How Not to Write a Value Prop

Whether you’re working to get your startup off of the ground, or hunting for a new job, you have to be able to sell yourself–which means you need a value proposition. But here’s the catch–your value prop should not start with “I” or “we.”

Nobody wants to hear someone talk about themselves—and nobody wants to be sold to. People buy from people—and people hire people. Ultimately, they want to know what’s in it for them—and you have to figure out a way to make them a part of your story, and make it engaging.

So what makes a great value prop or pitch? Aside from being stuffed with adjectives, here are four things it absolutely shouldn’t be.

  1. Vague. Let’s pretend you own a dry-cleaning service. If your tagline is “getting your clothes clean every time” (as opposed to getting your clothes clean only half of the time), you need to be more specific. What does Jane think when she drops off her clothes? It’s more than just trusting you’ll handle her garments with the utmost care. It’s making her picture dropping off her clothes with you while she’s juggling full-time work, picking up the kids at daycare, and hitting the gym for an hour before the big interview tomorrow. Thanks to you, she’s not going to have to worry about what to wear. She’s going to walk into that interview feeling like a million bucks because of your fast turnaround and quality work.


  1. A mad lib. Your value prop should not be interchangeable with your rival’s. Here’s an example: “Get your bachelor’s degree at John Doe University and get the tools you need to advance your career.” The first problem with this value prop is that it isn’t not in any way specific to John Doe University, and the second problem is that it’s stating the obvious. Of course you are going to advance your career with a degree—otherwise, you wouldn’t be shopping around for schools (and nobody would expect to graduate from college without the tools to get the job). Instead, tell your prospects what’s unique or different about your school—something that nobody else has to offer. If you can’t think of one, conduct some focus groups with current customers. What do they love? What don’t they love? Chances are, there’s a value prop living in their answers.


  1. Perfect for everyone. The “one size fits all” mantra might work great when you’re buying socks, but it doesn’t help if you don’t know who you are really targeting. If you don’t have a targeted audience, you don’t have a product—much less a pitch. Consider this: If you don’t know who your audience is, how will you know what they want? And if you don’t know what they want, you can’t even begin to define your value—and how it’s better or different than the competition. To define your audience, look at demographics. Who do you want to buy from you? And, more importantly, who is already buying from you? What’s their typical age range, occupation, income level, education level, etc.? If you don’t know, maybe it’s time to do some more research.


  1. Poorly communicated. I’m a firm believer that good copywriting causes readers to take action (and in a perfect world, tugs at their heartstrings and makes them feel vulnerable), but for all practical senses, good copywriting should be short, succinct, and clear. It should focus on what you offer and why it’s better, and leave the product features (such as available discounts, size, or “here’s what’s included”) for the bottom. If you can’t engage your customers right away, it won’t matter how small your pores will be when you use this makeup, or the fact you will get half off when you buy two widgets, because most customers will have already stopped reading. And if you’re giving your elevator pitch in person, there’s no exception. Chances are, you’ll be nervous when you pitch—but remember, it’s not about you. It’s about them. So ask them questions if you get stumped—people love talking about themselves. Then, you can use their words to tell your story.




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