medium here.
A few weeks ago, a Fortune 100 enterprise engaged me to talk to 20 of its senior leaders about crafting a strategic narrative—the high-level story that powers sales, marketing, product development, everything.
During the talk, I asserted that every great company story starts by naming what’s at stake for customers. Later, during a Q&A, one of the company’s executives asked for clarification:
I’m always hearing that we’re supposed to talk about customers’ pain. Is that what you mean by stakes?
The Enterprise’s Most Unhelpful Metaphor: Doctor-Patient
Behind the executive’s question is a metaphor that informs how many executives and entrepreneurs see their relationship to customers. The company (represented on the front lines by its sales and marketing folks) is a doctor, diagnosing prospects’ pain and offering products and services to relieve it.
Unfortunately, the metaphor breaks down in a crucial way:
Most people you’re selling to are not experiencing much pain.
In fact, most patients who visit doctors’ offices aren’t in pain either (outside of emergency rooms, of course). On the scale of unbearable suffering to unfettered joy, most people vacillate within a range they would describe as “basically OK,” and they assume life will always be that way (shout out to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shapes of Stories” lecture, which informs this graph):
Your first task, therefore, whether you’re selling a healthier lifestyle or enterprise software, is shattering that delusion. You can’t do that by talking about pain, because your prospect isn’t yet experiencing pain — either because there is none, or because he or she is in denial.
How can you do it? By naming what’s at stake.
For example, in a Lipitor ad from 2009, Pfizer doesn’t talk about pain. Instead, it asserts that, for its target audience, one of two possible futures await: Die young from a heart attack…
…or continue enjoying bicycle rides through the woods with your loving family:
Similarly, every pitch you ever make to anyone must credibly cleave the future into two possible outcomes—one that your audience wants, and one that your audiences fears:
A More Valuable Metaphor: Wizard-Hero
What does that look like in a strategic narrative for your company and its products? One example I love is Mobilize CEO Sharon Savariego’s pitch at SeedInvest’s Launch 2017. (I have no stake in Mobilize, and no connection to Savariego.)
Savariego doesn’t start by talking about pain. Instead, she kicks off with an undeniable, relevant change that’s creating stakes for her audience—namely, that startup growth expectations are skyrocketing, thanks to a crop of new companies that have reached $100 million in annual recurring revenue at unprecedented speed:
Savariego then shows that many “winners” have achieved fast, efficient growth by leveraging partnership programs…
Mobilize to support communications with partners, including affiliates, resellers, and developers:
Once she’s laid out the stakes—grow or die—and Mobilize’s role in delivering growth, then (and only then) Savariego fleshes out Mobilize’s capabilities—namely, support for the activities that anyone who runs a partner program has to manage:
To be sure, one could argue that capabilities are nothing more than “pain relief.” But unless you first set up stakes, as Savariego does, the only people you’ll attract are the few early adopters who are already screaming. Even then, those folks will have to sell their colleagues and higher-ups on why your solution matters.
That’s why, rather than positioning your company as an emergency room, your narrative will be more effective if you think of your role instead like that of the “wizard” character in an epic film. Before Obi Wan trains Luke in the ways of the Force, he shows that big things—the future of the galaxy, Luke’s life—are at stake. Long before Moana’s grandmother, Tala, helps Moana defeat the lava monster, she makes it clear that the survival of Moana’s people will ride on the outcome:
Of course, Tala goes on to present another possible outcome: a happy one, in which Moana leads her people on great ocean voyages beyond their current home.
In short, if your strategic narrative is only about pain and relief, you’re not really selling. Instead, pitch like Tala: Sound a wake-up call that rouses prospects to buy through an epic, motivating mix of fear and desire.
About Andy Raskin
I help CEOs and leadership teams align around a strategic story — to power sales, marketing, fundraising, product development, and recruiting. My clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, First Round, GV, and other top venture firms. I’ve also led strategic story training at Uber, Yelp, VMware, General Assembly, and Stanford. To learn more and get in touch, visit http://andyraskin.com.