This curated column is by leadership mentor & consultant Andy Raskin
Three months ago, I kicked off a strategic messaging and positioning engagement with a San Francisco-based SaaS company that’s raised over $50 million from top venture firms, including Sequoia.
I began by asking the company’s leadership team why they had called me in. The CEO, a man named Jonathan, neatly summed up the responses:
“If we’re going to meet our growth targets, we’re going to have to radically shorten our sales cycle. So we need a story that creates urgency. How do we position our platform as more than just a nice-to-have?”
Of course, Jonathan’s question is at the heart every engagement I lead, every training session I run, and every keynote I give.
In this post, I’ll share two approaches—strategic narrative patterns, really—that I’ve used successfully to answer it.
Pattern #1. “Name the Enemy”
What Jonathan and others are really asking is, how do you get people to see that there’s a lot at stake in whether they buy or don’t?
One way to do that is by making the case that prospects are suffering at the hands of an evil someone or something. Criminals, legacy solutions and monopolists work well as enemies, though the casting options are endless.
One of the most successful “Name the Enemy” executions ever was Salesforce founder Marc Benioff’s “No Software” mantra:
To be sure, there’s nothing inherently evil about software. But from the start, Benioff depicted the suffering it inflicts—when maintained and operated by in-house IT departments—on sales teams who rely on it to do their jobs. According to this account of Salesforce’s original 2000 launch party—at which attendees were invited to play a game called “Throw a Disk in the Toilet”—the whole event was about naming the enemy:
“They turned the lower level of the theater into a space that resembled Enterprise Software, a.k.a. “Hell.” There were [actors playing] screaming salespeople in cages, and games such as wack-a-mole, where the moles were other software companies. Once [attendees] made their way through the dirt, they ascended to find Salesforce.com.”
As that last sentence implies, naming an enemy sets you up as a liberating savior. So for this pattern to work, you have to also present a vision of the happily-ever-after Promised Land—what the world looks like once the enemy has been vanquished. Graphically, you’re telling a story that looks like this:
By the way, Elon Musk is another great “Name the Enemy” practitioner. His widely praised Tesla Powerwall launch (which I dissect in “Want a Better Pitch? Watch This.”) followed the pattern, as did his announcement of the Tesla Model 3. In that talk, he conveyed the stakes in the opposite order, but the effect was the same. First, Tesla’s Promised Land vision of a world powered by renewable energy sources:
Then, our suffering at the hands of the enemy:
Pattern #2: “Undeniable, Relevant Change in the World”
What if prospects are basically OK now, but they‘ll suffer in the future if they don’t adapt?
In that case, your pitch is ripe for a pattern I call “Undeniable, Relevant Change in the World.” My favorite example of this pattern comes from Zuora, which sells cloud-based software for subscription businesses. (I break down the mechanics of Zuora’s pitch in more detail in “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen.”)
Zuora kicks off nearly every marketing pitch, sales pitch, and CEO keynote with a declaration about how the world has changed:
Zuora then connects the change to stakes by showing how it creates winners and losers. They imply that you could well wind up part of a corporate mass extinction …
…or you can thrive by embracing the subscription services trend:
In Game of Thrones parlance, your message is that Winter Is Coming, and things will end either very well or very badly:
Ideally you want to design the change so that it is, to some degree, surprising and newsworthy. (If your change is “We’re all mobile now!” go back to the drawing board.) Also, the change should be happening whether your company exists or not. In this pattern, you’re not the source of the change; rather, you help prospects embrace and thrive in the new world that the change creates.
Conveying Stakes Using Humor
Of course, not everyone feels comfortable talking to prospects about suffering (or potential suffering). But if you want to position your solution as more than a nice-to-have, you really have to go there.
That said, depictions of pain don’t have to be all doom-and-gloom. Take Dollar Shave Club, which portrays drugstores as the enemy of razor blade consumers in a series of mocking videos. You either pay astronomically high prices at those chains—tantamount to being punched below the belt…
…or economize by shaving with blades so past their prime that you need a tub to catch all the blood:
Or, you can let Dollar Shave Club deliver you unto its Promised Land:
When You Effectively Convey Stakes, Prospects Open Up
A lot of pitch advice tells you to start with “the problem.” If there’s one thing I hope you’ll take from this post, it’s that the “problem/solution” framework is sub-optimal because it usually fails to convey what’s at stake.
To do that, you must first frame the prospect’s past, present and future in emotional terms. Suffering and happiness. Winning and losing. Fear and desire. “It’s hard to do subscription billing” is a problem. “Your company thrives or dies” is stakes.
Jonathan, the CEO I mentioned earlier, and his team have now been pitching their “Undeniable, Relevant Change in the World” story for three weeks — not just in sales, but also with a new website and new content marketing pieces. He tells me that sales conversations are going very differently:
“Prospects actually nod in agreement as I go through the slides. I can’t tell you how many times they say, “That’s right” or “Wow, you really get it.” Then they open up about how the stakes impact them and their business.”
As any salesperson knows, once that starts happening, the deal is yours to lose. But what really makes Jonathan confident that the new story will slash his sales cycle and help him achieve his growth targets is something else he’s hearing prospects say more often:
How quickly can we get started?