Much of this blog gives advice about how to tell a story. But that’s actually an oversimplification. In fact, you’re almost always in the situation where you want to tell multiple stories at once. The main messages of this post are:
- Figure out which stories you are telling (the complete list, if you please).
- Make sure that you’re telling each of them well.
Reasons the multiple-stories situation is so common include:
- Products are, unavoidably, positioned along many attributes each. If you’re trying to get a prospect or influencer to think well of a product, you may need to address multiple important concerns.
- A product release typically introduces multiple new features in a product.
- People only pay attention to you sporadically. Thus:
- When you’re pitching them about something new, you generally also should reinforce the belief that your product in fact has been great all along, because your historical greatness may not be at the top of their minds.
- Similarly, they may need to be reminded — i.e. informed — of your evidence for company momentum.
- Customer momentum stories typically include quotes as to why the customers so liked your product. Product feature stories often include customer momentum validation.
- The layered messaging model inherently calls for several linked stories. What’s more, there are several kinds of support on its bottom tier, and you may not restrict yourself to just one.
The first way to deal with all this is via modularization. In some cases, that’s easy. (E.g. websites can make different points on different pages.) Sometimes it’s harder, but worth doing anyway. E.g., in my recent post on influencer pitches, I said:
- It’s actually a good idea to hit people with several kinds of news at the same time.
- But lumping that all into one email (likewise into one press release) increases the degree of difficulty in communications. Each kind of news should have its own press release and pitch email.
- Every press release and pitch email, even though it’s otherwise single-story, can also have your standard boilerplate at the end.
In cases when modularization isn’t easy, I have a specific and elementary tip: As you were taught in grade-school essay writing, summarize what you’re going to say before you go ahead and say it.
- This is commonly known as “Tell you what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you told them.” I’m advocating strongly for a very explicit introduction. The concluding summary is more optional, but is also a good idea if you can pull it off.
- Specifically, the introductory summary should happen early in a slide presentation, and was wrongfully omitted from my otherwise good (I hope!) 2014 post on how to start a presentation. It is not excessive to have a slide that provides nothing except a bullet list of major topics in the upcoming presentation.
And by the way — the cases in which it’s hard to follow this advice may also be the ones in which it’s most important. After all — if you can’t figure out what all the elements of your pitch are, your listeners probably won’t be able to figure it out either.
Pro-tip: If you have to say “Please don’t question me; just let me talk for a while and my point should become clear”, then you don’t understand the structure of your own argument as well as you should.
All that said: Even though I called above for modularization, I also recommend that you look for ways to weave together different stories whenever it makes sense. (If the idea of a complex tradeoff between modularization and integration is new to you — well, then you’re probably not a software developer. ) That gives you more opportunities to reinforce each of your main messages. In particular:
- The easiest and most minor way to do this is to make useful side comments whenever you can, to the extent you can without being too blatant and annoying your listeners. For example:
- If you just explained a great feature, rattle off a list of customers who are using it.
- If you just explained a customer success story, quickly list other features those customers also like.
- When you describe something new, say what existing goodness and leadership it builds upon.
- Similarly, as I already noted above, quotes and customer success stories can contribute to multiple stories at once.
- The layered messaging model is a structured way to connect different parts of your story(ies). Use it. Or else use something similar that you feel happens to work better for you.
In some cases there’s yet another complication, in that your stories can (partially) contradict each other. Common cases include:
- Coopetition. You love and brag about your partners, but you also compete with them.
- Multiple segmentation. You want to claim that you’re focused on both your traditional customer niches and new ones too.
My specific tips for dealing with such situations clearly and credibly include:
- Call attention to the conflict up front.
- If you are targeting multiple sectors, say so before ever focusing on your story for any one sector in particular. (This is usually a good idea even when presenting to a specific prospect; it’s a great idea in almost any other scenario.)
- If you’re competing with your partners, say that they are multiple good ways to use your technology, including your partners’ and your own.
- Boost credibility by justifying each side of the conflict.
- If you’re in multiple markets then, even if it’s just a sentence or two, say why you think each market sector likes you.
- If you’re competing with your partners, then say a couple of things about why each way is better. And try to sound sincere about all parts; i.e., don’t be as passive-aggressive as you might be in praising other competitors. “That’s a good product for people who value blue lettering on the packages more than they value features, stability, or price.” can be OK about a competitor, but not for a partner you claim to have a good relationship with.
- One of my key posts on story-telling is Faith, hope and clarity
- Another, somewhat indirectly, is my Strategic worksheet