Have you ever had trouble paying attention to an hour-long lecture? Have you ever noticed that movie scenes rarely last longer than 5 minutes? Have you ever wondered why TED Talks are so short?
Here’s the reason: saber-toothed tigers.
To be fair, it’s not just saber-toothed tigers. All the apex predators that once prayed on our early ancestors are partially to blame. Their interest in chowing down on human charcuterie platters helped us cultivate an evolutionary advantage. Specifically, back when our ancestors were nomadic hunters, humans weren’t always at the top of the food chain. As a result, our brains were hard-wired to be on “high alert” whenever we entered a new space in case any bigger, faster, hungrier animals were nearby. That high-alertness lasted roughly 10 minutes. After that, our brains would feel comfortable enough to focus on other things.
Whether we like it or not, those same hunter-gatherer instincts we developed thousands of years ago continue to impact our behavior. As a result, during the first 10-ish minutes after entering new rooms, our minds are naturally more alert and aware of our surroundings. Sure, this “high alert” level was critical to our survival back in our hunter-gatherer days, but it may be hurting your ability to raise money from investors.
I began noticing the problem when I started teaching entrepreneurship classes. My students were good at paying attention during the start of class, but their attention would falter after about 10 minutes. At first I blamed them for being undisciplined. Then I blamed myself for giving dull lectures. Finally, I found some research that helped me understand the truth: it’s nobody’s “fault.” It’s evolution.
Turns out, humans are great at staying hyper-focused and in-tune with our surroundings for short bursts of time in new environments; then we’re good at transferring our brain power toward other valuable tasks like analysis, problem solving, and interpersonal relationships.
It’s a useful evolutionary strategy for not getting eaten while building stronger tribal communities, but it’s problematic for fundraising in two important ways.
Problem #1: Investors will start to doodle, too
Despite how they might be perceived, investors are people, too. As people, they’re beholden to the same evolutionary principles as the rest of us, which means their ability to focus dwindles after 8–10 minutes of the same thing in the same place.
You need to remember this when preparing investor pitches. Sure, you may have booked an hour-long meeting with the VC of your dreams, but if you’re planning to present for an hour — or even 30 minutes — you’ll be setting yourself up for failure.
Instead, the entrepreneurs who are best at raising capital will run through their slide decks in the first 10–15 minutes of a meeting. Everything after that is conversation.
In contrast, inexperienced entrepreneurs tend to use pitch decks with slide after slide after slide explaining everything about their companies. During their long pitches, investors — being humans — can’t stop their minds from wandering. By the end of the presentations they’ll be bored, and even if they aren’t able to articulate why the company didn’t excite them, they’ll “feel” like the company is a bad potential investment. Anything that makes investors “feel” negatively about a company, including a dull pitch, isn’t good because investors rely on “feel” and “gut” as important parts of their investment decision process.
To counteract this potential trap, don’t use the slide deck portion of your investor pitch to explain every detail of your company. Instead, use your slide deck to introduce your company and initiate a meaningful conversation.
In other words, your slide deck is the conversation starter, not the full conversation.
Problem #2: You’re worrying about getting eaten
Since the first 10 minutes of an investor meeting is your opportunity to lay the foundation for a productive conversation, you need to be at your absolute best. Unfortunately, if you’re entering a new room and immediately launching into your pitch, a portion of your brain will be focused on things that have nothing to do with the pitch. Things like:
- Could the ceiling collapse on me?
- Where are the closest exists?
- Is a sharp-fanged mega-cat hiding under the table?
To be fair, those are all important things to know, which is partially why our species has survived as long as it has. But none of them are particularly important in the context of an investor pitch.
Prior to pitching, you need to find ways of mitigating these evolutionary disadvantages.
The best option is to spend time in the room beforehand. When you’re already familiar with a room, your brain will assimilate quicker during subsequent entries. The more familiar you are, the faster you’ll get comfortable. For example, think about your bedroom. When was the last time you were worried about something jumping out of the closet?
If you can’t spend time in the room where you’ll be pitching prior to a meeting, try the next best thing: stall for time before starting your presentation. My favorite strategy is to ask for a glass of water. That’s an innocuous way to buy yourself a few minutes. At the very least, fiddle a bit longer than necessary with your laptop’s connection to the projector.
It might seem silly, but giving yourself time to acclimate to a room before presenting allows your subconscious to do its evolutionary “make sure we’re not about to get eaten” thing. Once you’re sure you won’t be eaten, you’ll be able to devote more neurons toward other important evolutionary human tasks like “building community.” Sure, it won’t help you if the investor you’re meeting lunges across the table to gnaw on your jugular, but it might help convince the investor to pull out a checkbook for the good of the tribe.