Storytelling Secrets of Winning Pitches

September 24, 2015
Contributor: Heather Pemberton Levy

Use these story-based best practices to deliver memorable pitches that get noticed, and funded.

When the Centers for Disease Control goes before Congress for budget approval, they have a very simple pitch: “The Centers for Disease Control works 24/7 to protect America from health, safety and security threats.” No ambiguity. No fluff. And no question that if there is an outbreak, the CDC will be there. Contained in this pitch are all the elements of a compelling story: a hero, in a context, facing conflict, and finally, resolution. Politicians need clarity of purpose to know funding is spent wisely. Startups need a story to get the attention of overwhelmed venture capitalists.

Entrepreneurs and digital marketers alike often fail to realize their new product or service “pitch” is actually a (very) short story, containing all the components of a Hollywood screenplay,  according to Martin Kihn, research director for Gartner for Marketing Leaders. In today’s world of hyper competitive and crowded markets, digital marketers launching a new product or service must craft a compelling “story” to capture the imagination of customers, investors and media

Here are five best practices gleaned from an analysis of both “winners,” those raising over $50 million of investment, and “losers,” those raising only $1-$5 million, to help you write the perfect story-based pitch.

Deliver context in 140-characters or less

In a world getting accustomed to 140 character missives, startups need to quickly set a context for the audience. Use 7 words to force brevity and tap into the mental magic of seven: psychologically speaking, seven is a sticky number for the brain. The following example shows to-the-point context vs. rambling:

Example of memorable versus forgettable language. Memorable: "Tapjoy is a monetization and distribution services provider for mobile applications." Forgettable: "XYZ company is the only platform that monetizes across social media, desktop and mobile."
Don’t state the problem, imply it

The classic case study framework revolves around problem, action, result. However, a pitch deck is not a script or a white paper – it’s all about efficiency and effectiveness of language. Winners meet this challenge by framing the problem through implication, using positive language and keeping the focus on the solution.  When Google says it “builds products and services to organize the world’s information,” it implies the world’s information is not organized. When Visible Measures states it “is a provider of independent third-party measurement solutions,” it implies a problem of biased, third-party solutions. These statements are efficient in use of language and effective in getting the point across through implication.

Use action verbs

The heart of your storyline is the solution. It’s the action. It’s how you solve the problem. The resolution must define what the product or service does to solve the problem implied earlier. Below are two examples, one of power and one passivity:

Example of powerful versus passive language. Powerful: "ChoiceStream improves ad relevance and campaigns." Passive: "XYZ company is the only platform that monetizes across social media, desktop and mobile."
Keep away from clichés and questions

Clichés occupy valuable real estate in the pitch without adding substance (see “leverage” or “synergies” for cases in point). Sidestepping empty questions and unearned brags also achieves the trifecta of being brief, direct and solution-oriented. Asking an investor, “How many loyalty cards do you have in your wallet?” is less effective than the action oriented answer. Using unearned brags, such as “leading solution” or “foremost XYZ” risk undermining the rest of your pitch, since your audience is accustomed to discounting spin masters.

Bonus feature

While even the best pitch can communicate a lot in one line, everybody needs to include another sentence or two about product description, depth of industry context and differentiation.  Check out Criteo’s example of product benefits and differentiation: ”Thanks to Criteo, advertisers can reach more customers with the same return on investment as they get from search marketing.”

Tips to Get Started
  1. Recognize it’s critical to craft a crisp description that fits into a 140-character tweet
  2. Remember the pitch is about what you do to solve a problem that exists in the world
  3. Include all the essential elements of storytelling: context, conflict and resolution
  4. Keep the tone action-oriented, imply the problem without stating it and focus on the solution
  5. Test the storyline with outsiders to gauge its clarity and power
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