This is a simple image, with high emotional content. That’s why you are reading this, and why you will remember it later.

The Surefire Test of Positioning

If you can’t remember your positioning, no one else will.

Since David Skok published his great post on my startup positioning model, a bunch of people have come to me for help telling their stories. When someone does so having obviously invested time and energy applying the framework, I try to accommodate them.

Almost invariably, the draft they arrive with is crap. Not because they haven’t thought about it enough, but because they’ve thought about it too much.

Your customers — whomever they may be — are busy, distracted, and unlikely to be focused at the moment you encounter them on the problem you can solve. The key to engaging them effectively is to start with a single idea that is interesting enough to grab their attention, simple enough for them to grasp quickly, and relevant enough to warrant further investigation.

You, on the other hand, think about what you do all day. You appreciate the nuanced insight that powers your basic premise, the subtle brilliance of your ingenious solution, the wry wit hidden in your most obscure and hard to understand features.

It is incredibly hard for people who love the product they’ve created — the product they conceived of and slaved over and nurtured to life in the warm bosom of their own ambition — to explain that product to someone who’s just trying to understand it between their last meeting and their next.

The result? Utterly ineffective positioning. A tortured, heavily negotiated, random sequence of jargon, prepositional phrases, and qualifiers that is virtually impenetrable to those it is intended to influence.

So how do you fix it? What’s the process I use to get to something that works, from something that won’t?

Case Study: Bowdoin Group

My week began with a nice note from Dave Melville at Bowdoin Group, and a sponsor of the important work we do at the New England Venture Capital Association. Dave said he “loved…!” the positioning framework, and had used it to come up with one for Bowdoin.

For emerging leaders and disruptors in Technology, Healthcare and Financial Services, Bowdoin provides customized search and consulting solutions, enabling them to rapidly and strategically solve critical hiring challenges.

Dave: “Can I get your opinion?”

Me: “Awful,” choosing impact over diplomacy. “And the proof is I bet you can’t even hold that in your own head tightly enough to say it without reading it.”

Here is the painful truth, folks: If you can’t recite your positioning statement from memory, no one else can either. And if your positioning isn’t interesting, simple, and relevant enough for the people who already care about you to share it easily, they’re going to fail utterly in getting others to care as well.

“Can you help us,” he said. Then something about bourbon. “Sure,” I said, and we scheduled a time to meet.

We spent an hour or so talking about who their target client was, what qualifying questions they used to separate good prospects from poor ones in that target, how clients thought about and described their category in conversation, and what made them unique. It became clear that last bit — their point of Distinction — was the heart of the issue.

Bowdoin Group is a recruiting firm, at its core, but with both a broader range of capabilities than is typical, and a genuine desire to deploy those capabilities as custom solutions in service to each client’s unique set of problems. Bowdoin isn’t like other executive recruiting firms; focused on finding a new CMO, say, then going away. Having acquired a client they want to be better than anyone else at understanding the staffing requirements of their business as a whole, then on meeting as many of those requirements as possible. Loyalty is key for them, and Net Promoter Score is internal gospel.

After a while, a pattern emerged. What made Bowdoin special was a focus on relationships, not just transactions. After exploring that idea a while, then building a supporting cast around it, and finally slashing everything redundant or unnecessarily ornamental, we got to this:

Bowdoin Group is the recruiting firm that builds custom staffing solutions for fast-growing businesses by focusing on relationships, not just transactions.

Boom. Everyone in the room could say it from memory after we wrote it down once. Feature after feature of their model came into focus under the umbrella of a differentiated focus on relationships, and the team immediately shifted into a discussion of how to infuse that message into each of their market and customer touchpoints.

I want to emphasize something here… this sentence did not emerge fully formed from my genius, on some mountaintop. Positioning is not the product of some dark gift some possess and others don’t. There’s an art to it, of course, or more properly a craft to be mastered with practice over time. But 80% of it is just forcing yourself to prioritize… to clearly and plainly communicate the idea that’s most compelling to the target, and set aside the detail to be explained after the light goes off on the big idea.

Regardless, they seemed grateful.

Is it perfect? Is it the whole story? After you say it do checkbooks fly out on the table, pens poised and ready to sign?

Hardly. But does it get the big idea across in a way that starts a conversation with someone you can help, a conversation that with some hard work and time has a reasonable chance of turning into an opportunity?

Pretty good bet that it does. And that’s exactly what positioning is supposed to do.

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