How Storytelling Can Power Your Success in Sales, Marketing & Beyond

Devon-McDonald by

Editor’s Note: The following article is based on a recent episode of OpenView’s BUILD podcast. You can listen to the full episode featuring Andy Raskin, Strategic Messaging expert here.

It may sound cliché, but it’s also true: the world is changing. The traditional approach to telling your company’s story isn’t enough to make you stand out from the competition. So says Andy Raskin, a highly sought after consultant who works directly with CEOs and their leadership teams to develop strategic stories that play a critical role in powering success in sales, marketing, fundraising, product development and recruiting.

I had the opportunity to talk with Andy about what he’s learned from working on projects for brands like Salesforce, Square, Uber, Yelp and VMware, not to mention a number of OpenView’s own portfolio companies. He had a lot to share about best practices in the months leading up to and following a major rollout.

Story and Why It Matters

One of the biggest misconceptions Andy runs into again and again is that creating a story is a task often delegated to marketing, when in fact it’s much bigger than that. As Andy learned from Ben Horowitz at Andreessen Horowitz, story isn’t marketing, it’s strategy. And it will have a profound effect on your business if you’re willing to dig deep into it.

“When I first began working in tech, I thought of the product as the main thing you’re building and story as the wrapping paper that you put around it to make it look pretty and help sell it. Now, having learned from people like Ben Horowitz and others, I’ve come to believe that the story is the main thing you’re building, and the product is prop for making that story come true.”

The story acts as your North Star around which to align your entire business, including your product roadmap, features list, sales pitch and – yes – your marketing. Because story drives all these things, it can’t be developed in a marketing silo. Marketing has a large and important role, but the CEO needs to own the big story decisions because the CEO is the person who can say, “If we’re going to tell this story, maybe we need to build out some additional functionality” … and make it happen.

To sum up, story is not just the window dressing on your big idea. It is your big idea. It’s the starting point and the end game all wrapped up in one.

How to Craft a Story: 5 Steps

When is the right time to develop your brand’s story? “Typically, companies call me when there have been some signs of success, but that success has been driven – as one founder put it – by the ‘brute force’ of the founding team,” Andy says.

These companies are on the cusp of a new level of growth – moving from a stage where the founding CEO is in every sales call to a stage where things are starting to scale across the entire organization. These companies have also often hit the dip that happens after early adoption, creating fall-off and a trough that leads to an opportunity to build the strategic narrative for the first time. “At this stage,” Andy says, “they start realizing that their growth is dependent on having a simple and really powerful story.”

And that’s when Andy gets to work.

Step 1: Create Your Story Team (And make sure it includes the CEO)

Andy always asks the CEO to create a story team of four or five people led by the CEO. CEO leadership is so critical to the success of the story process that Andy turns down projects if the CEO can’t commit to being fully involved. It’s not just that the CEO is the only person with the authority to define a company’s high-level strategic story, the CEO is also the only person who can empower the team to make the big, hairy choices that great strategic messaging requires.

Step 2: Switch the Metaphor

“A lot of folks, when they think about the company’s story, boil it down to some version of, ‘Here’s why we’re great,’” Andy says. “But, you need to switch to what is happening in the customer’s world that is creating stakes, meaning, opportunity and risk.”

Andy accomplishes this by helping the story team switch from a doctor-patient metaphor (in which the company is the doctor diagnosing the prospect’s pain and offering products and services to relieve it), to a wizard-hero metaphor (in which the company is the wizard or wise man/woman who helps the hero – the customer – understand the true stakes and empowers them to take action). This approach allows you to tell a story that expands beyond the humdrum world of selling to pain so you can tell a more rousing and epic story that serves as a wake-up call inspiring prospects to buy.

Step 3: Figure out the Customer Story

Crafting the bones of that epic story requires a true understanding of the big change that’s happening in the prospect’s world. What has changed the rules of the game so that there will be new winners and losers and new strategies for winning?

“We’re essentially attacking the existing narrative that exists in the customer’s mind. Because that status quo is no longer tenable.”

Andy uses a Star Wars example to help illustrate the principles of creating this new narrative. “There’s this great moment in the beginning of Star Wars: The New Hope where Luke has been bellyaching for ten minutes about how he wants to get off the planet, be a pilot and have adventures. And then Obi-Wan comes to him and says, ‘Hey, let’s get off the planet. I’ll teach you to be a pilot, you can have adventures. I’ll teach you about the force and everything.’ And what does Luke say? ‘You know what. It’s getting kind of late. I have to go home.’ But then, the Empire bombs Luke’s home, killing his uncle, and Luke realizes that he’s now very much in danger and probably going to die. This creates stakes. Luke suddenly realizes that Obi-Wan is offering him the chance to thrive and prevail in a life-and-death situation. That’s a whole different story that will inspire him to act.”

Andy and the story team usually take a few months to talk to customers and gather input from the internal team in order to get a handle on the customer story. Interestingly, they only ask one question about the company’s products: How have these products changed your life? After that, Andy shifts focus to what has changed in the prospect’s world to create new opportunity and risk. He pushes past the usual pain point conversation – which is typically unexciting and therefore ineffective – so he can get at what’s actually at stake for the prospect. In other words, he finds their Obi-Wan moment.

Step 4: Build the Story

Early on, Andy took a unique approach to building the story. Instead of the traditional “messaging pyramid” or “positioning statement,” he uses the sales narrative – basically the sales deck – as the underlying structure for his messaging architecture. He uses this format because (done right ) the sales deck has all the relevant pieces of the story, which makes it the perfect foundation for other content like the company website, etc.

Step 5: Take Your Story for a Road Test

Finally, it’s time to take your story for a spin. Andy recommends taking it out on sales calls in order to get some real-world reactions and feedback. He also suggests having the CEO or other executives present it at conferences or other events where the audience includes potential prospects. By seeing how the story is playing with the audience, you can refine and polish it so it’s ready to roll out to the entire team.

From there, the best approach is a gradual rollout that lets you introduce the story to a few people at a time. The road test is the perfect chance to get some of your sales team involved, letting them weigh in, and giving them some ownership in the story. Integrating their experience and input will then make it that much easier to bring the story to other members of the team because it won’t feel like something that was cooked up in a back room. You’ll be able to share what happened when you took the story out to actual projects, how prospects engaged with it and how the story is creating results.

Tips for DIY Story Development

For companies who want or need to tackle the story process on their own, without the guidance of an expert, Andy has a few words of advice to help avoid common pitfalls.

Worth repeating: Make sure the CEO drives this process.

Having the CEO lead and own the story development process is especially important for DIY teams. This isn’t something that can or should be delegated. It’s that important.

Do the legwork to collect critical customer input.

“Customers will put things in a way you never considered,” Andy says. “When your team is thinking about going in a couple different directions, customer input will instantly make it very clear which one is the right one.” This isn’t a step you want to skip.

Don’t punt on the “promised land.”

The “promised land” is an element of the story that articulates the new-and-better future you’re committing to create for the customer – the positive change you will make in the customer’s life. As an example, Andy cites Airbnb’s “Belong anywhere” idea or the promised land offered by a pizza place near his San Francisco home (a world away from the real pizza of his childhood home in Brooklyn), “Believe in pizza again.”

The pitfall of many companies is being vague about the promised land. “They say they’re going to create change, but they’re not saying anything specific about that change,” Andy explains. “They’re not really taking a stand; they’re just punting.” For example, we’ve all seen brands that promise to “transform” or “disrupt” their industry without addressing exactly how they’re going to create change. Without the how, the promise falls flat.

Be strategic about what you leave out of the story.

Probably the hardest task DIY story creators face is deciding what to leave out of the story. There’s always so much to say, but Andy warns that adding too much will drain the meaning from the whole thing. Helping the story team navigate the often emotional process of picking and choosing what to say is one of the benefits of working with someone who can bring a clear, unbiased outside opinion.

What to Expect After Your Story Launch

Andy typically sees improvements in three key areas in the months after he and a company team launch a new strategic story:

  • Sales teams become more effective. Conversations with prospects are no longer about the company or the product, they are about the change in the customer’s world and how that change demands new strategies for determining winners and losers. It’s a totally different – and much more successful – approach.
  • Investor pitches get better. Andy Wilson, CEO of Logikcull, sent Andy an email after their story launch and said, “Our recent $25 million raise from NEA was partially due to having a great strategic company story.” This is due in part to the fact that one of the first questions investors ask is the question of due diligence, and the strategic company story addresses that by talking to customers to find out why people need the product, what’s at stake, and how the company can articulate the promised land they need to deliver.
  • Company morale improves. A consistent, clear and simple story with emotion and stakes isn’t powerful only with customers, it helps get everyone – including employees and candidates – on board. A strategic story makes it easier to sell your company to new hires and recruit the best new team members.

At the Heart of any Good Story is Emotional Connection

“Some people make the mistake of thinking that the story is about educating prospects about what’s happening in their world. That’s not what the story is. The story is telling them that we understand what’s happening in their world. We’re trying to show empathy and create an emotional connection.”

Prospects already know what’s happening in their world. Instead of trying to tell them what they already know, a strategic story helps you get to what Andy calls “that’s right,” a concept he picked up from the negotiation book, Never Split the Difference, by former FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss. The technique is about using active listening – respectfully listening to someone and then repeating back a summary of what they said and iterating based on feedback – to elicit a “that’s right” response. Sometimes, the response is a head nod, and sometimes it’s someone literally saying, “That’s right.” Either way, when your story gets this reaction, it’s a turning point. It means your audience is willing to open up and talk about how the changes in the world are affecting them or their company. They are willing to be vulnerable and tell you what’s really going on. That’s gold if you’re a salesperson.

That emotional connection is the point of your strategic story.

“When you get really clear on your story, there are pieces that become the North Star for your product roadmap.”

“But the guidance a strategic story provides about how to prioritize which features to build really comes from understanding, on a much deeper level, what’s at stake for the customer and the promised land – the story you want to make come true for the customer.”