Getting attention from your first word: Top tips for memorable pitches.

Bill Liao
Bill Liao
Apr 26, 2018 · 6 min read

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone lose an audience by starting their pitch with their company name, some inane pleasantry, or worst of all “Umm…” (One of my personal sins is “So…” )

You only have a couple of seconds to grab people’s attention these days before they stop listening to you and start fiddling with their smartphone. No matter how much you love your new company name, it is not going to keep their eyes up and their ears open.

You need to hit them hard with an interesting first word or phrase and a crisp story that is full of credibility and surprises.

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I am a trained listener, and I spend my days coaching startup CEOs into telling their stories. I don’t take Adderall or Ritalin, but I do love Twitter, so my attention span is torn between the modern age and my listening training. In any case, nothing hurts my brain more than a pitch without a story.

Infomercials have more joy than many of the pitches I witness. Yet, time after time, I see CEOs making passionless public service announcements and condescending lectures instead of story filled pitches, only lighting up to describe the minutiae of some technical breakthrough that no one else cares about. (This is another personal sin, and just because I love geeking out on tech myself doesn’t mean anyone, and I mean anyone, else is even slightly interested.)

The key to a great pitch is a great and believable narrative — a story. We are preprogrammed to listen to stories and to suspend our disbelief, and if there is one thing you need people to do around a startup, it’s to suspend their disbelief. Without the reality distortion field of suspended disbelief, literally nothing new would happen in the world and no startups would ever get funded.

So, how do you tell a great and crisp story? Well, only by standing on the shoulders of giants do we truly see the answer to this question. The rules of a good story were pretty much defined a while back by a Greek dude who you may have heard of: Aristotle. Around 350 B.C.E he wrote The Poetics which is as relevant today as it was back then. (It was a life changing book for me as it showed me that stories have rules! Who knew? I used to bore people so bad!)

Here is the super-abbreviated Cliff Notes version of the three act play:

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Act I. The Crisis

If it bleeds it leads. The news and fake news people share one thing in common: they grab your attention by showing that there is something really wrong. This use of crisis is the basis for so many stories, and it never fails because humans are curious about calamity. We know instinctively that we might learn something important from the bad news and that we will learn nothing from the good news. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something badly.

Act II. The Struggle

The biggest mistake I see next is that once someone has told you the problem, they immediately tell you the answer. We are inherently skeptical of such a pitch and it makes for a lousy story. If Luke Skywalker went from meeting Ben, Leia, and Han to straightaway blowing up the deathstar, the movie would have been much worse, and much shorter. We need to see the hero’s journey. We need to be moved and to believe in them. If a CEO stands up and grabs our attention with the start of a good story, with an interesting and surprising crisis, and in the next breath tells us she has the answer to the problem and it will all be puppies and kittens for $19.95, we just don’t trust them. They don’t have the stature to be credible — they have not shown us they have paid their dues. They need to take us on the key, most interesting, surprising, and credible parts of their journey.

Act III. The Resolution

All human choices are made emotionally. The most painful thing I see CEOs do when pitching is leave an audience without any emotional satisfaction. In a story, the moment that brings all the strands of a plot together is called the denouement, the peak of the story that leaves you satisfied and wanting just a bit more. In M. Night Shyamalan’s culture-shaking The Sixth Sense, (spoiler alert) the moment we learn that Bruce Willis’ character is a ghost is one of the great denouements, and it is also a critical plot twist — a massive emotional surprise that leaves us open to more. So if your pitch does not end with a fantastic denouement including a fabulous plot twist, and an ASK, then no bueno.

Yes, you have to ask for something at the end of a pitch. If you don’t ask you don’t get, and not asking is a disease that is almost as prevalent a failure as not listening or not being interesting. All are sins, and all will undo a story. At the end of the day it’s the story that moves people, and you have to move people to make a movement. If you think a business is not a movement, then don’t pitch to investors in the first place, OK?

For example, when pitching CoderDojo I always include all the elements of a great story and an ask.

I start with a great first word — “Magic” — and then a dramatic pause. Then I go on to say that “Computer programs are modern day magic spells enabling us to do almost anything.” Then the crisis: “Yet we are denying the power of coding magic to our children who are nearly all growing up as muggles!” I reveal that coding is a language skill and that the best coders are poets, combining creativity and economy of expression in language.

Then I tell the story of how I learned to code, and how James and I, as the two CoderDojo founders, came together and figured out how to make CoderDojo happen. I explain how much effort and how many years it has taken to get it right, and how it is spreading like a weed. I also reveal the surprising truth that CoderDojo is all for free forever, and is a non-profit. I throw in that we are super successful at getting girls to code, and they love coding once they start.

Then, I tell people the best thing I have ever heard a kid say at a CoderDojo… when asked by a reporter what they loved most about CoderDojo, the kid replied, “My wheelchair is invisible here!” I talk about the smiles on kids faces, and again the surprising truth that coding can help any career. Then I ask the audience, again surprisingly, not for money. I ask them to reach out into their communities and businesses to light a fire and start a local CoderDojo for their kids and their communities.

The story is true and emotionally compelling. My passion is authentic. The ask is practical. It works!

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