What "the end of average" means for your startup’s messaging

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Let’s play a game of Truth or Lie. I’ll share three statements about myself, and you try to guess which one is the lie:

  • I am a woman of below-average height.
  • As a child, I scored above average on IQ tests.
  • My weight falls within the average range.

A few weeks ago, I believed all three of these statements to be accurate. I’m 5’2”, the public school system (which loves labels) tagged me as “gifted,” and I exercise just enough to balance out my intake of brownies and ice cream.

Now, after reading Todd Rose’s book The End of Average, I recognize all three of these so-called truths as falsehoods. It turns out there’s no such thing as the average height, intelligence, or weight. The mythical “average woman” or “average student” doesn’t, and didn’t ever, exist.

Rose now teaches at Harvard, but he arrived at those ivy-covered halls through an unusual route. A high school dropout who started his family early, he survived a number of menial jobs before completing his secondary education and going on to university. And once he entered university, he found his stride by purposely ignoring everything the admissions counselors recommended he do.

The most innovative research always taps into a personal motive, and Rose’s personal journey has set him on a mission to free us from the tyranny of the so-called typical. He traces a narrative of normalization that dates back to the first half of the nineteenth century when a Belgian astronomer decided to apply methods of astronomical measurement to analyzing human society. 

For people examining celestial bodies light years away, it makes sense to use the average of a series of measurements to establish their probable size, weight, and so on. However, as Rose shows, when you apply that same approach to analyzing human beings, you end up with social systems that fit no one. 

For instance, school systems designed for the average student fail to enable any student to reach their individual potential. Business processes designed to maximize the productivity of the average worker get in the way of problem-solving. Job ads designed to fit average candidates recruit poor performers. And the list goes on.

I’m now working on my own list to add to Rose’s examples. For starters, I’d say that clothes for the average woman fit no real bodies (especially bodies over 40). Parenting books written for average parents and average children give advice that’s too generic to be of much use. And many “how to” programs for entrepreneurs target an average business that looks nothing like mine. 

This is just the beginning. Now that I understand how the illusionary ideal of “average” leads to the counter-concept of “deviant,” I’m on the lookout, and I’m seeing this harmful ideology everywhere.

I notice the cult of the average even among the most innovative, people founding and promoting startups. Too many startups have trouble getting their message out into the world because they’re trapped by two average-centered beliefs:

  • They believe their messaging must speak to their “average” client or investor.
  • They believe they should use an “average” approach to sharing their message, including a “typical,” or “professional,” writing style.

Both of these beliefs are false and can cause much damage. 

Here are a few of the ways I encourage clients to liberate themselves from “average” marketing and find their individual brand voice. (Yes, please do try these at home!)

    1. Create buyer personas that go more than skin deep. Give each persona a name and construct their psychological reality. Then write for your personas as if they’re real individuals (because they actually are).
    2. Test your messaging repeatedly on real readers. Apply to your web copy and marketing collateral the same iterate-rinse-repeat method you use to develop your innovative product or service.
    3. Invite colleagues, friends, and family to role-play a specific kind of customer or investor and give you feedback while acting in character.
    4. Read your writing aloud. If you don’t feel confident and proud delivering your messaging, then you need to keep working on it. Every time you speak your marketing message, you speak your personal truth as a founder or a founding member of a startup team. It’s gotta ring true.
    5. Experiment with different writing styles. Written expression is a bit like clothing—sometimes you don’t know what will really fit till you try it on.
    6. Get clear on what makes your company “deviant,” that is the opposite of average. How are you different from the average company in your industry? How do your offerings differ from the average solutions on the market?
    7. Get creative with the form of the marketing materials you create. Who says a “typical” website needs five pages? Maybe your company needs a one-page site, or a 12-page site. Who says you need to start a sales presentation with a pitch deck? Maybe you use a placemat or handout instead. Rather than letting the form dictate your approach, let your approach shape your content, and let that determine the form. 

For anyone who’s struggled against the forces of conformity in any area of their life, Rose is a liberating read. And for any founder looking for an energizing reminder of why they’ve chosen to blaze their own trail, it’s a must-read. Rose reminds us that in a world flooded with average solutions to average problems, it takes purposeful, pioneering deviance to create and sell the extraordinary.


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