To Tell Better Tech Stories, Figure Out Who You Really Are

4 February 2021
Justin Warren

I talk to a lot of tech companies, and the ones that are good at telling their own stories have people that actually enjoy what they do and are allowed to be themselves.

A lot of product marketers, PMMs, even CMOs, aren’t very confident about themselves or their company so they hedge with vagueness. Boldness is scary. There’s a lot of fear about alienating potential customers by doing something they won’t like, so they try to appeal to everyone.

This doesn’t work.

You end up with a messy grab bag of stuff that doesn’t fit together very well.

“So, what does it do?”


How do you even start explaining ‘everything’ to someone? You’re making your job super hard. You have to say no to some stuff. Focus requires not doing other things.

None of this is new, but it *is* hard to do well, which is why people struggle with it so much.

There’s also a lot of really quite terrible marketing advice sloshing around. So much weird and complicated stuff. But Sturgeon’s Law is a thing, so, *shrug*. And I’m not especially brilliant or anything. I just read books and research papers written by smarter people who figure it out for me. I have had a bit of practice and formal training, though, so that helps.

You’ll have to tell human stories to other humans. If you don’t like telling stories, you’re going to find this hard. If you don’t like humans, you’re also going to struggle.

Speeds and feeds are not very good main characters. That’s one reason your tech company stories are boring.

Speeds and feeds are set dressing. Maybe a setting or location, if you’re lucky. Anthropomorphising 100GB/s is… tricky, though it can be done.

Here’s Admiral Grace Hopper explaining what a nanosecond is:

But unless you’re confident that you’re as good at communicating abstract concepts as Admiral Hopper, maybe start with something easier first.

What Makes You Special?

The main reason tech companies struggle, that I see, is they don’t know what makes them special. Not really. This comes from the fear of alienating people. We want to belong! That means being a bit the same as everyone else.

And yes, the truly unique is weird and scary to most people, but it’s also incredibly rare. It’s very unlikely that you are a completely foreign concept totally unrelated to anything else.

That’s one of the most dangerous things about SV hype, IMHO. This weird idea that you should create your own category completely divorced from the rest of the world. That… almost never happens, and it’s kinda anti-social to want to.

Mostly there’s a lot of stuff that’s the same, which is fine and good. “We are a company that accepts money in exchange for our product and/or service” is a good thing. “We are three badgers in a trenchcoat burning piles of VC cash because it’s funny” less useful. Also the KLF did it already.

So accept that a bunch of stuff you do is the same as everyone else, and don’t try to convince me (or anyone else) that it’s Disruptive or Innovative or some other adjective you found on Your time is better spent elsewhere.

Have a think about what actually does make you special to your customers. If you’re not sure, you’ve found the core of your problem and now have something to work on.

A: Who are you for, really? This is often unclear, and you should probably fix this because if you don’t know, how is anyone else supposed to figure it out?

B: What makes you special? This is tricky, because it’s a 2-parter. You have to know yourself and what you’re going to be compared to by your customers.

Start Here

A lot of the time who tech companies worry about aren’t who their customers actually compare them to. That leads to solving the wrong problems. But the self-knowledge thing is particularly hard.

Firstly, listen to customers, *especially* if you’re an early stage company. You should be talking to lots of people you think are your audience, all the time. They won’t always have good ideas, but you need to listen to them anyway. Magic the Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater has good thoughts on this.

Secondly, find trusted advisors who can look at you from the outside and tell you harsh truths. Shameless plug: that’s what we do at PivotNine. Again, you don’t have to do everything they recommend, but at least listen to the expensive consultants you hired.

But there’s no silver bullet, there’s just a lot of hard work.

It’s much easier if you do a little bit of it every day, and it’s easier again if you have people to help you. Start with the basics and do the easy stuff first and you’ll already be ahead of the people who flail around trying to do everything at once for a couple of years before they fall over exhausted. I’ve done it that way and it sucks.

“First, stop hitting yourself in the face” is good advice that I wish I’d listened to earlier in my career.

There’s lots more stuff to practice, but that’ll do for today.

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