By Daria Gonzalez, founding Partner and CEO at Wunderdogs – a brand consultancy focused on technology and innovation. Former early-stage VC.
Building an effective and persuasive pitch is incredibly hard, and it’s a skill that can rarely be mastered outside of the field. However, the cost and pressure of making mistakes while pitching can seem way too high to a founder. Inevitably, your first instinct might be to Google “pitch deck templates.” You’ll get thousands of results but unfortunately, none of them are helpful.
Having worked with both founders and VC funds on their fundraising narratives for the last five years, I’ve learned that the ability to write effective pitches comes and goes in a blink of an eye. Unless you pitch all the time, you quickly lose the skills to do it well.
Pitch deck writing is a beast of its own; very specific and unique to each company. Not a sales deck, not a whitepaper, not a TED talk, but somewhere in between. It should be unique to your company and problem, as well as to the world around you at the moment of pitching.
In addition, different startup teams and products have their own challenges when it comes to investor pitching. While many talented biotechnology founders can find it difficult to explain their idea to someone without a Ph.D. in their field, early-stage consumer entrepreneurs can struggle with product differentiation. Machine learning and AI (or platform-led) startups typically lack focus and a clear go-to-market strategy. The list goes on and on.
However, despite being so varied, there are a few narrative-specific rules that can propel any deck, in any industry forward. The key to their universal success is that they focus on creating a captivating and relatable story for any audience while not trying to assume what investors are looking for.
Let’s start from the beginning. What characterizes a pitch as narrative?
High-Stakes, High-Tension, High Value: A pitch deck is perceived as a “make it or break it” asset. According to a recent study, VCs spend less than three minutes studying your pitch. By now, we know nearly every piece of data about the way investors read decks, from the slides they spend the longest time on (typically financials and team) and the optimal length of an early stage deck (15) to the recommended structure. All are described in this evergreen TechCrunch article.
It Doesn’t End With Just Data: A pitch deck is more than an optimal structure and data display; it’s a story that connects present and future, helping investors believe that the future is real. The emotional component of “what it is” versus “what it could be” is the driving force of your pitch narrative that helps connect your data and facts to investors through emotion. (This concept is very well described in Nancy Duarte’s TEDx Talk.)
It Doesn’t Allow Freedom For Differentiation: With many investors sharing their insight on exactly what they expect to see in the deck, you’ll have to work extra hard to get noticed because the structure of your deck can’t be all that unique.
So what storytelling tools can you use to put together an effective narrative that must connect data and emotion and represents a high-value document? There are a few basic rules to follow. I don’t expect many of these suggestions to break ground but the hard part is in applying them effectively—and being aware of them is already part of your solution.
Inductive Reasoning: Get the point across quickly and clearly with inductive reasoning. Open with the conclusion and then explain the details that help an investor believe it’s valid. In The Minto Pyramid Principle, a holy text for writing clearly, Barbara Minto writes, “[Deductive arguments] are boring, primarily because they make a mystery story out of what should be a straightforward point.”
Relevance: If you’re pre-revenue, you’re pitching a concept. Use analogies or lean on use cases in critical places to help investors understand your thinking and your company’s potential. People are much more likely to understand and recall a compelling story with a relatable character, conflict and resolution than they are a banging set of diagrams and data tables.
Simplicity: Write simply. It’s hard to fall in love with an idea when your eyes have glazed over. Scrutinize where you’re leaning on buzzwords to try to make more complex points and go through the rigor of unpacking what you really mean. You’ll feel more confident in presenting your idea, and your readers will have an easier time understanding you.
Realism: Do not claim you are changing the world. Let your audience understand it on their own. Not everything can be disruptive, turning an industry on its head to level the playing field once and for all. Be real about the value you’re creating, how you’re creating it in a new way and for whom you’re creating it. Own that clearly and confidently and you’ll create room for yourself. In the last 10 years, hyperbole started blending into the noise.
Passion: Finally, it’s important to note, the most successful founders I know found success by putting their idea and passion front and center. Craft the narrative to amplify that passion, not conceal it. A clear narrative helps you build bridges between now and the future, between investor and founder, between their reality and your vision.
A successful narrative helps you entice and ignite your audience and engage them with an opportunity they don’t want to miss. And more often than not, working through the process and defining your narrative is effective in helping you gain greater clarity about your business, too.