The best startup pitches are great stories

Alan Jones
Sep 18, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

If you google “Best startup pitch template” you’ll find a gazillion* results which all recommend a very similar structure to follow, which usually runs to 7–10 slides. If, like me, you’ve sat through literally thousands of these pitches, you’ll know how boooooring they can be.

*3,010,000 results, to be precise.

Because if you ask professional investors — venture capitalists — they’ll tell you they have to review and compare hundreds of startup pitches each month, and the most efficient way to do it is to keep a spreadsheet and score each pitch on the same metrics, which correspond to the subjects of each one of those slides in the standard template. That way, all the VC has to do is look back on a month’s worth of pitches, sort them by metrics, and call in the top three teams for a meeting.

If you’re confident your startup is doing so well that you’re definitely going to score in the top three on those metrics, maybe that’s all you need to do.

But for the rest, it’s important to do more than simply make it easier for a VC to rank you in a spreadsheet.

What engages the emotional response of a cold, calculating venture capitalist paid good money not to make emotional investment decisions?

Kick-ass story-telling.

Ever since humans evolved the ability to communicate through speech, story-telling and our need to respond to a great story has become hard-wired into our DNA. Even mighty venture capitalists can be rendered powerless in the grasp of a great story.

It needs a beginning and an end, and some kind of moment in the story where a crisis develops and is surmounted — what writers call a “narrative arc”. A narrative arc creates a tension in the mind of the audience that is only released when the story-teller brings the story to the close, making the audience pay attention until the very end.

It doesn’t matter to the audience of a murder mystery that the murderer and the motive are unknown at the beginning of the story — the whole point of the narrative arc of a murder mystery is to flip back and forth between present and past to establish the surprising identity of the murderer and their motive. The narrative arc of a murder mystery is so well understood that the audience actually looks forward with anticipation to being led through the very defined narrative structure it requires.

So it can help to use a narrative plot structure your audience might recognise, such as the hero’s journey, a murder mystery, or even a romance.

Sadly, that popular startup pitch deck template I referred to earlier is without any moments of tension or release; no build up, climax or anti-climax, and very rarely a heroine or an evil genius. So while we recognise the narrative arc, it’s been stripped of everything that might gain the rapt attention of an audience.

A story sticks in the memory of your audience when it engages our senses and memories, so great stories often include sentences that begin with, “Take a moment to remember how you felt when you first…” and “Do you love/hate the sound/feel/taste of…”.

Neuroscience shows that when you tell a great story, the neural activity in the mind of the audience begins to mimic that of the story-teller. It’s literally something you can observe happening in a brain scan.

So if you want to engage the emotions of your audience, it’s not enough to merely retell something you’ve memorised, you’ve got to actually re-live all those emotions and memories yourself.

Practice calling them up as you pitch — emotions you’re actually feeling are emotions your audience will feel too, but it takes practice to recall them vividly enough to make them memorable.

Story-telling began as a way of helping people remember important survival information for small groups of early humans: where to look for food and shelter, when to migrate to someplace else, when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em when facing off with a competing tribe.

A great story always teaches the audience something about themselves, and about the world around them. But most of us spend most of our time thinking we already know ourselves, and we think we already understand most of the world around us. Something we didn’t already know would be surprising, right?

Surprise is a great story telling technique because across many thousands of prehistoric generations, our brains evolved to focus on surprising things. Both threats (a predator leaping from an overhanging branch) and opportunities (if you make it past the stings, you can find a lot of honey in a bee hive) were surprises, and our brains evolved to retain information that surprises us.

But a great story doesn’t just deliver surprising facts. Unless you’re already very passionate about a topic, facts alone usually aren’t as memorable as when they’re folded into a narrative arc.

“They’re paying $49.95 per month” isn’t as memorable as “In the past year we’ve quadrupled the price, and we still see the same conversion rate at $49.95 as we saw at $9.95.” The former is just a fact. The latter is a very compact narrative arc — something changes over time, while something else hasn’t changed at all.

The audience will want to know what happens next. And that’s when you know you might have the beginnings of a great story!

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Alan Jones

Written by

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Alan Jones

Written by

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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