It was probably the sneakiest thing I’ve ever done. But my intentions were good.
Hosting a conference for a group of high-performing entrepreneurs, I asked them to introduce themselves. Tell us your name, I said, where you’re from, your company’s name and what it does. One by one, 50 people rose to their feet and muffed their opportunity to pitch themselves to a motivated audience of potential partners, suppliers and customers.
Most forgot at least one of the four points. Some whispered or spoke in a monotone, while others slumped or swayed as they talked. Worst of all, few could describe what their company does in a brief, engaging sentence or two.
Here’s the sneaky part. The last person I called on was a presentation coach, who went on to critique the participants’ dismal showing and demonstrate how key messages should be conveyed—with confidence and clarity.
I don’t normally play so dirty. But someone has to do something about this epidemic of businesspeople who can’t describe what they do. I think clarity fell prey to jargon during the dot-com years, when all products became “solutions.” It was in that era that I found myself asking people two or three times, “but what does your company do?”
For me, this problem reached a new low last summer. Sitting with a marketing consultant on his back deck, I asked him what kind of work he actually does. Forty minutes later, I knew all about his career, his awards and his problems with his former boss. But he hadn’t explained his business.
It wasn’t all his fault: saying what you do isn’t easy. An effective positioning statement requires a precise understanding of your product, your market and your competitors. It makes you put a stake in the ground and declare, “This is what we do.” And it forces you to leave out all the ancillary stuff that you used to do, tried to do or would love to do if only someone would buy it.
An effective positioning statement, perfect for networking events or strangers on a train, is a simple declarative statement that includes what you do, and for whom: “Me Inc. specializes in [identify your product] for [describe your target customer].” Tom Hanks might say, “I produce and act in middle-of-the-road movies geared to people old enough to have watched the moon landing on TV.”
If you have more time, consider a two-part statement: “Me Inc. specializes in… for…. But unlike other providers of [product], Me Inc. [describe your point of differentiation here].” For instance, if you met Rick Mercer at a party, he might say, “I’m an actor and comedian specializing in satire on CBC-TV. But unlike most Canadian comics, I’m extremely funny.”
Don’t try to squeeze too much into your positioning statement. Save the list of Oscars you’ve won until your acquaintance asks for more. And if they don’t want to talk, fine; that gives you more time to find the legitimate prospects in the room.
Of course, positioning statements can get as complicated as you wish—so long as you keep the focus on your customer. For instance, you may also need a 30-second elevator pitch (originally geared toward equity-hungry Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who hung around office lobbies in hopes of catching an unwary venture capitalist from the ninth floor). In his classic book Crossing the Chasm, consultant Geoffrey Moore suggests the ideal elevator pitch follow this template:
For [name your target customers] who are dissatisfied with [describe a common industry problem], our product is a [describe the product or solution] that provides [cite your key problem-solving capability]. Unlike [your competition], our product/solution [describe the key point of competitive differentiation].
The magazine you’re reading, for instance, might position itself this way: “For entrepreneurs who need to know more about marketing, finance and other management skills, PROFIT offers articles and made-in-Canada case studies that readers can learn from right away. More than other business magazines in Canada, PROFIT is about growing your business.” Even I would read a magazine like that.
But there is a danger in even a well-crafted positioning statement. If you can’t express it with freshness and enthusiasm, it may come off as “formula-based, rehearsed, contrived and boring,” says Toronto sales and messaging consultant Michel Neray.
Neray tells his clients to memorize their positioning statement, and then use it as rarely as possible. When you meet people, he says, don’t sell them on what you do, but appeal to their pains. Make their concerns the focus of your introductory positioning. “Talk about the end customer, but in such a way that it triggers a need,” he says. If you’re in trucking, for instance, and meet an executive from The Bay, you might say, “Don’t you hate it when merchandise arrives late, and you have to pay your staff overtime to get it on the shelves in time for the Scratch ‘n’ Save sale? We guarantee our shipments arrive on time, and we do that by having the best tracking technology in the industry.”
Your positioning statement can be as complex as you like, as long as you have one. “Do what you say” is a good motto for anyone in business, but “Say what you do” pays better.
© 2005 Rick Spence