Here at Accent, we are dedicated to helping marketers and content makers improve their craft. At its core, their craft is telling people what their business does and why they should be excited about it—which sounds simple enough, but if you’ve ever tried to do it you know how challenging it is to distill everything your business has to offer into a simple and engaging message. That’s why we decided to talk to Chris Lema to get his advice on the subject. Chris is a true product expert, from coming up with winning ideas to managing the teams that make them happen to—and this is why we’re excited to chat with him—developing winning go-to-market strategies. We asked Chris to share the method he’s developed over the years for crafting a business narrative that engages audiences.

I want you to imagine that you’re on a path trying to get somewhere very important when you come to a river blocking your path. You look around and don’t see an obvious way across the river, so you get in and start to walk across it, but it gets deep quickly. Next, you decide to try and swim across, but the current is too strong, so you hurry back to the shore.

You’re sitting there, wet and tired, trying to figure out what to do next, when a guy in a boat comes down the river and says he can take you across it for $10. You take out your wallet and have exactly that much, so you hand it to him, excited to finally get across the river—but then he zooms off with your money, leaving you stranded on the bank.

So now you’re tired, you’re wet, and you’re completely broke and frustrated to boot. You decide to start walking along the shore to see if you can find another way across. You walk and walk—at least an hour—when, miraculously, you come to a bridge. You cross it excitedly, quickly walk the hour back down shore to your original path, and are ready to continue on your journey when you look back across the river and see a group of other people stuck right where you had been.

Now, this story may sound like it has nothing to do with crafting a business narrative, but I think it has everything to do with it. As a business owner, your product exists to help customers across the metaphorical river—to help them overcome the challenges keeping them from reaching their goal—and you have to figure out how to make them trust that you can help them do that.

Read on for the five steps to communicating with potential customers that you can get them “across the river”—and ideas for how you can integrate these into your business narrative today.

Chris Lema

Chris helps businesses to leverage WordPress and helps WordPress businesses to find leverage. He is a blogger, conference speaker, coach, advisor, and manager of people. Visit his website to learn more.


See it From the Customer’s Perspective

One of the biggest mistakes I see businesses making in their narrative is making it all about them. I’ve got news for you—it’s not about you, it’s about your customers. So, instead of starting to shape your narrative from your perspective, try to shape it from their perspective. Put yourself back on the other side of the river (or at least try to remember what it felt like). Meet them where they are and go from there.

Meet your customers where they
are and go from there

You want to be the guide, not the main character, of this story. And the best guides speak from experience. They’re not the ones with all the accolades or academic knowledge or whatever; they’re the ones who can look back over the river, still wet from their attempts to cross, and say “I’ve been there, I know what you’re feeling, and I know how to help you across.”

Try Asking Yourself

What was the adversity, the challenge, the struggle that made you decide to build this product?

How did you feel when you were stuck in that place?

What sort of solution would you have wanted when you were there?

Let’s take a look at how this would play out in developing a business narrative. Instead of starting by looking for the ways that you can show your product is the best, writing chest-pounding copy that touts you as best-in-class with an all-star engineering team behind you and the like, start by remembering what led you to build that product in the first place and being empathetic with your customers.

When I first joined the hosting company Liquid Web, I proposed a new feature that would allow for automatic plugin updates for customers using WordPress. This didn’t just come out of my desire to build a new feature or make extra money for the company—it came from my experiences trying to update plugins on WordPress sites and getting incredibly frustrated by how often updating different plugins would cause my site to crash. So when we talk to potential customers about this feature, we don’t start from the angle of “we’ve built this shiny new feature”—we start with showing that we understand how frustrating the current situation is.


Behind the scenes of “Getting your customers to cross the river”

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Know Their Destination

So, now that you’re remembering what it’s like to be stuck on the other side of the river, you want to make sure you’re clear on what the goals of your customers are. You want to have a good understanding of where they’re trying to go before you can convince them that you’ll be able to get them there!

Focus on the right goal and dig a little deeper to understand what the real goal is

There are many different goals that cause people to buy products, but the core ones when it comes to shaping narratives are usually either pain reduction or goal acceleration: at some level people want to remove something from their lives or they want to get somewhere faster. When thinking about your narrative, you want to make sure you’re focusing on the right goal, and you may have to dig a little deeper to understand what the real goal is.

The real goal in the story isn’t to cross the river—it’s to keep going on the path to their destination. The real goal of the customers in my example above isn’t to pick a hosting provider—it’s to have a website up and running that doesn’t crash all the time. So as I’m crafting the business narrative, I want to make sure every message I communicate is showing customers how I’m going to help them achieve that goal.

Try Asking Yourself

What is the pain my customers are having?

What is the ultimate goal my customers are trying to achieve?

At its core, what does my product or service really do for people?


Know Their Challenges

You want to demonstrate that you understand where your customers are trying to go, and you also want to make it clear that you understand the challenges that are keeping them from getting there—in other words, what’s the river that’s blocking their path.

When I’m showcasing a product, I always start by asking the audience how many people have dealt with whatever challenge the product solves before or discussing the common challenges in my product copy. I connect with them on an emotional level about how terrible that challenge is, and then they think, ‘Oh my gosh, if you’re going to tell me in a second that you’ve solved all of these problems, then I’m buying this no matter how much it costs.’

In the example above, the goal is a site that doesn’t crash and one of the challenges that so many people face in reaching that goal is plugin updates. If you’re one of the millions of people whose ever run a WordPress website, you know the challenge of updating your plugins. You have to do it individually, but updating one plugin can break another meaning your website is broken, and you don’t know which plugins are causing the problem, and when you call for help they tell you to deactivate each plugin individually and reactivate it, which causes your site to break more… it can feel like a hopeless situation. And because we have a product that solves this challenge and helps customers get to their destination, it’s critical that we take this story into account when creating our narrative.

Try Asking Yourself

What roadblocks are my customers facing in reaching their goal?

What are the problems that my customers want solved more than anything?

What sort of feeling does facing that challenge cause my customers?


Show Them the Path

Now that you’ve shown your customer that you understand where they’re trying to go and the challenges they’re facing in getting there, you get to show them the path to get across the river. This is where you finally get to talk about your product and how it solves their unique challenges to help them reach their goal.

This is where you get to say, “There’s a bridge about an hour up that way that will get you across.” This is where you get to say, “We’ve developed a featured at Liquid Web that will automatically update your plugins, first checking that it won’t cause any problems with your site.”

This is probably the most “salesy” part of the narrative, but because you’ve already shown that you get where they’re coming from, you get where they’re trying to go, and you understand the challenges they’re facing in getting there, it doesn’t have to feel salesy. Instead, it feels like you’re there to help the customer.

Try Asking Yourself

How does my product get customers closer to their goal or destination?

What does my product do to help people?

What is the path that I provide to get people past their challenges?


Protect Them From Mistakes

And then, to really make a compelling business narrative, you have to go one step further and protect people from making mistakes along the way.

Often talking about what didn’t work is more compelling than what did

Remember when you tried to swim across the river and failed, and then tried to take a boat across the river and got ripped off? In the same way, there may be other solutions (or competitors) that may seem to solve a customer’s challenge as well, but actually have shortcomings that you can’t know until you’ve tried it. And because you’ve tried it, you get to say, “You may be tempted to try solution X or product Y to solve this problem or reach this goal, but I’ve tried it and here’s why it doesn’t work.”

Often talking about what didn’t work is more compelling than what did, and can guide a potential customer to the natural decision to choose your product. Plus, when I’m able to “predict the future” like that—to make mistakes so my potential customers don’t have to—my role as a guide becomes really, really valuable.

Once you have a deep understanding of all of these stages, you can combine this information in so many ways to create your business narrative, from website copy to presentations. Just make sure that in everything you write you’re coming back to these five things—looking from the customer’s perspective, knowing their destination, knowing their challenges, showing them the path, and protecting them from mistakes—and you’ll be on the right track to creating a narrative that draws people in.

Try Asking Yourself

What are the solutions we tried along the way that didn’t work? Why didn’t they?

What are the things that we do better than our competitors in solving this problem?

What mistakes do people tend to make when trying to solve this problem?

João Fazenda

João Fazenda is a Portuguese illustrator, whose practice splits between illustration, drawing, animation, comics and occasionally painting. He studied graphic design and graduated in Fine Arts from the Lisbon Faculty of Arts, before going on to dedicate himself full time to creating images for a variety of of stories and media.

His client include The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, The Guardian and Architectural Review.


Behind the scenes of “Getting your customers to cross the river”

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