Earlier this week, we had the pleasure of hosting strategic messaging and positioning expert, Andy Raskin, for an AMA (ask me anything) session with the Notion Family. Andy has become the go-to guru in Silicon Valley and beyond for aligning CEOs and their leadership teams around a strategic story – a category-defining narrative that powers success in sales, marketing, fundraising, recruiting, everything.
Notion’s Stephen Millard first came across Andy when he posted an article in 2016 called ‘The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen. It’s Zuora’s and it’s brilliant. Here’s why.’
Andy has built a career around helping hundreds of Founders and CEOs align their teams around a strategic stories to power success in sales, marketing, fundraising, product, and recruiting. Clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, KPCB, GV, and other top venture firms. He’s also led strategic storytelling training at Salesforce, Square, Uber, Yelp, VMware and General Assembly.
You can watch the full video here or read a summary below.
Setting the scene
When I started out there was a real shift towards strategic storytelling. It used to be that the story was the wrapping paper for the product. Product was the really important thing and the story was just the dressing for it. What has since happened is that CEOs have seen their story as a strategic asset, maybe the most important strategic asset for the whole team.
Companies, especially those in B2B SaaS, who are focusing on having a customer centric story, are leaving everyone else behind – even those with a comparable or better product. So the key question all CEOs should be asking themselves is what does it take to align the whole team around a simple story?
This question is the impetus for all the work I do, but I’m still learning and have picked up some great lessons along the way. I haven’t worked with the aforementioned VCs directly, but have worked with many of their portfolio companies, and have had interest from bigger companies such as Salesforce and IBM.
How do you approach the process of strategic storytelling?
In my career I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of positioning work. This often would come in the form of companies wanting customers to see something they’d never seen before and whatever this positioning would end up being, it would then be the guiding light or DNA for everything the company did. In reality, this never actually happened. What I’ve found works best, is to begin the positioning exercise using the sales deck as an instrument for aligning the narrative. What makes this a good idea, is that it has all the pieces of the strategy in a narrative flow, rather than the ‘promise’ of a brand statement. It’s also an asset which can be tested out on customers, so you can see if it’s resonating. It’s also then a sales first approach, rather than a traditional marketing approach, or someone else’s view on the story. The strategic story team should consist of the CEO and around 4 or 5 other people. They should spend a couple of months crafting the story and then making sure everyone is aligned (though the aligning part is often the hardest part!). Build the story alongside sales, then tell that story everywhere.
How do you find the change you need in your storytelling structure when it isn’t apparent?
Look at all the different elements of your story and think ‘whose story is it?’. A traditional approach is to describe the product. The product or company is usually the main character in a company’s storytelling. This structure flips the main character from the product or company to the customer and focuses on what’s happening with them. The internal team usually has some sense of what’s changing in the world of the customer, but the best person to ask is the customer. You should always start by talking to the customer, but not to ask them what they love about the product etc (as valuable as this is), but to focus on what has changed in their world over the last few years and how those changes have made your services or product more valuable and a must-have.
There are a couple of posts you can read on this:
- ‘Great pitches start with change’
- ‘Why great pitches come from customers’
Focusing on the framework
There are five pieces of framework to focus on when creating your strategic storytelling:
- Naming the change in the world that’s creating stakes for customers.
- Showing how this change is creating winners and losers.
- What is the new ‘promised land’ – where is it that customers have to get to.
- what are the obstacles on the way to the new ‘promised land’ – we know there are some, otherwise customers would already be there. How are u getting them over the obstacles?
- What evidence do you have to prove that you can take them there?
How do you know when your narrative is complete and good enough to use?
The narrative is never done. It’s always evolving, but you want to get to some version you can commit to for the next six months to two years. The test of whether it’s good enough is always sales. Are we getting those initial nods and yeses, are we creating energy and a great feeling. A lot of it is feeling based, it’s not an A/B test, but sales are always a good indicator.
How do you align story with vision and mission statement and how do you then align an organisation?
I used to think that my value was in helping teams structure the story but what CEOs have consistently reported back is that they maybe could’ve done that on their own. But I’ve seen examples where this has happened and then they’ve shown it to their VP Sales, who tweaks slightly, and then there VP Marketing and pretty soon the whole thing becomes a monster. Alignment is the key; if you have the story alignment right, you don’t need a vision or mission statement.
Vision or mission statements tend to be self-centred, for example ‘we want to disrupt XYZ industry’. The story and structure we’re discussing here is about how to get customers to their promised land – that is our mission. For a while the Airbnb website said ‘belong anywhere’ on their homepage. To me, that’s a message about the promised land. If you really think about everything Airbnb does, it does it to help its customers belong anywhere. However it’s never really fully achievable but rather aspirational for both the customer and the company.
The importance of stories
There is so much now about stories and storytelling that it’s almost cliche; people want to learn storytelling as a skill for engaging with people. But, in selling, it’s incredibly important to know of the impact of telling someone else’s story back to them. There’s a book that has greatly influenced me ‘Never Split the Difference’ by Christoper Voss. Voss is a former FBI negotiator who, nearly every time, successfully secured the release of hostages. Voss decided to look at the transcripts of the negotiations, to see when the negotiations shifted to a place where the hostage taker would be willing to negotiate. He found that this happened when the negotiating team would summarise the hostage takers story back to them. They might have had to repeat it a few times etc and wait for the hostage taker to agree with their version, but they found that this was when the negotiations shifted in their favour. You know someone was actually listening and really understands you, when they are able to tell your story back to you.
In growth stage, post Series A and pre Series C, how often should you review and change the core narrative?
Before Series A, a lot of exploration needs to be done of what this narrative is. This stage is when it’s really being refined. Even though, before Series A, you may have achieved a lot of success, the success is often attributed to the brute force of the founders, who are living and breathing every aspect of the company everyday. They will find a way to sell, even if it means picking up the phone and jumping on every sales call. In the growth stage, CEOs need to get to a point where they go, “if we can really get the story right, we will boost our ROI”, this is where start to work on their story and where it becomes a ‘pain point’.
Taking Zuora as an example, the fundamental outline of their story hasn’t really changed. A little before their IPO they published a book called ‘Subscribed’, primarily about the subscription economy. What are they selling? The product, yes, but more importantly the change that a subscription mindset represents.
What are the key indicators of a great story?
It’s hard to measure impact of a story. But one of the lowest hanging fruits for measuring is sales cycle duration. Are customers getting the product faster and is it creating more urgency on the other side? An example of how you can measure the impact is with the time to the first win for a new sales rep. How long does it take for someone when they come on board to win their first deal? One company who looked at this saw this time slashed in half when they rolled out their story framework. The impact at first is subjective, for example getting more nods. But deal size, speed, post implementation revenue expansion are also key things to identify and track.
How do you cut through to the essence of the narrative when the companies processes are complex?
Ideally, the whole point of the narrative is to cut through this complexity to sum up your business and product in a really simple way. The narrative can be used as a gateway to get people excited.
If customers don’t see the world in the same way as you, is it the story or the customer that’s wrong?
There isn’t a straightforward answer to this. Early adopters understood your story, the mainstream doesn’t see it yet. The whole idea here is that we’re going to show how those early adopters are winning. We’re looking for something fresh but demonstrable.
Do you advocate customising sales deck for particular customers or better to hold a general company line?
Everyone speaks to some form of multiple audiences whether it be personas, multiple industries or different sides of the marketplace. The worst thing we can do is tell totally separate stories for each group. Firstly, it comes across as a bit scattered, but it also then means we have a lot of stories to remember. It is hard for the team to align around many stories. You can read more about this in the blog: ‘Tailoring your pitch for multiple audiences’.
In B2B2C who do you focus on?
It’s hard to make a rule about this. In most of the cases, focusing on the change happening at the end user level is the way to go. Have seen it work the other way though.
What have you learned?
I have written a post called ‘What I’ve learned’ but I’ll share a few thoughts here. The most important point is that this really is the CEO’s work; the story is their job. The story is going nowhere unless the CEO is the author of it, but not all CEOs thinks this way, perhaps a minority do. Most think it’s marketing’s job, so that wrapping paper element we discussed earlier. CEOs like Tien at Zuora see it as a core part of their job. Conversations around messaging are really conversations around strategy. Everytime you get into a conversation about what should be being said, it’s really a conversation around positioning and long term approaches. You can’t separate the two. Then comes alignment, this is the single biggest piece of work I do. Getting the whole leadership team aligned is the key.