“You’ve never seen Alan?!,” my husband, Tom, asked me.
“Alan” in this case is a Saturday Night Live sketch, but one that was “cut for time.” That means the cast ran and recorded it in dress rehearsal, but for various reasons, the show decided not to include it in the live version of the show.
The premise of the sketch is this: A young couple, Mark and Valerie (played by Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer), return home from a date night to discover a large gift box in their living room. The gift is from Valerie’s parents, an attempt to help Mark take a break from the stress of his job.
When he removes the paper, Mark discovers what appears to be a robot inside a glass case. The robot, played by the actor Bill Hader, looks like a man dressed in a casual sweater and khakis. They read the manual and discover that the robot is an “Alan, the future of casual entertainment.”
Confused, Mark asks, “What’s casual entertainment?”
To find out, they turn on the Alan, which starts dancing (if you can call it that) to music with a slightly funky electronic beat. Every few seconds, it also shrugs its shoulders and makes a playful kind of “oh, gosh, whatever!” expression with its face and hands. Mark is still confused, to say the least.
“What is this?”
Valerie repeats what she’s read in the manual, “It’s Alan, the future of casual entertainment!”
“No, but what’s the point of it?”
“To do that!”
They experiment with Alan’s different “modes,” which seem to just increase the frequency of shrugging and “whatever-ing.” The “Total Alan” mode adds an occasional thumbs up, the “Perfect Alan” is a non-stop series of “whatever” facial expressions, all of which fail to impress Mark or help him understand what the Alan is and why it exists. Valerie, however, “can’t imagine how we survived without one!”
In an attempt to “calibrate” the Alan, they discover that the Alan’s name is actually Keith—Keith Alan Croft, to be exact—which just adds to Mark’s confusion. Valerie finds the “explanation” in the manual and reads it out:
“Alan Corp brings you the latest in recreational science, in association with Alan Crop, the leader in casual entertainment, presents the Alan Cube, featuring Keith Alan Croft.’’
“Okay, so the glass box is the Alan?”
“No, no, no. The whole unit is the Alan. The glass box is the Alan Cube. The man inside is Keith Alan Croft.”
“Wait, he has a real last name? So he’s like a real man?”
“Yeah, ‘Keith Alan Croft consists of the latest in casual entertainment robotics housed in a dead man’s body, all of which is covered by a layer of living human tissue.’”
“Wait, so there’s a dead man in there?”
“Hey, loosen up, Mark. There’s a dead man in all of us.”
I hope you’ve never been an Alan (at least in the robot sense!), but I think we’ve all been a “Mark” at one point or another. We’ve all been the recipient of a “Valerie’s” increasingly desperate efforts to convince us that something we neither want nor even understand is worth our attention and investment. We’ve probably also all been a Valerie, trying to convince a Mark (and maybe even ourselves) to want or buy something whose purpose and value we’re struggling to communicate.
What’s going on here? And how do you solve it?
Relevance is required—as is the reasoning
The first issue is likely obvious to you: Mark just doesn’t want the Alan, based on what he can see and understand of it. He didn’t ask for it, it just showed up. That said, there’s a possible missed opportunity here: Mark has been stressed at work, and for whatever reason, Valerie’s parents thought that some kind of “casual entertainment” would help.
But that leads to a second problem: neither Valerie’s parents nor the Alan Corp said or did anything to link this specific product to the outcome of “relieving stress.” The “reason” they gave for using it — it provides “casual entertainment”—isn’t really a reason that makes sense to Mark The same is true for the additional features and modes.
But they left unsaid how the Alan and its features provided that “casual entertainment,” or even how casual entertainment could help relieve stress. Without any hint for the thought process behind the Alan—the reasoning for it—Mark (or any customer!) simply can’t make sense of why the product could possibly deliver something he wants or needs.
Imagine, however, if the Alan Corp had included in their materials something like this: “the Alan’s devil-may-care attitude and smooth dance stylings will bring a smile to your face and chase your stressful thoughts away.” By revealing their reasoning behind the Alan and its various features, they make it easy for someone like Mark to adopt that reasoning, too. It doesn’t mean Mark would have been convinced, but at least he wouldn’t have been confused.
This is a subtle point, but an important one: Reasons and reasoning are not the same thing. They serve two different purposes. Reasons help support a conclusion that’s already been made—“Alan is the future of casual entertainment”. That’s also what features, benefits, case studies, financials, and testimonials are.
Reasoning is how someone reaches a conclusion in the first place:
- Because the Alan is the latest in casual entertainment robotics housed in a dead man’s body, and
- The Alan’s dancing is a form of funny entertainment,
- The Alan is the future of casual entertainment.
The reasoning could also be tailored to suit someone like Mark.
- Because Alan’s dancing is funny, [This is admittedly open to debate! —TW.]
- And laughter relieves stress,
- The Alan is a great way to relieve stress.
Do you see what happens here? Most of the time, our attempts to persuade only include the conclusion of the argument, and drop out the reasoning behind it.
All of this assumes that the Alan Corp even had an intention for the Alan that went beyond just “doing that!” Unfortunately, many, many companies and founders fall prey to developing products and services because they can, not because they necessarily should. As my friend and colleague Alex Denniston says, they produce “solutions in search of problems.”
This isn’t a minor point: one of the top two reasons startups fail is “no market need”—people didn’t want the product, or didn’t think they did. For a great example of that, SNL delivers again, in the instant-classic SNL sketch “Haunted Elevator”:
“I’m David Pumpkins!”
“I know, but who are you?”
“I’m David Pumpkins, Man!”
“Okay, yeah, and David Pumpkins is…?”
“His own thang!”
“And the skeletons are…?”
“PART OF IT!”
“But why are you a part of this ride?!”
“To do… this!” (cue dancing)
Thankfully, following the fundamentals of message design can help you spot a product problem well before launch: since your core message is the combination of your offering or approach and the urgent and audience question it answers, not being able to link what it is to why your audience would care enough to buy represents an existential crisis for your product. In other words, if you don’t know why someone else would actually want your product, why does it exist at all?
In “Alan,” poor Mark keeps trying to find answers to his questions—and Valerie enthusiastically tries to help—but the Alan Corp’s materials just don’t have it, which leads to the second, yet equally problematic issue.
Context is critical
Notice how the only additional information Valerie can provide from the manual is more detail about how the Alan works and what features it has. Also notice that those details do absolutely nothing to help clear up Mark’s confusion. Indeed, they only add to it.
And yet that kind of “benefit bombing” is common (if not standard!) in persuasive messaging, and especially sales and marketing messaging. It’s not that features and benefits aren’t useful or valuable. They are. Without the context for why they’re there, the reasoning behind them, they’re meaningless.
Why? Because we need to understand someone’s reasoning to be able to adopt it ourselves. It’s also because of how the human brain works. When someone processes new information, the first step their brain takes is to try to align or attach that information to something it already knows. The more it aligns, the more likely understanding will follow.
The same is true when you’re introducing or pitching a new product or idea. The more you can attach what you present about your product to what people already know and care about, the more likely success will follow.
But that’s not what usually happens.
Think about the typical structure of a pitch or product introduction. It usually goes something like this, with little variation. Let’s use the slide order the startup accelerator Y Combinator recommends for startups trying to secure funding:
- Title. Company name or logo and a “one-sentence description of what you do” (*cough* Core Message *cough*).
- Traction “teaser.” Some evidence of early success for or social proof of your offering or approach.
- Problem. This is the primary problem your core idea solves. As Y Combinator puts it, “How does the world currently work for your customers, and what’s wrong with it?”
- Solution. This is how you solve the problem you just described. It’s “what you do and how it changes the way the world works.”
- Traction. This, says Y Combinator, should “tell a story” (yay!), and “convince the investor of an argument” (a lot more on that in a bit…). They describe a fairly common narrative for enterprise and consumer companies. I’m quoting this pretty directly from their site:
- We have revenue that’s growing really fast, based on a solid business model.
- We’re great at acquiring customers and are able to do this profitably.
- They love our product (engagement and retention).
- Market. The potential value of the market, based on market size and associated revenue.
- Competition. “Why you’re 10x better than everyone else trying to do what you’re trying to do,” or said less aggressively, “convince the investor that you have a high enough moat to make your business defensible against competitors.”
- Vision. The biggest future and impact you can imagine for your company, based on the case you’ve built so far.
- Team. Who you are and why you have the right capabilities and credentials (including the ability to find people with the right capabilities and credentials) to accomplish what you intend to. Y Combinator notes that under certain circumstances, this should follow the Traction or Problem slide.
- Use of Funds. The ask—how much you’re asking for, why (at the high level), and what that enables in the next 18-24 months, in terms of specific action steps.
Now this is, in fact, a perfectly good structure for an argument. It starts with some version of the conclusion—“We do this,” “We solve that”—and then presents the evidence to support that conclusion.
Given how the brain works, though, do you see the problem? There are two.
One, there’s no context. That pitch starts as a box in the living room. However well-structured the argument may be, it’s all new information added to new information, all from the founders’ point of view. The brain struggles to understand it, which not only makes agreement extremely difficult but also makes retaining that information next to impossible.
Two, while it’s a perfectly good structure for an argument, it’s not the best structure for an argument for action. Why? Because it relies on people drawing their own inferences and conclusions about the evidence you present—that what you say might be true actually is.
How to argue for action
If you’ll permit me to geek out on you for a minute, the traditional pitch deck follows what’s known as inductive reasoning. That’s where you trying to “establish a more general proposition [like, “We’re worthy of investment”] from a lot of more specific ones [“We have traction”].” The explanations I’m using are from John Gould here, and are some of the clearest I’ve seen.
You can see this at play with the Alan:
- “The Alan is the future of casual entertainment.” — This is the conclusion. The evidence follows. It’s the “future of casual entertainment” because…
- “It has Regular, Total, and Perfect Alan modes.”
- “It has the latest in casual entertainment robotics housed in a dead man’s body, all of which is covered by a layer of living human tissue.”
Do you see how the first line depends on you agreeing that the “evidence” supports the argument? That’s the challenge with using only inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is “more in the line of an informed guess as to what might be true given the available data, and the conclusions are always open to rebuttal given counter-evidence” [emphasis mine]. In other words, someone might draw a different conclusion than you, based on the same information.
But there’s another form of argument that doesn’t rely so much on hope. That’s what’s known as deductive reasoning. You’re starting from broad concepts or principles that people agree with and drawing a conclusion from those. Quoting John Gould again: deductive reasoning “works by taking sure propositions, applying the inference rules correctly and coming to a sure conclusion. There is no possibility of an invalid conclusion, if no mistakes are made,” meaning as long as the person you’re talking to agrees that the sure propositions are, in fact, sure. For example:
- All dogs are animals.
- That is a dog.
- Therefore, that dog is an animal.
Or to use my suggested addition to the Alan’s manual:
- The Alan’s dancing is funny. [this only works if Mark agrees!]
- Laughter relieves stress.
- Therefore, the Alan is a great way to relieve stress.
[By the way, the way I remember the difference this way: inductive reasoning starts from the inside, with the reasons you think something should happen. Deductive reasoning is the opposite. It starts with, uh, “dem.”]
Where inductive reasoning relies on what might be true, “deductive reasoning is about what must be true given the available data.” If you set up your idea or offering as the logical conclusion of this kind of reasoning, as I do in that last Alan example, it ties your approach or offering directly to why someone would act on it. If you only use deductive reasoning, though, you’re leaving out the supporting evidence that your approach or offering can actually deliver on it.
You see where this is going: the best pitches use both forms of reasoning. They start with a deductive argument for your offering or approach—rooted in the principles “de” audience would agree with—and then follow it with the more typical, inductive pitch structure. Not only does that create the context for the detailed, new information that follows, it secures agreement with your approach before you go down the rabbit hole of details and evidence. It primes your audience before you pitch to them.
The Priming Pitch Deck
Consider this alternative structure:
- Title. This should include both what your company does (or what the product is) and what known-to-the-end–customer problem it solves (E.g., “We design dancing robots to relieve day-to-day stress.”)
- Company or product name
- Core Message
Start DEDUCTIVE argument:
- Core Case. This is where you outline the conceptual case for your approach. It’s how you back up the assertion of your core message with principles your audience already understands and agrees with. This can be done on one slide that builds, or as a series of slides. It can also be the “lesson” from an origin story, or the lead-in to one.
- Traction “teaser”. Some evidence to support the approach’s success and build additional curiosity.
- Core Story/Red Thread to explain in more detail how you’ve achieved that traction:
NOW, switch to the INDUCTIVE argument:
- Traction, with the same story as before. But now, because you’ve set the context, the traction serves as proof of both your approach and your ability to execute on it.
- Market. Now they can get excited about how much more is possible, since they agree in both principle AND your execution.
- Revisit the Competition, building on the distinctions you made earlier, and now adding the detail.
- Team. Same as before, but now framed as the people who think this way and have achieved these results so far. I move this BEFORE the Vision, so you can keep the narrative energy flowing to the “big finish.”
- Vision. Same as before, but now, since you’ve made your case for why you can answer the Core Question/Goal, you can show how the same principles (and team, business model, etc.) can achieve so much more.
- Use of Funds. The ask, as before.
My clients who have added the deductive argument first have seen dramatic improvements in how quickly investors both understand and align with their approach. I’m confident you will, too.
This approach works because it takes the best of both kinds of argument and uses that to create the context people’s brains need to invest in new ideas, not just financially, but emotionally and intellectually as well. If you want help, this is what I teach in my workshops and in my keynotes, and as you’ll start to see next week, in my online courses, as well.
What do you think? I’d love to know—and to see how you put this approach into action. Email me and let me know!
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
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