The (admittedly contrarian) view that motivates my work with CEOs and leadership teams is that great pitches don’t start with your vision, your mission, your product, or a surprising statistic.
Great pitches don’t start with why, if by why you mean a reason you get up in the morning.
Great pitches don’t even start with a problem. When you tell people they have a problem, there’s a decent chance they’ll get defensive because (a) they don’t believe they have the problem; (b) they’re in denial; or (c) they worry that if they admit to having the problem, you’ll sell them something.
Besides, when you start with a problem, you offer zero context for why solving that problem matters.
Great pitches start by naming a change in the world.
In the modern business era, as I’ve written before, it all goes back to Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, whose early pitch—actually, whose entire positioning—started by naming the change in how computing services were delivered:
As I like to point out in keynote talks and workshops, it’s no accident that another great change statement comes from Zuora, the subscription business platform. After all, the company’s top execs (and consultant-turned-VC Judy Loehr, who developed Zuora’s narrative) hail from Salesforce. Benioff’s influence is certainly evident in the first slide of Zuora’s pitch, which I wrote about in “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen”:
Why start with change? Because no matter what you’re pitching, your most formidable obstacle is adherence to the status quo — that voice inside your audience’s heads that goes, We’ve gotten along just fine without it, and we’ll always be fine without it. By credibly asserting that the world has changed in a fundamental way, you offer a “non-salesy” reason to challenge the voice.
5 Criteria for Naming a Powerful Change
Still, a number of folks have told me they started with a change but it backfired. As one man wrote via email:
My prospect told me to stop wasting her time and get to the point.
To be sure, it’s always difficult to determine whether the fault lies in a framework or its application. Yet, in digging into inquiries like this, I’ve learned that great pitches start with change, but not just any change.
Obviously, you have to express the change quickly and succinctly. More importantly, for the change to engage audiences, it must accomplish certain narrative work. Which is to say, it must meet the following five criteria:
#1. The change must give rise to stakes
By stakes I mean opportunity and risk for your audience. Put another way, the change must create new winners and losers. If it doesn’t, your audience is probably justified in preferring the status quo to whatever you’re pitching.
For example, the engine that powers Drift’s story is CEO David Cancel’s observation that buyers now communicate through always-on messaging channels like Slack and texts. As this slide in a recent Drift presentation asserts, buyers now practically sleep with their phones:
The stakes for marketers and salespeople that Drift targets? Winners will engage through those channels, while losers will keep sending email.
#2. The change must be a discrete, 0-to-1 shift
In my work with leadership teams, I start by asking them to articulate what has changed. At first, I often hear statements like this:
Today, our customers increasingly do X
Trouble is, an incremental shift (“increasingly”) isn’t jarring enough to loosen the status quo’s iron grip.
Instead, declare a discrete change—a 0-to-1 disruption—even if it feels like you’re exaggerating. Zuora’s “subscription economy” proclamation is immensely powerful, even though it doesn’t quite stand up to rigorous scrutiny. (We still buy most things outright.) Drift’s change statement, too, is hyperbole. (Most of us still use email.) They work because their finality pries open audiences’s minds to the possibility that the rules of the game have changed in a fundamental, permanent way.
Lately, when working with teams on change statements, I’ve found that the sketch below helps me elicit discrete (not incremental) ones. Yes, change happens over time, but how has it reached a tipping point such that your audience now lives in a different world?
By the way, there’s a similar dynamic in epic films and myths. The hero, called to action by an incremental change, initially hangs back. (Mythologist Joseph Campbell famously dubbed it “refusal of the call.”) In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Luke whines about wanting to be a pilot and have adventures, yet when Obi-Wan offers him the opportunity to do exactly that, Luke demurs. (“I can’t get involved,” he says, sounding eerily like an unconvinced enterprise buyer.)
What makes Luke finally go? The Empire destroys his home and kills his relatives, forcing him to acknowledge that he now lives in a fundamentally changed world—one in which the survival of everything he cares about is suddenly at stake.
#3. The change must be stated as a done deal—not the result of your actions
The change that starts your pitch cannot be a change that you are bringing about, that you want to bring about, or that you think should be brought about.
Rather, it is a change that has demonstrably already happened (or demonstrably happening and unstoppable). It is not the result of your company, product, or idea.
The change you name must, in other words, spark recognition. Audiences should think, “Hmm, I am subscribing to a lot of things.” You’re not trying to persuade them (yet) about some future you think they should want.
That’s not to say that once your audience acknowledges the change, you can’t talk about a new future you want to make real for them. That’s what I call the Promised Land.
Elon Musk, in his much-talked-about keynote for Tesla Powerwall (which I dissect in “Want a Better Pitch? Watch This”), starts with the sudden spike in atmospheric CO2 (the change that has already happened), then paints the picture of a more desirable future (Promised Land) in which we no longer use fossil fuels. “We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky called the Sun” he says. “It just works.”
#4. The change must, to some degree, flout conventional wisdom
“We’re all mobile now” might have worked in strategic narratives back in 2010. Now, not so much.
The hard part about flouting convention, of course, is doing so while simultaneously satisfying the previous criterion—making the case that the change has already happened in a way that sparks recognition.
In this sense, naming the change is an act of journalism. Great journalists look for developments that are new (and that create stakes for readers) yet demonstrably happening. No newspaper can publish a story today solely about the unexpected results of the 2016 presidential election; it’s old news.
Likewise, if your change statement is a variation on “We’re in the age of big data” or “Now, it’s all about digital transformation,” look for a more current, more surprising shift.
#5. The change statement must describe how things have changed
Some teams duck the challenge of crafting an effective change statement by asserting that something is changing, but without saying how. Here’s one I see a lot:
Customer expectations are changing.
I often see these “how-less” statements followed by a long, bulleted list of supporting changes (“consumers want to pay in new ways”, “consumers want everything fast”, etc.). But all that does is shift the burden of making sense of it to your audience. If you can’t boil it down, how will they do it?
When you’re swimming in relevant changes, you have two choices: (1) choose the one that best meets the criteria above, or (2) craft a master change statement that captures all of them under one umbrella.
For example, now that Salesforce’s business has grown way beyond its roots (and “no software” is old news), the opening video at the company’s recent Dreamforce conference began with the declaration of a new shift:
Under the umbrella of the “fourth industrial revolution,” Salesforce includes lots of big technology trends, including artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things. The risk, of course, is that the change becomes so broad that it’s rendered meaningless. I’m not sure if Salesforce has hit that point yet, but startups take note: your biggest advantage over large, established competitors is that you can tell a more focused story.
Yes, Change Powers Great Investor Pitches, Too
I’m often asked if my strategic narrative framework is applicable to investor pitches:
OMG yes. Fearful of the status quo’s tenacity, savvy investors want to hear how you’ll combat it. More importantly, a change in the world helps them detect the scent of opportunity.
In a fascinating analysis of how much time investors spend on different types of slides in funding decks, DocSend (which can track that stuff) and Harvard Business School’s Tom Eisenmann found that the “Why Now?” slide—in which many founders articulate change—outranked everything except financials, team, and competition (note where “problem” and “solution” wound up):
Of course, it’s a leap to say time spent reading a slide correlates to importance, or that high-ranking topics should come first. (Certainly don’t start with detailed financials, which grabbed the top spot.)
Still, when it comes to naming the change, it’s a leap worth taking. In fact, I’ve seen better results by shedding the “Why Now?” label (George Lucas doesn’t flash a giant “Why now?” when the Empire destroys Luke’s home). For example, Amplitude’s Series C deck, which recently raised $30 million, jumps right from an intro slide to the big, undeniable change:
While I might have gone further (“Now, all companies are digital product businesses”), the change nicely sets up why there’s a growing market for platforms like Amplitude, which help teams improve digital products through specialized analytics.
Three Signs You’ve Named the Right Change
How do you know you’ve nailed this critical element of your story for sales, fundraising and leadership?
- You’re ready to replace traditional mission and vision statements (“We want to be the most trusted ___”) with the change—and the future you commit to making real for your audience
- You can imagine that 90% of your content—CEO keynotes, content marketing, etc.—will be about the change and its impact. (BTW, this is the secret to thought leadership.)
- When you name the change, audiences nod in recognition. They open up about how the change affects them, how it scares them, and how they see it presenting new opportunities.
So like I said, if your why is about why you get up in the morning, don’t start with that. Unless, of course, the reason you get up in the morning is a change that creates stakes for your audience. Then, by all means, go for it.
About Andy Raskin
I help CEOs and leadership teams align around a strategic story — to power sales, marketing, fundraising, product, and recruiting. My clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, KPCB, GV, and other top venture firms. I’ve also led strategic storytelling training at Salesforce, Square, Uber, Yelp, VMware and General Assembly. To learn more, visit http://andyraskin.com.