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SaaS storytelling framework: the ABT template

Di Mace

September 27th, 2021

Written by

Di Mace

Artwork by

Fakurian Design

In many ways, today’s tech products and their users resemble the tribes of old. How? Their stories help shape the tribe’s identity, show it’s values, set boundaries, and establish their reputation amongst rival tribes. But, it needs to go deeper than that.

Ben Horowitz and his business partner Marc Andreessen built one of the most influential venture capital firms in Silicon Valley – Andreessen-Horowitz – and he’s often quoted as saying (my bolding):

“The mistake people make is thinking the story is just about marketing. No, the story is the strategy. If you make your story better you make the strategy better.”

~ Ben Horowitz, co-founder Andreessen-Horowitz

Given that Andreessen-Horowitz has invested in leading technology companies that include Airbnb, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, Horowitz likely knows something about using story as your strategy. The bestselling author of "The Hard Thing About Hard Things" also goes on to say, “Companies that don't have a clearly articulated story don't have a clear and well thought-out strategy.” 

However, the most challenging part of telling your SaaS story is unlocking the complexity of your message. 

Stop your code story from crashing

The best analogy to draw is that storytelling is somewhat like programming code. The cleaner the code (story and/or message), the more seamless the software behavior, and the better the user experience. Along those same lines, the author Robert C. Martin says in ‘Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship’ that “Truth can only be found in the code.” And so it is with your brand story.

Great brand stories help break down the complexities of the technology you’re building and bringing to the world. It becomes the engine beneath your SaaS company – driving its growth and market expansion. Your stories can motivate your team, provide a vision to attract investors, define your company culture as well as guide any future product development. 

Story frameworks for SaaS

That said, SaaS marketing can be complex, obtuse and conceptually hard to understand. 

Even the most experienced, can fall into the trap of overcomplicating things. For example, watch Steve Jobs rescue Bill Gates with a simple story, when Bill struggles to explain the logic of how Microsoft software found its way into the Apple II computer..

Stories help break down complexity, as well as more deeply connect with users and inspire them to take action. 

So, perhaps an easy-to-use template would help you organise your thoughts? Enter the 3-step framework that helps you easily formulate a story, elevator pitch or speech. It’s called the And, But, Therefore (ABT) story template.

What’s the ABT story template?

The ABT template provides context (...and…), creates conflict (...but…), and offers resolution (...therefore…) in your story. It can be used for elevator pitches, case studies, short brand stories and other brand and business messaging initiatives.

Randy Olson, a Harvard Ph.D. scientist, uncovered the ABT while watching a documentary, “6 Days to Air”, about the method that South Park co-creator, Trey Parker, uses to rewrite episodes of the cartoon, when he was hit by the ABT revelation. In the documentary, Parker talks about how he edits South Park scripts: 

“[I call it] the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: this happens and then this happens and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: this happens, therefore this happens, but this happened; whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” or “therefores,” it makes for better writing.”

~ Trey Parker, co-creator South Park

As a marine-biologist-turned screenwriter, Olson wrote his first book on the subject, "Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking", with the scientist in mind. He went on to feature the ABT template in his 2013 TEDMED talk and expanded on it in subsequent books, "Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story" and "Narrative Is Everything: The ABT Framework and Narrative Evolution"

As he puts it: 

“Every story can be reduced to this single structure. I can tell you the story of a little girl living on a farm in Kansas AND her life is boring, BUT one day a tornado sweeps her away to the land of OZ, THEREFORE she must undertake a journey to find her way home.”

~ Randy Olsen, author, Harvard Ph.D marine biologist and screenwriter

How’s the ABT story template work?

Here's the template:

____________AND____________BUT____________THERFORE __________.

The AND = your story setup
The BUT = is your story problem or tension
And the THEREFORE = is your story solution or resolution

The power of the ABT template is that it allows you to shape your story (or message) in a way that’s clear and concise for any reader or listener. The template organises information into a simple, versatile structure that's been called “the DNA of story” by Park Howell, the host of The Business of Story podcast. Olsen and Howell recently co-authored a new book, "The Narrative Gym for Business", that’s been lauded within the tech industry:

“This book provides an unfair advantage for anyone who cares about producing exponential results.” 

~ Christopher Locchead,  legendary Silicon Valley marketer 

“The ABT is THE most powerful framework for communication that I have ever used.” 

~ Greg Head, Founder of ScalingPoint and Greg’s List

Still don’t grasp how it works?

One way to think of the ABT template, is:

“statement and statement but statement therefore statement”

Or another way of explaining how the template works is to show you: 

TinyMCE is a developer-trusted, API-first component
And
It’s renowned for its quality, scalable code
But
Many believe they can build their own rich text editor 
Therefore

They leave themselves open to extreme budget blow-outs and cost overruns, which often results in unnecessary technical debt.

And here’s another version, that flips the focus of the story set-up:

Many SaaS companies suffer delayed product launches, cost blowouts
And
Low developer velocity, by attempting to build their own feature-rich text editor
But
Buying a developer-trusted, API-first component would solve the problem
Therefore
Agile companies who are focused on digital transformation and fast-to-market launches, assemble a tech stack of reusable out-of-the-box components, like TinyMCE, as their feature-rich text editor.

Why does it work?

There’s progression built into the structure, which gives it a sense of direction, while the but marker builds in a reason why the thing you’re talking about matters.

A final way of modelling the ABT method is:

This happened / this data exists...
And
This happened / this data exists....
But
This other data / conditions complicates our understanding or causes a problem...
Therefore
This analysis was performed / this resolution was reached to resolve the problem or understand the circumstances.

Putting the ABT template into practice

It’s got to be said that templates often seem great, but unless you can apply them, they’re useless. So one of our TinyMCE case studies has been turned into a short story, using the ABT template. 

Usually, new CMS = big workload

Morning Brew’s writers saved hours, every day

Once upon a time…
Morning Brew emailed its daily serving of witty, curated news on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, to more than a million young professionals via its templated newsletter.

And…
Their leadership had ambitious growth plans for their subscriber base.

But…
Morning Brew’s publishing process wasn’t just an obstacle – it was a nightmare. They didn't have the time or resources to build a proper CMS and their existing formatting process forced the content writers to waste hours navigating, creating and publishing a single newsletter.

Therefore…
They switched to TinyMCE’s feature-rich WYSIWYG editor. It resulted in an effortless, efficient CMS that saved their writers dozens of hours per week.

“TinyMCE has significantly increased the efficiency of our business, as our writers can now use their time more effectively. The editor was very flexible and met our exact use case.” 

~ Tyler Denk, Senior Product Lead

Morning Brew’s writers no longer wrestle with complicated and finicky HTML templates or spend hours formatting newsletters – ten minutes is all they need – every day. 

”We just hired a new writer and within a 20-minute training session, she felt completely fine using TinyMCE and the new CMS to create newsletters. That Everything across the board has been so extremely streamlined that we jokingly call it our ‘Industrial Revolution.’” 

~ Tyler Denk, Senior Product Lead

READ THE ORIGINAL STORY

Give the ABT template a try. It can work for pitch statements, speeches (the Gettysburg address can be broken down into this structure) and other short and long messages or communications.

It’s not the ultimate answer, but it helps you build your brand story strength.

 

MarketingContent marketing
byDi Mace

Messaging strategist and copywriter whose passion lies in working with brands like Tiny, that have deep-seated values and embrace the power of their story. She gets a kick out of solving problems, loves learning new things and making stuff, every day. When she’s not thinking through clever copy lines or clarifying value propositions, she’s knitting amazing socks for everyone she knows.

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