This curated column is by leadership mentor & consultant Andy Raskin
Recently, during a talk I gave on startup storytelling for international entrepreneurship students at Stanford, a woman named Beatriz asked how she should answer the question she receives all the time, from investors, potential employees, and random networkers. The question, of course, is “What do you guys do?” Before responding, I posed the question to several of her classmates — each a founder — and sure enough, I got sub-optimal answers. In this post, I’ll share the advice I gave to Beatriz and her classmates for doing better.
All of the answers I received from Beatriz’s classmates started with the word “we.” We do X. We offer a SaaS platform that does Y. We are revolutionizing Z. In fact, that was how Beatriz answered when I asked about her company: “We offer training for veterinarians,” she said.
Trouble is, “we” statements, by themselves, are devoid of the kind of story-powered magic that boosts engagement. As you may have noticed if you’ve ever said, “We do X,” your listener will frequently counter by asking how you’re different from others who say they do X (“Subscriptions? You mean like Zuora?”), putting you immediately on the defensive. Worse, your listener may have so little experience with X (as I do with veterinarians) that he/she will simply itch for someone else to talk to.
To make Beatriz’s answer more engaging, I asked her to describe one of her clients. As she embarked on the tale of Pedro, a 36-year-old veterinarian who lives in Mexico City, her face lit up.
Pedro, she told me, earned his vet degree in the early 2000s, but his surgical skills — particularly for the small-animal operations that, according to Beatriz, are the bread-and-butter of many vet practices — had not kept up, and he was losing business because of it. He wanted more training, but his only option in Mexico was to enroll in a university, which would have been prohibitively expensive — and so time-consuming that Pedro would have had to shut down his practice for two to three years. According to Beatriz, there were lots of veterinarians in Mexico like Pedro, and that’s why she started her company.
Together, we spent a few minutes editing Beatriz’s story to craft a new answer to “What do you guys do?”:
“In Mexico, lots of veterinarians want to update their surgical skills to increase revenue for their practices. But until now, their only option was to enroll at a university, which was expensive and required shuttering their practices for as long as three years. No way they could afford that. So I started a company to offer high-quality vet training at a fraction of the cost — and vets don’t have to close their practices while they get certified.”
OK, it’s not going to win an Oscar, and it can still use some polish, but hopefully you notice three important differences between this answer and Beatriz’s initial one (“We offer training for veterinarians”):
Now, the subject of the first sentence is the target customer, instead of the entrepreneur or his/her company.
This casts the target customer as the protagonist, while the entrepreneur/company takes on a helper role (like Yoda or Gandalf in popular narrative epics). The word “we” doesn’t appear until after it’s clear who the protagonist is, what he/she wants, and how “we” will help him/her get it.
Yes, it takes a bit more time to answer this way, as compared to “We do X.” Some students objected: Doesn’t a VC, for example, expect an elevator pitch to contain as few words as possible? Perhaps, but we’re only talking about a few extra sentences, which you can still probably say in under 15 seconds. In my opinion, the added story mojo is well worth those extra seconds.
It’s more engaging
Every student in Beatriz’s class agreed that our new version, though not yet perfect, was more engaging than her initial answer. Why? First, when you shift your role from protagonist to helper — as long as your story is credible — you often become more likeable. Also, when you take time to lay out the protagonist’s obstacle, you bring the business opportunity to life. Finally, narrative structure, as you’ve probably heard, just has that effect on our brains.
Later, I helped Beatriz’s classmates craft customer-centric “What do you guys do?” answers for their own start-ups, which they tried out on each other. One man said that immediately talking about customers, instead of about his company, felt awkward at first. But he quickly got over it.
“Now,” he reported, “everyone seems more interested in what I’m saying.”
Image Credit: The Expat Woman on Eventbrite
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