How a Speaking Accident Spawned a Positioning Test

When I first started thinking deeply about positioning, then speaking at conferences about it around the world, I happened on this interesting icebreaker to get the crowds into it. It came about just from panic on my part.

I was sitting in my hotel room, going over my notes for a short 45-minute presentation that afternoon. I had plenty of time and was luxuriating in a relaxed morning. Everything was pretty much set. All the typos had been expunged, the transitions where firmly in mind, and I knew what the last point was on each page of the presentation so that I wouldn’t advance myself to an early death by calling for the next bullet when there was none.

The phone broke the silence, and the phone never rings in my hotel room unless it’s room service wondering if they can replace something I ordered that is no longer available. I answered the phone with a little curiosity in my voice only to find the conference organizer on the other end of the call. The speaker for a four-hour pre-conference workshop had taken ill with stomach flu and they were wondering if I could pinch hit, on my own.

Even though it was scheduled to start in just over an hour, I was generally familiar with the topic and was actually excited by the challenge. I knew, though, that I’d have to find some engaging exercises for the attendees to do. Not only would it keep them busy, but while they worked through them in small groups, I’d have a little extra time between micro-presentations to get my thoughts together.

I decided to start with an exercise that I’d never used before, and it became a fun staple over many years whenever it made sense. After that unexpected day, though, I wasn’t trying to fill time but rather help people see how ludicrous their positioning was. Here’s how the exercise goes.

Each audience member has to jot down the two or three things that make them completely different from other firms like theirs. These are the things that would help a prospective client make the decision between competing firms. The instructions were actually more specific than that, though:

  1. Two or three statements, totaling no more than 50 words combined.
  2. Each element states a compelling reason to choose their firm, highlighting characteristics or qualities that are unique to them (i.e., not true of their competitors).

I would give them five or ten minutes to complete this, noting that it should be pretty easy, right? They wouldn’t typically be making things up but rather stating things that were already true and which were top of mind. They should have known these by heart.

Some folks would struggle, but most accomplished it quickly and put their pens down in a self-satisfied, almost smug way. Let me note here that you always have to force people to put things in writing or they’ll modify their own statements on the fly as they hear and learn from what others say. Besides, we couldn’t do the surprising part of the exercise unless the statements were written.

That’s what occurred next. I had them exchange papers with whoever was sitting next to them. Typically there would be three or four people sitting in a small group, and they’d shuffle the responses and pass them out so that no one would have what they had written for themselves.

Then I would call on specific people to stand up and read the paper they were holding, which of course was the description that their neighbor had written. The one that was so unique about that firm that it captured distinguishing features that no other firm could claim. But which of course they did just claim!

The person would stand up and read the paper they had just been handed. They would look up at me when they finished and I’d ask, “Okay, can you say those things about your firm?” In almost every case they would say yes.

Here’s the point: What we consider to be distinguishing factors that set our firm apart are not that distinct at all. They might very well be true, but they are not uniquely true, and that’s a fundamental challenge of positioning: how to be less interchangeable or how to be uniquely true rather than just true.

If you are claiming certain things are unique–the same things that your competition might be claiming–those things are not unique. We could have a little fun with some typical statements that fall in that category:

  • We listen carefully. (I.e., everybody else tried listening and decided that there was no future in it and so now they just talk.)
  • We are full-service. (I.e., we tried the honest approach by detailing the things that we were really great at, but we kept missing opportunity and so we’ve widened that a bit.)
  • We tell your story with passion and purpose. (I.e., We did branding for 17 years, but now everyone seems to be doing it so we’re going to tell stories from here on out.)
  • Our small, tailored, bespoke, boutique firm consists only of artisans with a combined 156 years of experience. (I.e., there are three of us: one is in their seventies and two are a little older than that.)
  • Our target is laser focused on you. We only work in B2C or B2B–if it doesn’t fit in one of those two categories, we can’t help you. (I.e., this positioning sh$t is hard to do.)
  • Everything starts with research. (I.e., unless you’re in a hurry or the budget isn’t big enough.)
  • We partner with extraordinary brands who proudly stand for something that people love. (I.e., quit looking at our client roster and trust us: if a client is on that list, you can assume that they are extraordinary, okay?)
  • Our firm is a cross-section of the audience that we’ll reach on your behalf. We are global citizens. (I.e., we have mainly white millennials, but there are a few Asians and Hispanics. We’re still searching for that very first person to represent the largest racial minority in the US.)

How would you fare in that exercise? We might need to laugh at ourselves a little while we try just a bit harder to craft a positioning that really means something.

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