007 Ways To Save Brand Storytelling

During the 1776 Challenge Cup at 1871 Chicago, we watched 19 entrepreneurs pitch their startups in a race against time — and here’s what we learned.

Imagine that James Bond is dangling above a pool filled with man-eating sharks circling in the waters below. And that the only way for him to keep from plunging to certain doom is if he’s able to sell a group of skeptical onlookers huddled in plastic chairs on every important, interesting and valuable thing that there is to know about his job.

In just two minutes.

Could he pull it off?

Now, imagine that it isn’t James Bond — but, rather, a scrappy startup entrepreneur, perhaps much like yourself — who’s facing the same tricky circumstances and time constraints, only it’s the fate of your fledgling business that’s hanging in the balance.

Could you pull it off?

If that assignment sounds daunting — even if you really are 007 — well, then welcome to the 1776 Challenge Cup, an international tournament in which entrepreneurs from “the most promising, world-changing startups” face a Shark Tank of a different stripe (think Mark Cuban, not Ian Fleming) as they compete for cash prizes and a chance to share their vision on a global stage.

But only if they can first share that vision — and share it well — in 120 seconds, or less.

Tom Alexander, Chief Operating Officer of 1871 Chicago, kicks off the 1776 Challenge Cup.

Last week, our team at AE Marketing Group was in attendance for the local round of the 1776 Challenge Cup inside Windy City startup incubator 1871 Chicago as 19 budding entrepreneurs competed for just three spots in the regional round, to be held March 3 in New York City.

Over the past five years since launching as a startup, we’ve pitched AE often — including our CoCreation Lab Series, which last summer won the Goldman Sachs Small Business 10,000 Rocket Pitch competition. At 1871, we sat huddled in those aforementioned chairs as each contestant stepped on stage in front of a panel of three judges and more than 100 onlookers to make their pitch. Some connected, while others fell short. But every delivery provided valuable lessons about the do’s and don’ts of selling your brand fast — while still selling it well.

And to help connect other entrepreneurs with those tips on brand storytelling, we’ve compiled a list from the event.

Naturally, there are 007 of them.

001: Kill the Notes

For many people, public speaking can be nerve-racking. We get that. And once you’re rattled, it can be all too easy to lose track of what you want to say. We get that too.

As a result, we understand the temptation to use notes during a pitch, which a couple of 1776 contestants did. But, the fact is, once you’ve walked up on stage carrying notes in a competition like the Challenge Cup, you’ve already lost. And, really, the same probably goes for any pitch to potential investors, whether the stage be big, small or somewhere in between.

After all, it is your business, and you really should be able to talk about it for two minutes straight — without crib notes. If that’s a challenge due to stage fright, the best way to overcome jitters is to practice, practice, practice.

And then practice your pitch some more.

002: Identify the Enemy

When delivering a pitch for your startup, there are some must-haves — and explaining the problem that your business or product solves in one of them.

It was surprising during the 1776 Challenge how many times the judges had to inquire of an entrepreneur after his or her pitch, “What is the problem that you’re solving?”

Be sure to answer that crucial question from the get-go. Because, if you get to the end of your pitch and your audience still doesn’t understand the problem that your tackling, you can be pretty sure that it’s not going to buy your solution.

003: Locate the Target

Once you’ve explained the problem that your company addresses, it’s equally important to identify exactly who it helps.

Is your product designed to make life easier for teens? Or is it intended to help out parents? Maybe it’s made for both.

Whatever your target audience, be sure you make it very clear very early on. Again, after a pitch, you never want a judge (or a potential investor or customer) to ask, “Now, who is this supposed to be for?”

During the 1776 Challenge, we heard that question a few times too.

004: Uncover the Money

Now, it may seem to go without saying — but we’re still going to say it anyway: Your pitch must explain your business model.

How exactly does your company plan to generate revenue?

If that isn’t crystal clear — and for several 1776 contestants, it was not — then you’ve fallen well short of your goals.

In a nutshell, there are three vital parts of any successful business pitch: a) What problem you’ll solve, b) Who you’ll solve it for, and c) How that solution makes money. You simply can’t misfire on any of them.

005: Avoid Disguises

Amy Cuddy, a psychologist and Harvard Business School professor, is an expert on first impressions, and in her new book, Presence, she explains that people quickly answer two questions when they first meet you:

Can I trust this person?
Can I respect this person?

Psychologists refer to these respective dimensions as warmth and competence, and Cuddy says that you ideally want to be perceived as having both.

Interestingly, she says that most people in professional settings believe that competence is more important since they want to prove that they’re smart enough to handle people’s business. But, according to Cuddy, it’s actually warmth, or trustworthiness, that’s most vital in how people evaluate you.

That’s an important insight for entrepreneurs. When delivering a brief pitch, you only have so much time to display your competence, but there are no limits on your authenticity.

So, while it’s of course important to know your stuff when explaining your business, don’t dismiss the value of remaining not just true to your brand, but also true to yourself, while doing so.

Pitching may be show business, but that doesn’t mean you should put on an act.

006: Engage Their Interest

A former colleague of mine at the Chicago Tribune now reporting for another major metropolitan newspaper recently shared on Facebook one of his primary pet peeves as a journalist:

A common thread in PR firm pitches — the long windup before delivery, a cue to move on:
“Hello [my ex-colleague’s name],
While the modern form of Civil War reenacting began in 1961–1965 to commemorate the Civil War Centennial, realistically there had been forms of reenactments that existed shortly after the war ended as a way to remember those that had fallen, blah, blah, blah ..”

Zzzzz …

In public relations or marketing, once you’ve lost someone with your pitch, it’s awfully difficult to get them back. So while casting your hook, be sure not to bait it with unnecessary — or even worse, dull — preamble. Figure out the most interesting part of your brand’s story, keep it tight, and get into it fast.

During the 1776 Challenge, several contestants successfully captured the audience’s interest in a variety of ways. One used a prop related to his business. Another engaged the audience by asking for a show of hands. A third asked the crowd to imagine themselves in 5th grade.

Each tactic worked as a solid hook — then the trick is to just keep people on the line.

007: Avoid Foreign Relations

It’s always easier to get people to buy into an idea if they can relate to it on a personal level.

During the 1776 Challenge, we saw both hits and misses on this topic. One entrepreneur warmly explained how her business idea was spawned by a simple observation surely common to many parents. Another entrepreneur, meanwhile, missed an obvious opportunity to connect her product to a financial pain point felt by almost every consumer. A third, described his plan for school classrooms as “video pen pals,” which simplified the idea and made it easier to wrap your head around.

Whatever your business or product might be, if you can use a real-life example to make it truly tangible for your target audience, you’ve taken a big step towards winning that group over by leaving their spirits stirred.

Even if James does prefer his shaken.

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