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Making the sale: German Intellectualism vs American emotionalism

Numbers never tell the story

Otto Pohl

Oct 31, 2023

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I’ve been in Germany a few months now. The cultural similarity is high, but the variation is fascinating, and instructive. To quote John Travolta from Pulp Fiction, “they got the same shit over there as they got here, but there, it’s a little different.” (Full permission to take a quick detour and watch one of the great scenes of movie history).

Seeing companies market themselves in another cultural context is valuable because the differences can jar us in ways that make our own strengths and shortcomings clear. Let these German examples sharpen your own messaging.

The relatively valid oversimplification is that Germans want to give you a careful professorial explanation while Americans simply wave their arms and exclaim, “This startup is awesome!”

Sometimes it’s easier to learn from what, in an American context, clearly seems to miss the mark. They’re essentially more extreme versions of what I often see in the US. Here are two typical examples from German pitch decks (translated by the company but not yet US-optimized):


If you ever find yourself headlining a slide “What Is [Company]” for American investors, stop and realize that no one wants an exegesis. A slide headline is an opportunity to editorialize, not ask pontificating rhetorical questions. What’s great about your product? Even better, what benefits does it give users?

Here’s one of the first slides in another Germany company pitch:


Remember: Numbers never tell the story. No one wants a dry recitation of “Fast Facts.” The numbers this startup has are very impressive, but only if you frame them so that the audience knows how to process them. How great is 5 million users? How quickly did you get them, how does it translate to revenue, how does it compare to competitors?

Below is the screenshot of the top of a translated website for mobile. It’s for a consumer brand that has had considerable success in Europe selling bath pillows and wanted my advice as they expand to the US. This shows three shortcomings that are perhaps a bit more subtle than the academic approach the deck slides took:


  1. Problem: Americans aren’t as used to the concept of bath pillows, and certainly not that a pillow makes you feel like you’re in a sofa. Instead, the headline comes across as furniture free association, like “The ultimate chair on your table.” Learn: Even when not reaching across cultures, I’ve seen a lot of startups describe their products in a way that their target audience isn’t primed to understand. Make sure your framing resonates.

  2. Problem: Leaning on lazy puffery like “unique” and “ultimate” to do your sales work. Learn: Remove adjectives and adverbs from your key sales sentences and see if they still pack a punch. Then (usually) leave them out.

  3. Problem: The real customer benefit is literally buried behind technocratic description. The woman is enjoying the best bath of her life. She looks cozy and relaxed. That is the benefit the product provides, and presumably something the target audience would also like to have. Learn: Sell the customer benefit, don’t describe features.

And then, of course, there’s basic copyediting. Here’s a billboard I saw downtown yesterday.


The headline translates as “Efficiency doesn’t need a lot of words. Just one: Vaillant.” In other words, they used a billboard headline of 8 words to say they are an efficient company that doesn’t need a lot of words, with the company name appearing at the end of third line. How about “Efficiency needs one word: Vaillant” or “Vaillant means efficiency.” Or simply “Efficiency. Vaillant.”

Which inspires this week’s action item: Go to your home page right now and pay yourself $100 for every word you remove.

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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