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Hello everyone. My name is Agata. I’m the head of marketing at Piktochart, the all-in-one visual communication tool and the organizer of The Business Storyteller Summit 2020. I’m excited to welcome my fireside chat guest, Andy Raskin. Andy Raskin helps CEOs align their teams around the strategy narrative. His clients include leadership teams at Salesforce, Square, Dropbox, IBM, Uber, and Yelp, as well as dozens of venture-backed technology companies. His 2016 post, ‘The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen‘ got over 2.5 million views and has been embraced worldwide as a new framework for company positioning and category definition. His own stories have appeared on NPR’s ‘This American Life’ and ‘All Things Considered’ as well as in the New York Times, Wired, and Gourmet. Welcome Andy, and thank you for joining us at The Business Storyteller Summit.
Thank you so much for having me, Agata.
We’re really happy to have you here. The topic of this conversation is ‘Story is Strategy’. Could you tell us a bit more about why creating a story around one’s business strategy is so crucial?
When I was younger, I used to think that the story was kind of like wrapping paper for the product. Like you build this product and then, you know, we’re going to create this story that’s going to make it look good on the shelf like a packaging. And through lots of experiences, I came to this kind of almost flipped view, which is that actually the story is kind of the main thing we’re building and the product is kind of like a prop for making the story come true. When I work with teams, this is something I hear over and over is that the story wasn’t just like for selling, although of course, that’s often the first impetus, but it becomes this kind of strategic north star that guides the product team on what we’re even building. And so that’s why I really believe this thing – that the story is the strategy.
That’s really interesting to think from this perspective as well. I think that that should shift the way CEOs are also thinking about it. Actually related to this, when I hear the term strategy narrative, I immediately think of Andy Raskin. So it seems that strategy narrative was rather an under-invested skill among the leaders in the past. Obviously, it existed before you, right? But not that many people talked about it and you actually helped to popularize it as one of the top skills that founders and CEOs should develop. And how can founders work on improving in this area in your opinion?
First I think we should get clear on what we mean by it. How do we even define it? And really it has taken me years to even have a definition that I’m really comfortable with. The way I like to think about it is that a strategy narrative is a story in a person’s head that guides their actions and their decisions. So all of us, when we’re going around in the world, we have a strategy narrative in our head that you reached out to me and others to do this conference. These actions were guided by some story in your head about how to thrive. Buyers have that story and have a story in their head that is gonna guide what they think is urgent and what problems they’re going to address.
In fact, I’d say even nothing is a problem until you have a story about the world and then something is getting in your way for somewhere you want to get. The strategic narrative, I think a lot of people think it means, “How are we going to talk about our company in a really exciting way?” I like to flip it and the starting point, I think you asked, “How can people get better at this?” I think the starting point is what’s the story in people’s heads right now that is leading them to sort of not feel urgency about the thing where we’re pitching. What’s the story in our heads that is not about us, but about the world that we feel differently? Maybe some of our early buyers are feeling differently and how can we get that story into their heads? So it’s not a story about us, but a story about the world and how it is changed.
Yeah. I think the problem is that sometimes it might be difficult to identify. So to some founders, they might think like, “I don’t have any interesting story to tell.” Because then you don’t really think about their own journey – why they wanted to launch this particular product or service. And they think like, “I don’t have anything that I could use as a story.” So do you have some best practices? How you could identify it?
Well, first of all, this strategic narrative I’m talking about is not necessarily the founding story. I’m not talking about recounting your founding journey although sometimes that can be part of conveying it. You know, you founded this company because you saw some opportunity in the world and this opportunity didn’t come from nowhere. Something had to have happened for this opportunity to arise. That is the story. I think not literally like why you founded the company, but what has happened in the world that has changed the world for the potential buyers, where this thing you’re bringing them is so valuable now – even more valuable than it might have been in the past.
You asked the best practices. One of the things that I always do with teams is I have them talk to their customers about this stuff and try and elicit the story and the questions. A lot of teams talk to customers, but we’re typically asking things like, “Well, what do you love about our product? What do you hate about our product? Why would you buy it?”
What I’m interested in is less that and more, “What has changed in your world such that what we’re giving to you and what you got from us is so much more valuable now than it would have been a few years ago or some short time ago?” And get them talking about what has shifted in their world. Often, this leads to some further territory for where the story can start.
I love it that you mentioned it because I’m also a huge advocate of talking to customers. I feel that it’s often undervalued. You know, people think that it’s only like the area of customer success or customer support. Actually, every person in the company should have some sort of a touchpoint with the customer probably as well to understand. And especially CEOs, right? They should be talking on a regular basis with their customers as well.
What are the most important elements of an effective strategy narrative? It’s not just founding story, but also you need to communicate the change within the company and you need to align the whole team around your strategy. What are the important elements that CEOs and leaders should pay attention?
I think the biggest one is centering it around a shift in the world. So what I’ve been calling the old game and the new game. One example of this, you mentioned that a post about Zuora, ‘The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen’. So Zuora tells this story, “Hey, we used to be in a world where we wanted to own things. One-off transactions – people wanted to just buy things. If you played that game as a seller, that was very successful as a great game like you just sell things. But the world changed whether because of technology, people’s tastes, whatever – a lot of things happened. Now we’re in a new world where people don’t necessarily want to buy a lot of things. They want the benefits of those things without the hassles of the ownership. Zuora calls this user ship, or sometimes they call it the subscription economy.
So this story about this shift in the world is the kind of the cornerstone of all communication. Every blog post, every sales pitch, every time the CEO talks on TV – this is the starting point. The starting point is not, “Let me tell you about Zuora”. It’s not even, “Let me tell you about the problem we solve.” There’s many problems. Every company sells many problems and problems are not problems until there’s a sort of goal state that we want to get to. So the most fundamental piece is this. Then we want to show that there are stakes in this new game – if you don’t play it, basically you’re on the road to ruin. We need to show that the people who are not getting on board are dying. Vice versa, the people who are winning. So there’s basically this new game of creating new winners and losers.
Once we’ve done that, then we want us to get really clear on what I call the object of the new game. So there’s this new world called subscription economy. What is the finish line? Where do I have to get to win in this world? Zuora defines that as at least initially as you have to deliver this thing, they call it the subscription experience, which had all these components. If you can do that, then you win. Of course, then we want to talk about what’s going to stop you from getting to that goal? So basically now these problems are not just problems. They’re really obstacles to getting to this goal. Of course, now we can talk about how we are the only ones really thinking about the world this way. Therefore, we uniquely are positioned to help you get to that finish line.
That makes sense. I’m glad that you mentioned the Zuora post because we actually got quite a lot of questions from our attendees around this about building sales, pitch stacks, and also investment decks. I know that you mentioned the elements already, but what would be some additional tips for people to create an impressive pitch deck? What would you recommend? Let’s start maybe with the sales pitch deck and then we can go to the investor.
Yeah. So I went through the main pieces of the sales deck. The only other piece I’d add is just some evidence that you are making this story come true, which is basically success stories about how you’ve helped people get to reach that object of the game. For the investor pitch, I actually don’t usually get involved with teams on investor pitches. Usually, that’s not the trigger for me to come in. They usually raise the money and now they’re looking to grow and realizing if we could really nail this story, it’s gonna be a multiplier on all our investments on the ROI, for investments in marketing and sales. Investor pitches are interesting because investors are really idiosyncratic in what they want, the way they even expect the pitch to be.
There are some investors who will say, “I only want a pitch that starts with the problem slide and then the solution slide”. And then it’s up to you, whether you want to veer away from that at your own risk. In general, the core of the investor pitch is still the sales pitch, because what does the investor want to know? What’s the first call that an investor is going to make if they’re interested for due diligence? They are going to call a customer and they’re going to say, “Why did you buy this?” They’re going to want to know what is so appealing about this. Why do customers want this? And so that, I think means that the core of the sales deck really becomes the core of the investor deck.
Of course, there’s a lot of other things in the investor deck that are not in a sales deck, like, how is each sale going to create profit? So it’s like revenue and profit model business model. And then, how many of these customers are there and how much money do they have to spend? So there’s this team stuff, which isn’t necessarily in the sales deck. So there’s other pieces you need. But the core of it I think is the same. Of course, what’s one of the big objections that investors typically have? It’s well why isn’t anyone else doing this? Isn’t somebody else doing this? And by starting with a shift in the world, I think you help them smell the opportunity because you’re saying, “Hey, you’re really starting with the why now.” I don’t like to label slides why now because it’s not really saying anything, but by talking about this shift in the world, you’re talking about why this opportunity has arisen and this, I think gets their blood hot when it gets them seeing the opportunity.
I think these are helpful tips because a lot of attendees of this Business Storyteller Summit are founders, so we got quite a lot of questions about investor pitches. But ultimately at the end of the day, you are trying also to sell something, right? Like you are trying to sell this idea to the investors as well. So I think still following the structure that you described in your posts on Medium could be definitely helpful. Maybe that’s something that could be your next post to write about the investor pitches because maybe not everyone realizes that the sales pitch directions could help them.
Yeah, I did write a post called ‘Great Pitches Start With Change‘, and that post goes a little more into this change. It has an example of how this change is used in an investor deck. It’s a company called Amplitude, where they pitched their series-C deck and they put it out there. The shift they mentioned is now every product is digital or every product is software. And so Amplitude sells software for measuring how users are using software. So this shift is really creating the case that there’s just this huge market now for their stuff. So that’s one post. I’ve been a little to dive too much into giving advice for investor pitches for the reason that investors can be really picky about how exactly they want it. I don’t want to be responsible for telling somebody, “You should structure it this way”. And then the investors, “No, I hate that way”. Sales is a little different because I think you can have a structure that can work over lots and lots of people you’ll be talking to over the years.
But overall you think as well like the element of the story could definitely help when pitching for investment as well?
Absolutely. Like I said, the core of that deck is still the sales story. It’s still the same thing.
Makes sense. Thank you so much. What are the biggest mistakes that CEOs do when it comes to business storytelling? From your experience, you have worked with so many CEOs, what have you noticed?
Well, I think, I can tell you one of the mistakes I made when I first started doing this. Sometimes teams would contact me and they would say I’ll be running the project. Maybe the VP of marketing would say, “Hey, I’ll be running this and I want to work with you and I’ll keep our CEO posted on what we’re doing, and we’ll have him/her sign off at the end.” A few years into it, I looked what were the teams where I worked at them that really seemed to go great and where were the ones where I didn’t really see this story embraced as much. And it was always where the CEO was actually leading it and fully in there with me in the trenches all the time.
And so I think one of the big – people think that I guess, cause story a strategic narrative sounds like words so it sounds like marketing. I really see this – if it’s strategy, if the story is strategy, then this is CEO work. So I think one of the big things is where I’ve seen this done successfully, the CEO leads it and takes it on as their thing. In my work, I decided I’m only going to work with teams where that’s the case. So I lose a lot of work because of that because that’s still I think a minority view and I’m often contacted by marketing teams or others who say, “Hey, we’re running this project and not the CEO.” You know, maybe it would be fine but I just decided I’m going to just work with the CEO because that seemed to be the most successful model for me.
I think it completely makes sense as well. Especially if you think about it, it doesn’t apply just for the message that you are sending out but it applies to every single department who’s in your company. So it applies to the product. If the product will follow the strategy, then also the customers will be happy. So every single department would need to be involved. It doesn’t really make sense that marketing would own it.
Yeah, I think there’s two ways to look at what people call business storytelling. I’m guessing some of the people you might have to talk to are talking about this one way where it’s a kind of an approach to communication where it’s like, we’re going to use stories to be more effective communicators in many different kinds of situations and many different kinds of stories. That’s totally valid. It’s not my interest though. My interest is what is the one story that we’re all telling all the time – that one that becomes the strategy. That to me, that’s gotta come from the leader.
Yeah, in order for it to stick and that people actually would be interested and buy into the story as well. From your experience working with the CEOs, what are usually the most surprising outcomes that the CEOs noticed after they start working with you on their strategy narrative?
Well, some of the early things I hear are some teams really track sales cycle and I’ve heard from some teams. There was one team called Logical and they do a SaaS platform for legal teams. Andy Wilson, the CEO of that company told me that in the couple of months right after we worked together and they started deploying this narrative, he tracks something called time to first win – the time it takes for our new salesperson to close a new deal, their first deal. That went from 60 days to about to less than 30 days. So you saw this huge increase in the speed at which the reps were getting activated and I’ve heard similar sales cycle duration things happen. That’s happened for me and my own experience when I was part of teams.
But I think the bigger thing that I hear from CEOs is that it just becomes this north star for everything. The big one is product evolution that we just started with thinking this was going to be about sales and it became really clear as we’re building this narrative, this is actually creating a roadmap for us. I first had that experience with a team where the Head of Product had come from Google. At first, he was like, “Why am I participating in this exercise? This seems like a sales and marketing thing.” By the end of it, he was like, “Andy, this story is now how I manage the prioritization of my backlog, which features we’re going to build first.” He then became a CEO of a company and then I worked with their team and with them, it was like pretty early on. They hadn’t even built out much of the product yet, but he wanted to do this because he was like, “Yes, this is how we’re going to know what to build and that kind of stuff.” I just find it really gratifying and really interesting.
I’m also glad that you mentioned product because we actually received one of our questions from our attendees that is related to this. He’s a brand manager. “How to create an actionable plan on taking the founder’s story and applying our voice to it through product and content?”
Again, like the founder’s story, it often makes sense if the founder is telling it. So when the team is small, it makes a lot of sense that the founder is in all the sales calls and telling that story about how they founded the company. Often that is related to the strategic narrative because they probably experienced the shift in the world themselves and they can talk to it personally. When we’re talking about the broader context, the founder’s story and the strategic narrative are not necessarily the same, or at least the strategic narrative has to be sometimes teased out of that founder’s story so that it’s something where it’s not really about the founder anymore. It’s about the customer and their world and I think that’s really the first step – to first pull that out. Of course, I think this is the job of the leader to do first for the team, not to place that burden on the team. If the leader can do that, then it should be pretty clear for whether it’s the brand manager, the product team, or whoever to then apply this as their north star. It’s not always so clear if it’s just sort of, here’s what happened to me as a founder.
I think also like some people are really good in storytelling, right? It’s a skill. So even if let’s say you have done the majority of the work and you already know what is going to be your north star story. Sometimes it might be that even if you have the most amazing deck, some documentation, video, or whatever, it comes down to the delivery. Not everyone, like some people are great at it and the others are not that good. Do you also help CEOs with this aspect of the storytelling itself? Are there some things that you recommend for them because this is a skill that you can practice as well?
We’re all humans and I think we all have the ability to tell a story. We may not have the ability to like write a movie or give a thrilling presentation in front of a large crowd. But I think we all have the ability to do a 30-second story about the world. So I really try to just boil it down so compactly, so that it’s not about the performance. Maybe you’ll have also other people talking in this conference about how to present and all that kind of stuff. I’m completely not interested in that. I have actually taken workshops about learning how to present and I found them hugely helpful. I would say my work is not about that because I don’t want it to be about whether somebody is a great presenter or not. One of the best examples I think is Elon Musk. Look at his pitches, especially early on, his style is really horrible. He gets a little bit of an Elon Musk pass because he’s Elon Musk.
Yeah. It’s also difficult to interview him because his responses are very short.
Yeah, he did this pitch for the power wall, which is Tesla’s unit that commercialized their battery technology. Again, this pitch was not stylistically very good. He’s doing the uhms, ahhs, and all his normal stuff, but just the structure of it is so good that he suddenly became hailed as the next Steve Jobs. His next pitch for the Model X was horrible and not structured well. I don’t know that person, whoever helped them was on vacation or open up to it somehow. But to me, if we structure it properly, that’s like 99% of the work in order to get it to flow through the company and we shouldn’t have to rely on presentation.
Yeah, that totally makes sense. Basically, once you have the structure, you can script it as well. Let’s say someone is really stressed, that helps when they have to go out and talk to the whole company. That should help them as well.
And this is, you’re getting to what’s the format that we even put this thing in. When we talk about writing down the narrative or getting clear on the narrative, what’s the instrument we have that we’re writing it down. In my career, I was taught to put it in a place that the world doesn’t see. So it’s going to be like a positioning statement or some kind of like a collection of messages, some kind of messaging structure, document that isn’t internal. Kind of like the DNA and we’re going to come to it when we do have to express the narrative. We’re going to use that as our guide. So if we wanna build a sales deck, we’ve looked at it, maybe take some of the messages out of it. We want to build a website, we’re going to take the key messages out of it.
What I found in my career was that didn’t really happen. Maybe marketing would usually build this thing and then marketing becomes the cop to try to get everyone else to use that same message. And also these messages are not in really a narrative format, so it’s not really clear how to take just sort of these messages and then make them flow in – say a sales deck or on a website. When I started doing this work, I really thought hard about what would be a guide that would work better this way and I came to the sales deck. So when I work with teams, the sales deck is almost always the thing we’re building. It gives people a guide on how to tell the story very quickly in the most important context that matters. It also has the effect and of course, we’re going to test it in sales calls. Sales is going to be very involved in building it and they’re less likely to reject it as something that marketing threw at them or the CEO threw at them.
I’m so happy you mentioned the format aspect because often people get so caught up in thinking which format should I present it. They spent more time thinking about the format than the actual story, but it’s understandable because right now, we are surrounded with so many different formats for content. That makes it a bit hard to decide. So it’s good that you mentioned from your experience that you noticed that an actual sales presentation would be the best starting point where you can then later repurpose this message from the presentation into other formats.
Yeah, have you done that? I’m just curious.
Yes, we have it as well. Piktochart offers presentations as a format, so we do templates around this. In our case, we make sure that our CEO on a regular basis communicates this to the team and emphasizes the whole story like why we are doing this, what we are doing. It sticks in people’s minds across all the teams.
One of the first things that the majority of startup founders do is positioning. I know there’s a lot of questions around startup founders because of the audience of the Business Storyteller Summit. They analyze the market, look at their competition, define their buyer personas, and think about their pricing model. In your opinion, what should come first – positioning or narrative?
Well, this is a tough question to answer because I think there’s a lot of definitional baggage built up in what does positioning means, what does narrative means. I think the traditional approach in my experience is positioning is supposed to be kind of like this central thing. The world doesn’t see it, but it’s the result of our research and the marketing, the pricing research about our ideal customer. We’re going to write it down and then the strategic narrative is some story that we tell, but it better be based on this thing. That’s sort of a traditional way of thinking about it.
The other thing about positioning is it’s traditionally defined as in relation to competitors. If you look at the traditional positioning statement, it’s always here’s the problem, here’s how we solved the problem, and here are our unique differentiators for what works better. That doesn’t say anything about urgency. So if someone doesn’t really see they have the problem or doesn’t have lots of problems, and maybe hasn’t prioritized this one, then it really doesn’t give you any guide on how to create urgency, drive urgency for that kind of person. And really we’re talking about most buyers we’re going to see.
So I guess I have two issues with that traditional thing. My view is that great, do all this market research, pricing research, get to know who your customer is, all this stuff, and boil that all down into the strategic narrative. The strategic narrative, if we built it properly is the best way to express your decisions about the things you mentioned, like who the customer is, all this stuff. What I would say is strategic narrative is positioning and I think it’s the ideal format (again sales deck more specifically) to express your positioning decisions. And also by positioning, we’re not only talking about why and how we’re better than competitors. In fact, that’s usually not my focus because I think people are kind of skeptical about claims like that. The bigger focus is why is the status quo narrative a road to ruin, and that’s really the focus. That I think is the more important focus. Talk to salespeople, or even early-stage founders, when they lose deals, what’s the biggest reason? It’s not competitors. It’s that the company just did nothing. They didn’t see it as urgent.
Yeah, that definitely happens. I noticed this as well. Related to this as well, another question from the audience in terms of convincing the CEO about the importance of having a strategy and building a strategic narrative. You mentioned earlier that in the past, you saw that this is the most effective one – the CEO is involved. But do you have any suggestions when let’s say the team is really driven and someone from marketing writes to you, or someone from sales writes to you that they would want to work on this aspect. They even have the budget and so on, but the CEO thinks that he should not be involved. Do you help them to somehow convince the CEO? Maybe you could share some tips for how to convince the CEO of the importance that he has to be at the center of it.
So I gave up a long time ago trying to. I don’t know if I ever really tried it, but I think I just realized that is a losing battle. For sure, the number of CEOs who really believe what I believe, which is that they have to be in the trenches holding this thing is definitely a minority. I’ve been very lucky that there are enough in that minority that it’s been enough of a career for me. When VPs of marketing contact me, there’s usually two reactions. One when I mentioned this and I’d say maybe eight or nine out of 10 get kind of pissed off and like, “Hey, this is my project. I’m running this. I’m marketing and the story falls under my purview.” And I totally get that. I feel like I would feel like that maybe if I was running marketing.
And then there’s this other reaction I get. There was this VP of marketing who I spoke with just recently and she said, “Yes, please. If you can get my CEO to commit to the story, then I can do my job.” So she really saw this. Of course, when I work with teams, I try to balance it between the CEO leading it and working with the one actually building it, but balancing that with the team – the VP of marketing and heads of other functional areas, all participating in the work and guiding it. So it is a balance. I’m not saying I don’t want marketing involved. They have to be involved and they play a huge role. So then often this person will ask me, “So how do I make that case?”
And I say, probably it’s not going to happen because I think it really has to come from them. Where I have seen it happen in the few cases that had happened, the VP of marketing or some other exec who wanted to sell the idea up just shared some things. Sometimes it was that post I wrote or other thing and they say, “Hey, this resonated with me. What, what do you think?” There have been some cases where then the CEO said, “Yeah, I want this”, and they’ve reached out to me. But I think it’s a really hard one and I’m sorry that I don’t have any better advice for how to do that.
I think this point that you mentioned as well, that like there’s these two different groups and some of them become very defensive and the other ones say you are right. I think that’s already a good starting point because obviously if you’re a VP of marketing or VP of sales, you have some sort of influence, right? You were hired for a reason for this position. So I think that’s a good starting point where you can convince the CEO and be very open and transparent and tell them I need you on board because otherwise, we cannot do it without you. I mean, if he’s not going to help them, probably you need to change your job.
I wasn’t going to say it, so I’m glad you did Agata. I didn’t want to be so harsh to your attendees, but I think don’t you want to be working for a CEO who feels that this is their job?
I think we have to be harsh because a lot of attendees are founders. I think they have to realize how important it is and that often, they become the blockers as well. I think it’s important to be harsh because it impacts ultimately to the success of the company later on.
Totally. Yeah, for sure.
That was my last question, Andy. It was a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing the knowledge with the audience of The Business Storyteller Summit.
It was so great talking with you, Agata. And whenever I need someone to be that harsh voice that I can’t quite say, now I know who I can call on so thank you.
Definitely, I can post comments on your LinkedIn posts.
The voice of honest, hard truth. Tough love. Thank you.
And to everyone who wants to learn more, I recommend checking your (Andy) content on Medium. They are very good posts. I’ve been a fan myself as well. And follow you (Andy) on LinkedIn and Twitter, where you share a lot of really useful insights from working with your clients there. So I think that people can definitely follow you and check your website. If they manage to convince the CEO, they should definitely reach out to you and maybe work with you.
Yeah. Sounds good. Happy talking with you, Agata.
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