Everyone says to focus on the customer "pain" or "problem" but what if most people are not experiencing much pain. They just get on with things. Strategic sales narratives are stories that compel customers to understand why they need a product. They work because they use stakes, not problems, they make the client the hero and they begin with change rather than pain. Below I've summarised Andy Raskin's posts to understand how he helps build narratives for companies including examples and key points.
Also see: How 10 Companies do their Sales Demos
What and Why
- What is an example of a great story deck? See how Uberflip used "The Greatest Sales Deck Ever"
- How do you use one sales narrative for multiple different industries you work with? See Zuora's example
- Intercom used the same narrative to announce a big update about 21 features they added
- Upscope's narrative: Everything changes once you add pictures.
What and Why
Positioning comes before the sales narrative. What is positioning?
There is an ongoing argument about which comes first "positioning" or "narrative" and that's something to keep in mind as you read. Below is my view as a bootstrapped startup co-founder with a product increasingly moving from SMB to enterprise sales.
A sales narrative is something you build AFTER you've positioned your product.
Positioning is an input into the sales narrative.
"Product positioning describes the specific market you intend to win and why you are uniquely qualified to win it"
Positioning has evolved from the old "positioning statement" to a scientifically structured process.
Here's the modern way to find positioning for your product:
- Start by focusing on your best customers.
- List your unique attributes that service those customers.
- List the real value of each of those attributes to those customers.
- Find out exactly who cares about them a lot.
- Find a market frame that helps those strengths stand out.
Positioning is something we consider as we build new products or change direction with an existing product to find a better market.
How is positioning different to a sales narrative?
April Dunford wrote the modern book on positioning and is best qualified to answer:
Below are the first two tweets from her twitter thread on narrative vs positioning.
"I read an article today that was trying to equate narrative development and positioning. I don't see these as competing things - I think one is an input to the other. 1/
Positioning defines who your product is best suited for, what the alternative solutions are, what value the product delivers for customers. These are inputs to a narrative - you literally can't write a story until we know who the heroes and villains are 2/"
A sales narrative is a story you write for the market you're already sure about.
When you already know how your product solves a problem for your market you can focus on communicating effectively. You communicate effectively via story telling.
Why story telling?
Stories work. They always have. We are hard wired for them.
If we've got our positioning right then it's time to work on our story telling.
Why do you need a compelling story. Because Obi-Wan FAILED to sell the trip to Luke Skywalker
Even when people say they want something they don't really commit.
"In Star Wars Luke whines about wanting to be a pilot and have adventures yet when Obi-Wan offers him the opportunity to do exactly that, Luke demurs and says 'I can’t get involved'”
Luke only chose to go on the trip after they killed his uncle and aunt and changed his world.
It's a little brutal but proves the point. Put your solution to their problem in a story line that compels them to act.
1. What is an example of a great story deck? See how Uberflip used "The Greatest Sales Deck Ever"
You've probably already come across the "Greatest sales deck ever made".
Here's a brief summary of the 5 key points of the story it told.
- Name a big relevant change in the world
- Show how there will be winners and losers
- Tease the promised land
- Introduce features as magic gifts that overcome obstacles to that promised land
- Present evidence that you can make this story come true
I always thought of that as more of a VC pitch but it appears Uberflip used that same pitch as their sales narrative.
"... in the two quarters since introducing a sales narrative based on that post, Uberflip has met or exceeded revenue targets, which was not happening before."
Critically, they also start with the change in the environment rather than a problem.
What's interesting to me is that everyone says start with the "problem" but I've always felt that pointing at the problem is like pointing at them directly and saying "you suck".
Whereas, as Andy Raskin points out: "when you start with a change (rather than a “problem”), you build trust with prospects because they’re likely to see you as a partner in navigating the shift"
The Uberflip example is a great read because it shows you the before and after decks for comparison.
2. How do you use one sales narrative for multiple different industries you work with? See Zuora's example.
I love this post because while trying to create a sales narrative you start thinking "But how can I apply this to all the segments we market to?"
Fortunately, Andy Raskin expands on the initial Zuora "Greatest Sales Deck" example by showing us how they use that narrative across industries.
"A better approach, clearly, is to have a simple, powerful, high-level story that connects the low-lever ones together"
I especially like how they bring that idea of change to each individual role.
3. Intercom used the same narrative to announce a big update about 21 features they added
I got this email from Intercom today and straight away boooom, I was hooked into reading it because it sounds epic.
The funny thing is that this update does not really apply to our company.
The features are not really relevant to us.
Yet it's still somehow compelling to hear about a big change happening and it's almost as if humans are wired to focus on change as a survival skill. We're curious primates knowing that changes mean opportunity or danger.
Here are their key sub-headers of that Intercom post.
- Customer support is undergoing massive, irreversible change
- Internet scale and changing customer expectations are driving and accelerating the change
- The Conversational Support Funnel has three layers, and using each one makes the others better
The headers don't exactly follow the process of the greatest sales deck but read through it and you'll see they follow the structure within the quotes and sub-headers.
4. Upscope's own narrative "Everything changes once you add pictures"
I've put together a narrative for Upscope.
It starts with change. I think that parts ok but...
.. as you'll see from further below, this narrative covers problems and not stakes and that's a problem.
You can even feel it as you reach the end of the narrative. It's missing that extra bite. That compelling road to choose. It's missing stakes.
Essential points to remember in building your own sales narrative
Below I put together some of the key points from Andy Raskin's blog posts along with input from some other organisations on sales narratives.
Most people you’re selling to are not experiencing much pain. Don't pitch problems, pitch stakes
It's almost comical to think about it but I don't go through my working day thinking about pain points and which software is going to solve that.
Yes, for some absolutely critical problems I will do but most things don't feel critical until some big catastrophe.
I think people just get on with things.
If someone tells us we have a big problem it may not fully resonate until they put it in perspective.
Why are stakes better than pain points?
Pain point: You're unhealthy, eat this and you'll be healthier.
Stakes: You're going to die if you don't eat this. Eat this so you can carry on living a happy life.
What's more compelling?
It's the stakes. It's an ugly truth.
How often do people fail to make a lifestyle change until they get a bit of a health shock? I guess stakes are a better way to communicate the loss from inaction.
They are the hero and you are the side-kick
Both Andy Raskin and Cathy Salit mention a similar metaphor, the Hero <> Side-kick or Wizard <> Hero metaphor.
You are not the hero solving the problem, they are the hero. You are the wise guide or side kick helping them navigate the problem.
They are Luke. You are Yoda.
"Rather, they are entering a preexisting story as a supporting character who is there to help the hero — the client — achieve his or her goal.
The client as hero. It was a revelation — and one that led to many successful new practices. Once salespeople understand they are supporting the hero’s success"
Get your own teams buy-in to the sales narrative by getting them to "That's right"
You've not only got to pitch the strategic sales narrative to the client but first you've got to internally sell that same narrative to your own team members.
This is a good technique.
Andy Raskin mentions the book "Split the difference" by a FBI hostage negotiator named Voss.
"When Voss analyzed the transcripts of his most unlikely hostage negotiation victories, he discovered that the turning point frequently occurred right after his team took the time to listen to the captor’s argument, summarized that argument back to the captor, and then got the captor to say, 'That’s right.'"
They said the captor's story back to the captor "So, let me see if I have this straight, your cause is this and america is messed up because... "
Oddly enough, that's also a common copywriting technique.
There's a blog introduction formula I like simply because I find writing introductions to be difficult and I just want something that works so I can get in with writing the blog post.
The formula is called APP which stands for Agree, Promise, Preview. The Agree part comes right after the main headline and has to be a statement which makes the reader say to themselves "Yes, that's true".
If they agree then it means the rest of the article is going to be relevant to them. If you write any articles, emails or blog posts then read more about Agree, Promise, Preview.
Also, read the full article getting to That's right.
Don't overdo the story and end up in the uncanny valley
When I first heard of "The Hero's Journey" I started thinking I've got to do a Star Wars level story for our company, Upscope Co-browsing but that's not good story telling.
If you overdo it then you end up in the "uncanny valley" which is summarised here.
One of the examples given is the Polar Express animated movie which used realistic looking characters and went into the land of creepy very quickly. They entered the uncanny valley by being too real.
"We can improve our storytelling with techniques applied from the wealth of storytelling techniques used by the best screenwriters, playwrights and novelists, but only to a point."
If you try too hard to be a story teller when you really need the right tone for your customers then you end up trying too hard and it shows.
A good way to get started on your sales narrative. Who is your Vader?
This is a nice table of company messaging and the Vaders they are battling.
The questions to ask would be as follows:
What, ultimately, is the state your customer desires to reach?
What stands in the way that you can help your customer overcome?
What does it look like when your customer defeats Darth Vader?
What are three credible ways your company can help your customer defeat Darth Vader?
It's been a pleasure.
Also see how 10 companies do their demos