Physical Words: How to explain ideas so others "get it" instantly
Or, why you should explain an OS as a traffic police officer
Startup = Teaching.
A startup idea only becomes a real business if the founder can rally an army of customers, employees, and investors to contribute. And this rallying is all about teaching others:
What your startup does.
Why it’s in their interest to buy your product, work for you, or invest in you.
Teaching creates growth.
However, teaching is especially difficult for novel startup ideas. Teaching takes time, most people are skeptical of the new, and we often find it hard to understand and remember new things. This leaves many entrepreneurs wondering:
‘How can I explain my ideas so others “get it”?’
The answer is to use physical words that transform your idea into real objects.
Physical words – turn your idea into real objects
The marketing expert David Ogilvy is an undisputed master in making his ideas stick. When he wanted to teach his customers why they should pay a premium for his services, he simply said:
“Pay peanuts and you get monkeys.” 🥜 ➡️ 🐵
When he wanted to teach his managers to hire people smarter than themselves, he said:
“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarves. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” 🗿
When he wanted to teach people to keep using the same ads until they stopped working, he said:
“You are not advertising to a standing army. You are advertising to a moving parade.” 🚶🏻🧳
Physical words make messages sticky because they:
Paint a colorful image that dramatizes the idea.
Contain more information, so we can use fewer words.
Ogilvy could have said, “Pay people little and you’ll get little results back”. But this lack of physical words makes it not nearly as colorful as “Pay peanuts and you get monkeys.” It also requires more words, which makes the message harder to remember.
Think about some of the great vision statements:
Bill Gates: “A PC on every desk.”
Steve Jobs: “1000 songs in your pocket.”
Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as brothers and sisters.”
What do all of these have in common?
They all use physical words.
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Anchor with a twist – never explain an idea from scratch ⚓️ ↩️
Imagine you’d explain to a five-year-old what an operating system is. You could explain all the details from scratch. Or you could say:
“An operating system is like a traffic police officer for your computer.
Think of your computer as a city with lots of cars (programs) going to different places (tasks). The OS makes sure all the cars (programs) get to where they need to go without crashing into each other or causing traffic jams (bugs or crashes).
So, just like a police officer keeps traffic moving smoothly on the roads, the OS makes sure programs run smoothly on your computer, so you can play games and watch videos without problems.”
This technique is called “anchor with a twist”:
Start with a concept your audience is familiar with (the “anchor”) ⚓️
Then, explain how your new concept is different (the “twist”) ↩️
The familiar anchor demystifies your new idea and gives your audience tons of physical references they can see in their heads. The twist then tells them how to tweak these visual references to your new idea.
The 3 dangers of pitching your solution as “X for Y”
A common way to pitch solutions is on the form “X for Y”, where X is the anchor and Y is the twist. Airbnb, for example, was pitched as “eBay for space”.
But as Ashwin Kumar explains in his brilliant article Why calling your startup the "X for Y" can kill your pitch, there are three dangers to using this method:
⚠️ 1. It’s not clear what part of X you’re referring to
As Kumar explains, you can’t control which parts of X people think of.
🖥️ ”We’re the “Figma for Y”
You’re a web-based tool? You help people collaborate on design? You have a bottoms-up sales strategy?
⚠️ 2. You inherit all the negative parts of X
Not only must you defend your own idea – you must now also defend against all the negative aspects of X.
📦 “We’re the Amazon for Y”
You’ll have to master logistics and supply chains? You’ll have to fight razor-thin margins for years?
⚠️ 3. Does X actually solve a real problem for Y?
Customers don’t care if you are “X for Y” unless that helps them solve a real problem.
📸 “We’re Slack for photographers”
Do photographers need to have always-on chat? And if so, why wouldn’t they just use Slack?
When to pitch your solutions as “X for Y”
A great “X for Y” pitch should fulfill three criteria:
1. It’s obvious which parts of X you are referring to
The best is to use a simple X that doesn’t include a lot of different aspects. But if your X is more complex, then add a short sentence after the “X for Y” description that clarifies the comparison.
🚫 ”We are Facebook for fishers.”
✅ ”We are Facebook for fishers. We help anglers share their catches and connect with other local anglers. Unlike Facebook, we monetize through a subscription that gives anglers data about the best fishing spots.”
2. Your audience likes X
When Steve Jobs pitched Apple in the early days, he likened them to the “Rolls Royce of personal computers.” Rolls Royce were held in very high esteem, so having this positive swagger rub off on Apple certainly helped.
3. It’s clear how X solves a problem for Y
The ebook subscription service Scribd might be pitched as “Netflix for books”. Having books available on-demand certainly fulfills a need for many readers.
An example of a great “X for Y” pitch is the movie Aliens, which was brilliantly pitched as “Jaws in space”.
Jaws was a simple story – a shark attacking people. People instantly understood Aliens was about escaping and defeating a dangerous creature.
Jaws was a huge success. So transplanting the plot into a new context would likely be successful too.
When explaining “Why?”, use stories as analogies
How did Jeff Bezos convince the startups in Y Combinator’s 2008 to use AWS? He told a story about beer breweries that made the benefit of AWS obvious:
In the 1800s, there was no electric grid, so beer breweries in Europe had to make making their own electric power.
But generating their own electric power didn’t make their beer taste better.
Breweries soon realized that making their own electric power was taking resources away from their core business – making great beer. Eventually, the electric grid was built out, and breweries then began outsourcing all their electricity needs to the power plants.
Bezos explained that using your own servers for your tech startup is the same thing. Customers won’t care about whether you use your own servers or AWS. But using your own servers will take resources away from building your product, which is what your customers really care about.
Lesson: Focus on what makes your beer taste better.
This aphorism is so sticky because it uses a physical word, “beer”, that ties it back to a convincing story.
15 years later, and phrase “Focus on what makes your beer taste better” still gets repeated as a core mantra of startup lore.
Startups are all about growth. But to grow, you need to teach an army of supporters why they should rally behind you and in what direction they should march.
And to help others “get” your ideas, you should always think about how you can explain your ideas as PHYSICAL WORDS.
🚫 ”Some contributors are short-term and others are long-term.”
✅ ”Some contributors are tourists and others are citizens.”
🚫 ”A startup needs a huge support network to succeed.”
✅ ”It takes a village to raise a startup child.”
🚫 ”People can’t innovate unless they are given some freedom.”
✅ ”A discoverer can’t innovate if she’s trapped in a cage.”
Physical words turn your idea into a colorful image.
Physical words help you say more with less.
Physical words is you explain ideas so others “get it” instantly… and remember them for years.
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