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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Seattle 2.0, and imported to GeekWire as part of our acquisition of Seattle 2.0 and its archival content. For more background, see this post.

By Gerry Langeler

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had two entrepreneurs come into our offices to present their respective companies, only to get the same reaction from me.  Out of those two data points, a more generalized issue is lurking.
 
Both CEOs waxed passionately about their technology and their business opportunity.  But in both cases, I had a real problem understanding exactly what the product did, and why customers would care.  They had fallen into the trap of their being too close to their forest to describe the trees to me.
 
In the first case, I came up with the somewhat awkward request to, “Give me an example use case.”  However, after the second one, I found a better way to convey my need:
 
“Tell me a story.”
 
What I was asking for was to be walked through an example of a potential customer encountering the product. 
  • What is their problem?
  • What would they see? 
  • What would they do?
  • Why would that matter to them?  

In reality, what I needed was a verbal or PowerPoint surrogate demo. The funny thing was the second CEO had in a previous life worked as a consultant to government bodies and had given this exact advice to his clients.  “Don’t tell them what you do or what to do.  Tell them a story!”

 
Years ago, our partnership went through some media training led by a guy named Alan Meyer.  At one time, he served as a speech writer in the Reagan White House and happened to be the one on call when the Marine barracks was bombed in Lebanon.  He recounted how he drafted the address Reagan was to give to the country on that tragedy, and took it up to the personal residence side of the White House for the President to review.  His draft was very factual, calling out what happened in straightforward terms.  Reagan was sitting there in his bathrobe, waiting for the draft. He looked at the yellow pad with the speech written on it and had a response that was immediate and memorable. 
 
He took a red pencil and put a big “X” across the text on the first page.  Needless to say, this is about as strong a slap in the face as a speech writer can get at any level, but particularly at that level. 
 
Reagan then turned to him with a somewhat softer tone and said something to the effect, “The American people don’t want the facts, they need the story.”  And with that, Alan started work on a second draft.  You may recall some of these words:

“This past Sunday, at 22 minutes after 6 Beirut time, with dawn just breaking a truck, looking like a lot of other vehicles in the city, approached the airport on a busy, main road. There was nothing in its appearance to suggest it was any different than the trucks or cars that were normally seen on and around the airport. But this one was different. At the wheel was a young man on a suicide mission…”  

 The “Great Communicator” understood the most powerful thing you can do is put the audience in the picture.  Have them feel like they are there, experiencing the issue first hand.
 
When you go pitch your company to potential investors, don’t give them the facts, tell them the story!
 
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