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Strategic narrative framework

5 Acts to Hyperscale—A Strategic Narrative Framework for Startups

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Apple. Salesforce. HubSpot. The litany of other hyperscale unicorns—what is it that separates them from the 90% of startups that fail?

That’s the billion-dollar question.

Some founders say it’s luck. Others say it’s timing. Many more point to some perfect combination of product and go-to-market and growth hacking.

But what if it was something deeper? 

I’ve spent the last 3 years helping CEOs and executive leaders craft and align behind strategic narratives—stories that unite entire markets (prospects, investors, employees, etc.) behind a vision of the customer’s future. And one of the most powerful things I’ve realized in doing this work is this:

Leadership makes all the difference. 

When you look at the most renowned and successful startups, each of them had a CEO with a vision. They communicated that vision clearly over and over again in every single communication—both internal and external. It drove urgency in sales conversations. It created word-of-mouth through marketing. It guided every single product decision, and ultimately compelled an entire market to adopt a new behavior.

So of course, the question becomes, “How can you do the same?”

In this post, I’m going to show you.

The 5-Act Framework for Market-Moving Strategic Narratives

To change the behavior of an entire market, we need an inspiring way to communicate your vision. For that, we turn to William Shakespeare. The 5-act structure he used for his plays is the closest we have to a universal story structure, and has powered the movement-making prowess of everyone from Barack Obama and Martin Luther King to the likes of Marc Benioff and Elon Musk.

Now, we’re tech entrepreneurs, not fiction-writing MFAs. We don’t have time to waste on theory, so I’ve adapted this story structure for busy founders like you. Below, you’ll find a 5-act strategic narrative framework you can use to create a new sales deck. 

I’ve included several well-known strategic narrative examples. You can download all the PowerPoint files complete with my analysis and recommendations in the speaking notes. You can also read this post where I show every slide from my own narrative sales deck, broken down into the 5 act structure, of course.

My goal in this post is for you to walk away with everything you need to start crafting your strategic narrative sales deck today. You can refer back to this page as often as you need.

I should also mention that this isn’t a solo process. Internal alignment among your leadership team is the single most valuable outcome from this process, so it’s crucial that you be collaborative. I will be writing a post on the exact process I use to build executive alignment with strategic narratives next.

Alright, time for the fun stuff. 

Act 1: Seize Their Attention

We’re living in an era of distraction. 

7.9 billion people send 247 million tweets, post 24.8 million Instagram photos, and publish blogs across 1.03 billion websites every day...

The semi-intelligent supercomputers in our pockets like to let us know. They buzz on the table an average of 46 times per day. They beckon us down algorithmically-constructed rabbit holes that manipulate our heart strings in the name of MAU and “engagement”.

All of this while $130 billion in venture capital fund startups every year. Have a groundbreaking new product? So does your competition. And they want your customers’ attention just as badly as you do.

So what can we do? How can we get them off their phones, perk up their ears, and get their rapt attention for the entirety of your pitch? That all starts with one technique. 

Disrupt the Status Quo with a Paradigm Shift

This is the lynchpin of every story—the event that shocks the hero out of their ordinary life and calls them to adventure. Whether we’re talking about Luke Skywalker receiving Princess Leia’s call for help from R2D2—whether it’s Odysseus being called to fight the Trojans, or Frodo being given The One Ring by Gandalf—this event is the first in a series of increasingly tense events that culminates in a climactic showdown and transforms the hero forever. 

This is the effect we want for your prospect. We want to arouse them from their ordinary life and launch them down a path of transformation. 

To do that, open your pitch with a consequential change to their world—a paradigm shift. What has changed in the world such that your prospects must now change their behavior to survive?

Marc Benioff talked about the end of on-premise software. Elon Musk quippingly stated that GHG-driven global warming is real. HubSpot said B2B buyers didn’t want to be cold called anymore.

Each of these paradigm shifts was novel and undeniable. They’re shifts that prospects immediately recognized to be true. Prospects intuitively felt these shifts, but hadn’t put them to words. 

When you do this for them, you immediately gain their attention, and their respect. You gain a position of authority. The world is complex, but you’re the one that’s sorted it out. You’re the one that’s made sense of it and can guide them through it.

Act 2: Compel Them to Action

This is an important one, because lack of urgency one of the most common frustrations I hear. 

You do your pitch. Your prospect’s excited. You put a meeting on their calendar, log the deal in your CRM, then eagerly await. You’re thrilled. It’s big revenue. A big increase in users, and all the recognition and social proof you’ll need to raise that next round.

But then you get an email. They want to push the meeting.

“Next month,” they say. Your stomach drops. Next month becomes next quarter. Next quarter becomes next year.

You let out a sigh. As you move the deal to Closed/Lost, you wonder what the hell could you have done differently? How could you have made prospects understand the transformational potential of your product?

Present Them with an Inescapable Choice

We humans are simple creatures.

For all our complexities, we’re wired just like other animals—to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is the basis of all our motivation. 

Which is why this pain vs. pleasure structure shows up in every Hollywood blockbuster you’ve ever seen—chiefly in the 2nd Act. 

After the paradigm shift shocks the hero out of the status quo, what follows is a series of increasingly shocking events where the stakes are raised and it becomes clear that the hero must make a choice: either stay where they are and watch everything they love turn to ash, or leave the safety of home to do something heroic.

And so if we want to light a fire beneath our prospects—if we want them to sell our solution internally and drive the sales process forward with urgency—we’ll need to present them with this same choice.

Drift does it by demonstrating the terrible buyer experience companies will continue providing if they keep using forms. Zuora shows that companies that adopt subscription billing thrive while those that don’t go out of business. Elon Musk shows global carbon emissions will pass a tipping point if something isn’t done quickly.  

In each of these cases, the seller shows that the prospect is at a point of no return. Whether they like it or not, they have a decision to make. On one side, an unacceptable outcome. On the other, fame, fortune, and a valuation chart rocketing up and to the right. Nice.

Alright, so we’ve got their attention. We’ve motivated them to act. Now, it’s time to…

Act 3: Ignite Your Movement

Here’s where the magic happens.

If you look at Apple or Salesforce or HubSpot when they started to skyrocket, you might say, “Wow. Here’s a company where everything is going right. User adoption is up. They’re winning deals left and right. They’re raising massive rounds, and have gale-force levels of word-of-mouth filling their sails.”

And then you might think, “How the hell did they get that?” This is that rocket ship effect—that moment every startup founder dreams of. Getting it, of course, is really hard. You need to meet a massive market need with a killer product and all the talent needed to build and sell it.

Then you need to inspire that talent. You need a motivated workforce united behind a leadership group moving in lock-step. 

That’s to say nothing of course of all the capital you’ll need to fuel your rocket ship.

So yeah, that’s a lot. So I’d be crazy to suggest that all of that can emerge from a single story technique, but I’ll go against the advice of my risk-averse father and do exactly that.  

The number one technique to power your startup’s success is to…

Inspire Their North Star Behavior

Every single hero of every single story has a North Star—a goal that guides their behavior. 

For the hero of your story (your prospect), this is the new behavior they’ll have to adopt to thrive after the paradigm shift. Put another way, their North Star behavior is the new behavior made possible by your product.

So we have to ask ourselves: how might your target customers adapt to the paradigm shift? What new behavior might they or their team or their entire organization adopt to thrive in this new world? 

This North Star aligns your entire market. It births a new category. It inspires a movement that grows and grows and grows until it takes on a life of its own.

Salesforce did this with SaaS and cloud computing. HubSpot brought inbound marketing to the forefront. Tesla accelerated the world’s adoption of sustainable transportation. 

Empowering customers to adopt this North Star behavior is basically your company’s mission. In fact, Tesla clearly demonstrates their North Star behavior in their mission statement, which is to “Accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.”  

You can see this with HubSpot as well. Inbound Marketing was the original North Star of their movement, and they’ve since expanded the notion of Inbound as they’ve added other GTM functions like sales and customer success to their platform.

Alright, so things have really heated up and kicked off. So now, it’s time to…

Act 4: Sell Your Solution

This is the act you’ve been waiting for. 

You’ve just inspired your prospect to change their behavior. They’re fired up. They’re ready to adopt a new North Star to capitalize on the paradigm shift.

But how exactly are they going to do that? 

Behavior change is hard. The road to transformation is riddled with danger. Whether we’re talking about an individual user, a functional team, or even an entire organization, your prospects will face some painful challenges, and whether these challenges have to do with money, business processes, individual productivity, or customer experience, navigating them won’t be easy.

Luckily, that’s where you come in. You’re going to guide your prospect to the promised land. You’ll do that with two techniques.

Create Tension by Invoking Their Pain Points

Every Hollywood blockbuster has this moment: the hero’s just suffered a major defeat. It’s a crisis. They’ve fallen to the lowest point of their journey, and all hope seems to be lost. 

This is the dark night of the soul—a time of introspection in which the hero comes to grips with their tragic flaw, contemplating their failure before finally realizing the solution (their North Star Behavior). 

These negative emotions create tension, which propels us into a sequence of rising action towards a climactic showdown between the hero and villain.

This structure quickens our heartbeat and puts us on the edge of our seats. It builds anticipation, which is exactly the effect we want before we start talking about your solution. For most strategic narratives, this is accomplished by positioning the prospect’s pain points as obstacles in the way of adopting their North Star Behavior.

I’ve seen surprisingly few companies employ this technique, but Tesla is one that does it very well. After selling the adoption “that giant fusion reactor in the sky” (the Sun) as civilizations principal energy source, Elon Musk invokes the problems with solar energy—the Sun isn’t shining 24/7 even though energy demand doesn’t sleep, and existing battery technologies “suck.” 

I’ve used it to really nice effect in my strategic narrative, as well as the narratives of all my clients. It’s an amazing way to give context to the pain points your solution addresses. Without the first 3 acts of your pitch, your prospects might have no idea why solving these pain points is important, and thus have little urgency to do so.

Alright, so the tension’s high. Your prospect’s sitting in the edge of their seats. Now it’s time to resolve the tension you created.

Resolve Their Tension with Your Features & Benefits

We’re in a familiar messaging paradigm now. You’ve just positioned your prospect’s pain points as obstacles to their North Star Behavior. Now, we’ll position your solution as the way they’ll overcome these obstacles. 

Returning to the Tesla Powerwall pitch, they list the benefits and use cases of their Powerwall batteries. In one of HubSpot’s later decks, they drill into the value props across their entire Growth Platform. In the StorySeer narrative deck, I talk in broad strokes about the process I follow in these engagements.

We’ve done a lot of setup to get to this point, but if we’ve hit all the notes right, we should still have our prospect’s rapt attention. They’ll have a complete understanding of what your solution is all about, and why it matters. 

We’re still not done though. We’ve got just one more act to bring it all home.

Act 5: Overcome Their Objections

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Behavior change is hard. Even if we’ve inspired prospects to do it, and then given them a roadmap for how, that still isn’t a guarantee they’ll actually do it. 

Our goal is to turn our prospects into change agents. And to be a change agent is risky. There’s a lot at stake. If we’re asking our prospect to stick their neck out or risk their time and money, we had better assure them that it’s worth doing so. 

Doing that comes down to 2 main techniques.

Eliminate Doubt with Case Studies & Social Proof

This is a time-tested technique. As one of the last parts of your pitch, we’ll want to show prospects whatever proof we can that your solution actually works. Case studies with proof points demonstrating impact work best here, but even a few simple testimonials will do.

Elon Musk ends Tesla’s Powerwall pitch by showing the entire building is powered by a pack of Powerwall batteries. In StorySeer’s strategic narrative deck, I end with a few case studies of how my services have impacted my clients’ business.

This part is where you make the dream a reality. You demonstrate to your prospect that this could be their reality too, and give them the ammo they need to build credibility for your solution as they sell internally. 

Now It’s Time to Activate Your Strategic Narrative

Alright, there you have it—a 5 act strategic narrative framework for startups. The process of crafting one of these isn’t an easy one, and can be a bit emotional as well. You will almost without fail get pushback from your team. Sometimes it can be hard to deal with. But trust the process and keep iterating. Once you have all your stakeholders nodding—once you can see the urgency leaping from your prospects’ eyes, and they’re opening up about their challenges—then you’ll know you’ve hit gold.

At that point, it’s all about activation. This happens across sales, marketing, recruiting, employee engagement, fundraising, and even product. Activation is all-encompassing, and a topic which I hope to explore sometime in the future. 

If you get stuck or need someone to bounce ideas off, give me a shout! I’m always happy to help. 

Until next time… ✌️

P.S. if you enjoyed this post, you'll also enjoy "The Greatest Sales Deck You've Never Seen", where I use my own narrative sales deck as an example of the 5 act structure in action.


About The Author

is the founder and CEO of StorySell. He leads a marketing consultancy specializing in content and storytelling. He combines analytical know-how with a love of good writing to drive measurable growth to your bottom line.
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