Story(telling), (selling) or (positioning)?

If you’ve been through the “friend of a new parent” experience, you understand that whipping out the baby photos and pouring lovingly over every pore and cowlick on the little cherub’s head is great for 2 minutes. 10 minutes tops, depending on your tolerance level.  A 30 minute PowerPoint presentation on the subject and you are reassessing your friendship status. This is a valuable lesson in storytelling.

Whether you’re a project or product lead at a company, an entrepreneur or first time CEO at a start-up, you want to bring your baby to life. And you understand the need and value of effective storytelling to do this. You have to tell a compelling story, but most product managers and entrepreneurs get stuck on – how? Like the “friend of a new parent” experience, the how? isn’t going into to every nauseating detail from inception, through birth to teething pains. This applies both to babies and products. The sad fact, that most new parents or entrepreneurs don’t get, is that most of their listeners – whether it’s the CFO, CEO or senior leadership team, or Venture Capitalist, or prospective alpha customers – just don’t care.

To get the story right – to bring your baby to life – you have to understand two things.

1. What “they” care about

2. That complete storytelling isn’t just telling – it’s selling and positioning too.

I’ve covered understanding what they care about in rule #1 know what you want to achieve.

Too much telling is where people go wrong with storytelling.

    What you’re doing… You want “them’ to…
Telling What is it? Factual Explaining the product. Understand.
Selling What’s different? Emotional Comparing and Contrasting. Remember.
Positioning What’s in it for me? Personal Appealing to the ego. Engage.


Complete storytelling (the telling, selling and positioning) is what people want. Let’s look take a couple of pointers from an expert, Brendan Baker*, an angel investor at Greylock. As a succesful venture capitalist, Brendan clearly understands what he cares about – Traction. “Venture investors invest in momentum. Traction is your story of momentum. It’s told through quantified evidence of market demand for your product.” In an abridged version of his advice below, look at how this investor is looking for a complete story.

1) Compress your X Axis

The X axis is how long you’ve been working. The shorter, the better. Consider two startups below, both at the same number of users:

Compress the X axis

Compress the X axis


As an investor, who would you bet on? Green, of course, because they’ve moved faster. So as a startup, how can you show that you’re moving fast? Set reference points to effectively shorten the period.

Message Reference Point Investor’s Thinking
Telling We started in 2008, and have 5000 users. Users and Time 5000 users/36 months = painfully slow growth.
Selling We’ve doubled our users every 2 months Users and Time 5000 users/36 months = painfully slow growth.
Positioning We started to experiment in 2008. We built the alpha of our current product in late 2010, and just launched the beta in February. We already have 5000 users Alpha, Beta, Launch phases They took a while to find the right fit, but now they’re moving fast – 5000 users in beta is pretty good!’


Consider these two messages, for the same consumer web product:

The first is a telling message. “We started in 2008, and have 5000 users.” It’s factually correct.

Compare that to investor’s thinking: ‘5000 users/36 months = painfully slow growth.’

Now transition that to a positioning message. “We started to experiment in 2008. We built the alpha of our current product in late 2010, and just launched the beta in February. We already have 5000 users.” 

Here, she’s likely to think ‘they took awhile to find the right fit, but now they’re moving fast – 5000 users in beta is pretty good!’

Same story, different message. Psychologically, you’re anchoring a better reference point in their minds. In the second example you’re anchoring them around the beta launch, not the beginning of your startup.

2) Choose Your X Axis

Which axis you pick depends on whether you tell, sell or position your story. Telling would be picking the axis you most care about. Selling will involve choosing a market relevant axis. Positioning is choosing a market relevant axis and relating it to the progress of your product.

For example, take Sales cycles:

Sales cycles can work where there’s a slow, well-known sales cycle, like education. For example:

Message Reference Point Investor’s Thinking
Telling “Adoption is doubling every four months.” Users and Time Ho-hum
Selling “Adoption is doubling every term.” Users and Sales Cycle That’s better because there’s probably only acquisition potential each new term, and you’re doubling users at every opportunity.
Positioning “We were converting 0.3% to paid users in version 1. We raised that to 0.6% with the v2, and our current version is converting at 1.2%.” Users, Sales Cycle and Product Versions You’re learning and improving.


Go with your second instinct.

The first instinct of an engineer (myself, and all the ones I know) is usually to tell. The facts and figures, the detail that interests us must be interesting to everyone else right? Wrong. When it comes to storytelling, go with your second (learned) instinct. Make sure that you understand what ‘they’ care about, and then work at adding in a sprinkle of selling (pulling on emotions) and a dash of positioning to tone down the telling.

*Adapted from Brenda Baker’s post on Quora. Read the full post here.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

More at Google+Facebook and Pinterest. Comments are welcome, links are appreciated. If you’re interested in writing guest posts for this blog, please contact me.


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  2. sharkbiter | January 4, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I am in complete agreement with this post and I wish I came across it prior to some meetings that I had myself recently. Word order and inflection can be so effective to getting the “Right” point across at the right time.

  3. Pingback: What’s the best way to craft my positioning story?

  4. Pingback: What’s the best way to craft my positioning story? | Jacob Gudger

  5. Mayurakhsi Sanghvi | September 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    This is a fantastic little website I can’t believe I didn’t wander onto it earlier!

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