A great pitch needs a great story.

Here’s how to tell yours.

There is a key moment of any pitch when you pause, when you look up at your audience. Sometimes it comes early, sometimes not until you finish. In that most dangerous of moments, that moment of maximum vulnerability, if you’re paying attention, you’ll know whether you’re going to get a yes, a maybe or a no.

Whether you’re pitching your business to an investor, your product to a customer, your ideas to co-workers or yourself to an employer, the same golden rule always applies:

All (real) decisions are emotional. They come from our own personal emotional journeys

After a great pitch, your audience wants your audience you to succeed, wants to purchase your product and wants to see you realize your vision.

You want your audience leaning in — looking for reasons to say yes

It’s true that reason and logic play some role in decisions, but they mostly serve to limit potential choices and later to justify decisions.

The more important a decision is, the larger the role emotion plays

Storytelling is about emotion

How can you affect how they feel about you/your idea/your product? Great storytelling.

Great storytelling leads your audience on an emotional journey that leads them to want what you’re selling.

Think about great movies, shows or books. They can make you feel comfortable in the most inhospitable places, get you to root for the bad guy, shape how you think about an issue, challenge you to rethink your positions.

Stories are powerful tools to transfer belief, support or enthusiasm for a viewpoint, product, experience or decision.

Why are stories so impactful?

Everyone brings their own viewpoint and personal experiences to decisions. As a result, what may seem obvious to you often isn’t for other people, no matter how reasonable, ethical and/or intelligent they are.

You can’t assume that when presented with the same evidence that other people will come to the same conclusion.

Even a diverse, heterogeneous audience in a movie theatre watching a great movie will mostly feel the same way about the characters, the tensions and the resolutions.

Stories are a mechanism to bring an audience on an emotional journey FROM one view TO another view.

The greater the emotional experience, the greater the conviction and appetite for risk defending the conviction.

It’s impractical and probably undesirable to bring people on your own personal journey to get them to empathize with your beliefs.

Nobody, except maybe your mother, cares about YOUR journey. We all care about our own journeys

Stories are a way to package up an emotional journey in a controlled, effective, efficient way.

When you’re asking people to make a decision that impacts them — giving you money, adopting your ideas, they don’t care about your personal journey UNLESS they’ve been on it with you. That’s what storytelling can do — make you the tour guide, the narrator, the creator of your audience’s emotional journey.

Stories make abstract concepts into personal, emotional journeys. Great stories allow people to rationalize emotional decisions by providing easy to understand and repeat narratives.

So, how can you harness the power of great storytelling?

The short answer: learn from the masters. Great storytelling is all around us — in books, tv, movies.

The goal is to bring your audience into a world that you create for them, to care about the things you want them to care about, to feel the frustration, fear, pain that you’ll later resolve

The same elements that apply to making a great movie apply to telling a great business story:

  • Set up the context. Who are the characters? Where are they? What are they trying to do? Job-to-be-done is a great framework for this
  • Define the tension. What’s the core tension? What’s not working? Why are they anxious? What’s preventing them from reaching what they aspire to?
  • Make the tension real — make them feel the tension. How does the tension make them feel?
  • Tease them with alternatives that don’t ultimately succeed. What choices or alternatives do they have? Why aren’t these alternatives good enough?
  • Help them see, feel, touch the future state — after buying your product. What is the future state they’re trying to achieve? How will they feel in this state?
  • Release the tension. Paint the “ever after” picture. How does the customer feel? What other emotions do they feel? Are there any secondary benefits?

What defines a good or effective story?

Effective stories are self-contained and self explanatory. They don’t assume that your audience already knows the context — imagine that you’re telling your story to a third grader. Would she feel the emotions? Understand enough of the context to celebrate the resolution you’re proposing?Good stories define what does and doesn’t matter to the audience

In a book or movie scene, does it matter that it is snowing? Does it matter that the main character stutters? The storyteller gets to decide. They can frame the entire story — deciding for the audience which details, which tensions are important.

Good stories allow for an omniscient, credible narrator. They can contextualize risk and reward.

That moment when you just know…

Here are some gotchas to avoid:

  • Avoid talking about your (original) journey to your conclusions. It doesn’t matter that you talked to 50 customers to find the one that caused you to pivot. Don’t conflate effort with impact
  • Don’t introduce extra characters, story lines or elements that aren’t part of the core narrative. In business, this often takes the form of sharing too much DATA. Lists of everything you’ve learned are counterproductive. Don’t sell past “yes” back to “no”. This is one of the easiest mistakes to make
  • Avoid depending on strictly logical arguments — people “think they are logical, but don’t act like it”
  • Don’t get caught up on how clever you or your product/solution are
  • Don’t spend too much time talking about yourself. Establish credibility through your story, not your bio.

Some practical suggestions for telling better stories:

  • Personalize the tension by knowing and relating to your audience. Be specific about who the characters are (and aren’t) in your story and what they’re trying to accomplish. There are tons of great resources related to the jobs-to-be-done framework that could help with this
  • Use visuals or props to engage the audience in the world you’re creating for them
  • Focus, focus, focus on elements that matter to the story and get rid of the rest
  • Try to avoid making your audience feel like they’re being sold to. Nobody hates marketing, but everyone hates bad marketing. The easiest way to do this is to avoid words like “should” or “ought to.” Good stories don’t directly tell their audience what to do or think. They lead them there on their own
  • Leverage the power of time. Patience and timing in storytelling are probably the most difficult and important tools in stories that really resonate. The best storytellers use pauses and cadence to draw in their audience
  • While the basic narrative can be pretty basic, make the story can be very vivid and real
  • Don’t be “too cute” with analogies, character development — this is the art part
  • Practice, practice, practice. Use video to record yourself (or team) telling your story. Watch it with others — get feedback. Do it again. And again. The greatest pitches are often rehearsed and iterated dozens or even hundreds of times
  • Children’s books are a great place to learn storytelling.
If you enjoyed this article, a ❤ goes a long way. You might also like The Courage to Listen, on which we interview truly remarkable people on the front lines of reducing violence and improving communities.