In November 2008, I left my Radio France and BBC beats covering the turbulent changes in the world - from natural disasters to the skyrocketing business markets – to cover the Wild West of Silicon Valley. At technology conferences in the Bay area, what struck me immediately was the inability of startup founders to explain clearly and simply what they do.
While listening to their presentations on demo days or during networking evenings, I saw that very few of them could tell an engaging and compelling story that would result in funding and success. It didn’t matter who they were; a Yale alum or a Stanford student, a recent MBA graduate or a Foreign entrepreneur, a very experienced CEO or a first time business owner. In other words, they didn’t know how to pitch.
Drawing heavily upon my experience crafting one-minute radio news and my work as a mentor at the 500 Startups incubator, I recognized an opportunity and decided to help technology entrepreneurs find ways to craft and tell their stories. I wanted them to be able to take their new idea, their product, their business, or even themselves, and talk about those things in ways that would appeal to their target audience.
But first, I had to learn how to pitch myself to them, which would involve finding my story and pitching it effectively.
From fresh graduates to seasoned veterans, all professionals need to perfect their pitch. In Silicon Valley, everyone is in pitching mode 24/7. Entrepreneurs are always either trying to raise funds or else update their investors about recent user acquisition or client onboarding. Job seekers are aiming to convince recruiters of their worth. Business executives are seeking buy-ins from colleagues in order to push a new product. And audiences are full of busy people.
No matter who you are pitching to, it’s usually to someone trying to keep up with hundreds of emails, checking and utilizing social media feeds, or thinking about an upcoming meeting (all of this before personal lives are taken into consideration). You are faced with the challenge of articulating your message clearly and in your own words, and what follows after is the challenge to get people to listen. You only have fifteen to twenty seconds to make the right impression; that's how long you can hold someone's full attention leading into the next few minutes or the next hour. People decide very quickly if they want to listen to you.
How do you do your storytelling?
You must hook your audience immediately by telling them a story that is universal and that appeals to the collective human condition. The ability to emotionally impact a small size audience or an Olympic stadium depends on one’s storytelling skills. Whether you are on a Las Vegas stage, at a pitch event, or in front of your management team, creating inspiration and provoking admiration are what will resonate with them. This can be achieved if you get them to personally experience the stories as you tell them. What did you learn when you missed out on a customer’s feedback, or lost your largest consumer? How did that make you feel? What did you do about it? When you are candid and empathic about your business, you will find the ability to move your audience.
Ultimately it’s the emotion that matters, not the fancy technical language. Learning the successful Silicon Valley pitch is key. It’s not the bigger words that captivate attention. What it comes down to is articulating well, being open and honest, and oftentimes slowing down.
The storm, the rainbow, and the pot of gold
It is often the case where you see many candidates applying for the same position or many products showcasing with similar benefits. And though we all have a very limited time to make our case, storytelling can be an effective way to get our message across to the audience and bring them over to our side.
Here are a few misconceptions or elements that people forget when it comes to storytelling:
Storytelling is not the warm fuzzy image of speaking in front of a fireplace for hours. There is so much you can convey in just one minute as long as it’s simplified, focused, and to the point. If your story is long, carefully pick the elements that are supporting your narrative structure: the storm, the rainbow and the pot of gold.
In simple terms:
1) what was not working for your product or for your client
2) what did you do about it
3) how much did you empower the company by increasing the revenue.
It is beneficial if your story is simple enough so that it can be reformulated by others. Don’t forget that your pitch is the snapshot of your bigger story. The will change as you and your business grow. Just always make sure that it is clear and personalized to your audience.
Storytelling is always true. In a business setting, we all want to hear how you got there. You are the hero of your story, and we want to hear your struggles and how you overcame them. These are the war stories you survived while developing your product and finding a market fit for it, attaining your first users, and everything else that led to your first $1 million in revenues. If you are painting the story as an always rosy world and bombarding the audience with the greatness of your product or your services, they will tend to not believe it’s true. Because we are trying to sell something, we often only highlight the bright side of things. But a good story involves a conflict and a resolution. Everyone struggles in different ways, and conveying how you got stronger trying to resolve the problems you’ve faced can be an effective way to express what differentiates yourself from your competitors.
Storytelling is about people. Think of your own perspective: You are talking about your product. Products are made by teams, managers, and employees shaped by the vision of a leader. Storytelling works for all industries, B2B, B2C, as long as there is a transformation operated. Then there is the story from the customer’s perspective: What problem were they facing? What solution did you bring? And how did it change how they were conducting their business or collaborating? The storm, the rainbow and the pot of gold!
After many entrepreneurs coached, many product stories told effectively, and many manuscript revisions later, I have developed my own story. And now, I am able to pitch it with confidence in front of any audience large or small. My wish for you is that the simple framework I share in “One Perfect Pitch” will help you find and develop your own story and aid in the growth of your business in ways you hadn’t thought possible.
Find “One Perfect Pitch” on Amazon, on iTunes, and at your local bookstore. “One Perfect Pitch: How to Sell Your Idea, Your Product, Your Business, or Yourself” at McGraw-Hill.