Start with the problem

Explain—in plain terms—which problem you can help them solve. If they don’t have the problem, you have nothing to sell to them anyway. If they do have the problem, and you can explain it in a way that shows that you deeply understand the intricacies of the problem at hand, you’ll have automatically earned their interest and attention.


  • The purpose of a business is to be useful. To be useful, is to solve someone’s problem. The value of your business is directly proportional to how big the problem is, how many people you can solve it for, and how well you solve it. In other words: without a problem, there can be no business.
  • It’s hard to explain, but people will instantly trust you if they feel that you fully acknowledge and understand their problem. To describe their problem in exact detail and colour, positions you as the guide and mentor with regards to this problem. Once people see you as the guide, they’ll probably be open to suggestions of a solution to the problem, too.
  • Not all problems are created equal. We need to prioritise. There can only be a few problems truly top-of-mind for anyone, at any given time. If you can, speak to a problem that is either more fundamental or more urgent, and therefore sits higher on their totem pole of priorities.
  • Almost any pitch has the simple format of problem » solution » transaction: first you establish what the problem is, then you pitch a solution, and finally you talk about how to close the deal and make things happen.
    As an agency, we use a similar framework every day for writing proposals: Situation (= a company’s problems) » Strategy (= how to fix it) » Getting Started (= closing the deal).
  • Oftentimes, the most persuasive way to describe a problem, is to tell a story that illustrates the problem. Stories are specific, visceral and tangible in a way that a more generic product description can never be. People relate a lot stronger to “look, this child is hungry”, than a data-driven story about millions of people starving.

In Practice

Nobody understood this concept better than mega-successful copywriter Gary Halbert. In one of his letters (linked below), he asks readers to imagine they are running a hamburger stand, and he gives the reader a chance to change one thing about the business to be their “unfair advantage”. Would they want to be selling the tastiest hamburger in the world? To have the most beautiful stand? To have the best visibility?

No, says Gary. The ultimate competitive advantage, is to sell to a starving crowd. A person that’s starving will buy and like any hamburger. He concludes that the most profitable habit you can cultivate is constantly being on the lookout for groups of people (markets) who have demonstrated that they are starving for some particular product or service.

When selling a course on memory improvement, he opened with a story about forgetting the punchline of a joke at a party. Mundane scenarios like that are instantly relatable to readers. He then transitioned logically: "Have you ever forgotten someone’s name right before introducing them? Yes? Then you already know how embarrassing that can be."

Walking through common memory lapses built reader empathy. Only after illustrating the frustration of forgetfulness did he pitch his course as the natural solution. This intuitive narrative flow — from real world problem to relevant product fix — made his arguments supremely convincing.

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Write like a lawyer