If you want to create a compelling fundraising pitch, persuasive business presentation, or inspiring TED talk, where do you start? There are literally thousands of books, blogs, and videos on the subject. In fact, there’s so much, it can all feel a bit… overwhelming.
Wouldn’t it be good if there was a way to make it all simpler?
In many ancient cultures, the nature and complexity of all matter were explained by breaking it down into simpler substances. They used the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. OK, we now know that it’s actually more like 118 chemical elements, but it is still limited.
And this isn’t restricted to the natural world.
If you stop to think about it, all the books ever written in the English language have been created using the same 26 letters of the alphabet. All chords and melodies in western music, composed from just 7 different notes. And all the paintings, throughout the world, created from just three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue.
Given a set number of building blocks, it’s possible to create an almost infinite number of variations.
So, what if we want to create the perfect pitch? Is there a set of building blocks we can use to create it?
The fab four
It turns out that all the great pitches, speeches, and presentations in history were created using just four basic building blocks. They were first identified and documented more than two thousand years ago, by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. And they’ve formed the basis of nearly every public speaking book, article, and blog published since.
Understanding what they are and how to use them, is key to transforming your next pitch into an opportunity to inform, convince and persuade your audience.
Greek for ‘word’, ‘reason’, and the root of the English word ‘logic’, Logos appeals to the audience’s rationality. It’s the basic ingredient of your pitch – the information you present combined with your logically structured argument.
Investors, analysts, and scientists love this stuff, but don’t be too heavy on it with a general audience. ‘I don’t get it’, is a sure sign that you need to clarify and simplify your logos. Not incorporating enough of it, however, will leave your idea sounding empty at best, more often unrealistic and irrelevant.
Things you can use to reinforce your logos: facts, data, graphs, figures, stats, examples, and best of all, demos. Ever wondered why Steve Jobs went to the trouble of personally live-demo-ing every single product?
“Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration since we are most fully persuaded when we consider a thing to have been demonstrated.” Aristotle
Ethos, Greek for ‘character’, appeals to the audience’s sense of honesty and/or authority. It’s about being trustworthy and credible – like in the English word ‘ethical’. No matter how much information you share and how good your argumentation is, if you score poorly on this one, your audience will leave the room unconvinced.
Ethos is crucial in all of your dealings with investors: as the CEO of the company, they need to trust you have the skills, connections, and competence to grow a successful business. That’s why investors expect the CEO to give the pitch: they need to see living proof, they need to trust you.
Sometimes your idea, data, or strategy is great, but you’re just not the right person to tell the story. Ethos is the difference between a pitch that’s informing and one that’s convincing, between meh and yeah!
Things you can use to reinforce your ethos: a display of professional achievements, academic titles, affiliations to respected institutions, important collaborators, but also your stage presence and tone of voice.
“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” Aristotle
Pathos is the Greek word for ’emotion’, like in the word ’empathy’. It’s about appealing to your audience’s feelings, evoking their emotions, and strategically connecting these emotions to elements of your speech.
By making such emotional connections, your audience will be more likely to agree with your argument and respond to your call to action.
Things you can use to reinforce your pathos: vivid storytelling, a more engaging delivery, humor, looking for common ground, strong visuals, quotes, using metaphors to convey complex concepts, sharing a vision.
“Persuasion may come through the hearers when the speech stirs their emotions.” Aristotle
Kairos is perhaps the most important component, and also the most difficult to apply. Kairos is the ancient Greek word for ‘right, critical, opportune moment’. Like an archer preparing to fire an arrow, it takes more than a bow, technique, and strength: there is only one instant, a fleeting moment when an opportunity to shoot appears; shoot too early or too late and you’ll miss the target. But get the timing right, and you cannot miss.
You need to get the timing right to present the different elements in your pitch. Know when to show the data and when to create an emotional connection, when to create urgency and when to establish trust.
But most importantly, you need to get the right timing to position your innovation. Because having a good idea is not enough. It’s your job to show your audience that you have a good idea—and convince them that now is the right time for it to flourish.
“There are no bad ideas in tech – only bad timing.” Marc Andreessen, a16z
On 18 September 2007, Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch was asked to deliver a ‘Last Lecture.’ It was a tradition at Carnegie Mellon University, something that many colleagues before him had already done – an opportunity to talk about what wisdom they would impart to the world if they knew it was their last chance.
As Randy Pausch takes center stage in front of 400 people, he seems a bit nervous, he cracks a few jokes. Then he tells the audience that his dad always taught him, “when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it.” So he does, “in case there is anybody who just wandered in and doesn’t know the backstory.”
Randy tells the crowd he has terminal cancer. Then shows an image of the tumors on his liver. The slide is titled, ‘The Elephant in the Room.’ He tells the audience, this is what it is — nothing will change it. “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘the elephant in the room’ was first used in a 1959 edition of The New York Times. And since then, it has become a common expression in the English language. It refers to a question, problem, or controversial issue that everyone seems to know about, but no one wants to talk about. Maybe because it’s embarrassing, a taboo subject, or just because it’s a bit awkward.
Face up to your elephant in the room
CEOs pitching to VCs often struggle with their version of the elephant in the room.
Maybe your elephant looks a bit like this?
- You’re pitching, but you’re not the CEO
- Your famous co-founder has just posted on Twitter that she’s left the company
- A direct competitor of your pre-clinical product has just announced the successful completion of phase II clinical trial.
- You’re operating in a notoriously oversaturated market
- Many others have already tried your approach and failed
As you’re presenting, the VC might be wondering about it or can’t quite work out what it is. And maybe, either for legal reasons or simply because they’re too polite, they won’t ask.
There’s only one way to deal with your elephant. And that’s head-on. Rather than pretend it isn’t in the room, introduce it early on in your presentation. If VCs have to ask about your elephant, it will feel like they’re ‘catching you out’. But if you bring it up, it’s no longer an issue.
It could be that you’re reluctant to bring up your elephant because you can’t explain or justify it. However, just the mention of it, even without an extensive explanation, may be enough to clear the air.
And if you want to build trust, it’s always better to talk about the elephant yourself, rather than wait for your audience to ask about it. And then, once it’s roaming around the room, you’re free to move onto the strengths of your technology.
Do you have an elephant in the room?
The answer to that is always yes – but it may not be the one you think. Before you go into any presentation and throw a potential elephant into the room, do a quick reality check with one or two people you trust. Just to find out if their perceptions are the same as yours.
At the moment, one giant elephant we all have is the global pandemic. So rather than skim over it, talk honestly about how Covid-19 impacts your business – whether that’s for better or worse. You can build a section into your slide deck or just talk it through. Whatever works best for you – just don’t pretend it isn’t there.
So, remember Randy Pausch. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.
What’s your elephant in the room? And when are you going to tell us about it.
Inside every successful pitch is a gift.
A secret ingredient.
Something that leaves the audience thinking about the words long after they’ve left the room.
So what is it? What is the gift your pitch should be offering to every investor, rousing their interest and fueling their excitement at the same time?
It all starts with a new idea.
Here’s how an idea can transform what’s possible for your pitch — and its impact on the world.
The Basics of Story
If your childhood was anything like mine, you remember the wonders of getting lost in fantastical stories that made the impossible seem possible. Aesop’s Fables was one of my favorites.
Aesop, an ancient Greek storyteller, pulled on his observations of animals and humans to weave stories that were just as entertaining as they were teachable. At the end of each fable was a clear lesson: with “The Tortoise and the Hare,” it was about never giving up; with “The Ants and the Grasshopper,” it was about always being prepared.
Aesop’s Fables showed me, from a young age, that the best stories ignite new perspective. And that new perspective, when ignited naturally, leads to action. ???
Stories that Teach
And this is precisely why we are addicted to good stories: we learn something we did not know before.
And it’s not just children.
Little Red Riding Hood: one of the world’s most popular fairy tales, its message isn’t just about a big bad wolf. It’s about the idea that danger is out there, and that children should listen to their parents.
Finding Nemo: an instant hit when it arrived in theaters, its message isn’t just about a young fish going missing in the ocean. It’s about the idea that parents need to learn to trust their children and, to a certain degree, let go.
TED Talks: the presentations that go viral, that reach tens of millions of viewers, are the presentations that are grounded in a beautiful and unexpected idea. Take Sir Ken Robinson: his talk on our need for an education system that nurtures creativity was entertaining and profound because it left us with something new to think about.
The most successful CEOs know that pitching their science and technology isn’t enough. They know that putting their product at the forefront of their message won’t compel, resonate, or incite that perspective shift.
If you want to get your pitch into fighting shape, if you want to truly blow investors out of the water, you need to make sure you have something to give. ?
When Steve Jobs took to the Macworld Conference stage back in 2007, he didn’t talk about a new and improved telephone. He talked about the power of being able to hold a computer in our hands.
When Elon Musk gave his Tesla Power Wall presentation back in 2015, he didn’t talk about a better solar-powered battery. He talked about our earth being polluted, and our responsibility to take action.
Stories are about giving. They’re about giving your audience a new idea to think about, and they’re about giving them a reason to act.
How about your pitch?
Your company’s story doesn’t need to be groundbreaking. It doesn’t need to start a revolution or prompt a new industry.
But it does need to bring something new to the conversation.
A new angle for looking at disease.
A new insight into helping patients.
A new way to manufacture medicines.
You need to give your audience something new. You need to give them the gift of new insight, perspective, a story they haven’t yet heard.
Where Pitching Differs
If good stories are about giving something, poor pitches limit themselves to asking for something.
They don’t give the audience something new to think about — they just ask that they commit time to listening. That they commit money to helping it flourish.
But no good story is about selling; perspective shifts have to be natural. Action has to be earned.
So give your audience the beautiful, unexpected gift of a new idea. And watch their interest, and their subsequent action, pay dividends.
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” – Steve Jobs
As you’ve probably discovered by now, life’s not easy when you’re the founder-CEO of a start-up.
It’s a struggle getting in front of investors. The meeting you had with a big pharma company got canceled. Research is going slow in the lab, and you’ve already spent far too much time interviewing people who aren’t up to the job. And to top it all, there’s covid-19.
Is getting a business off the ground always this hard?
You’re not alone
Speak to any CEO in the health and life sciences sector, and you’ll discover they’ve all experienced the kind of challenges you’re facing right now.
Usually, they fall into one of these three categories:
You need funding to get your science from the lab to the clinic.
You need a partnership with one of the large industry players to provide expertise, money, or both.
You need to attract and recruit big talent — although you probably don’t have the big money to pay for them.
And of course, while you’re getting to grips with these challenges, you also have to compete with hundreds of other companies, including big pharma, who also have the benefit of big bucks.
So, what now?
A simple solution
I have some good news. Many of the challenges faced by start-ups like yours can be solved with one solution.
All you need is a clear strategic story. Your strategic story is a high-level narrative that clarifies your strategy and conveys the value of your science, your product, and your company. Nail it, and that’s when you’ll start to see results.
What’s your story?
You may have great science, but you need to tell a compelling story to get it noticed. That’s how you create excitement, get people motivated, make them desperate to work with you. Make them want to invest.
Your strategic story brings emotion to what you do. It helps people understand what lies at the heart of your business. It shows other companies that your strategy and values align with their own. It helps convince bigger firms that it’s mutually beneficial to work with you.
Your strategic story is the way to get the best scientists, business developers, and patent attorneys excited about your vision. Ance once they’ve heard your story, they’ll want to join you in this adventure. They’ll feel compelled to make your company a big success — and make the world a healthier place.
Bring your story to life
This isn’t about including a story in your pitch. Your strategic story should be your pitch. Because eventually, it comes down to one thing.
As Don Valentine, the legendary founder of Sequoia Capital used to say,
“The money flows as a function of the story.”
Massive value for founders and CEOs preparing for fundraising in this short NFX podcast.
Elizabeth Yin from Hustle Fund discusses the “15 Annoying Things that VCs say or ask”. And how to address them to your advantage! ? ?
Love no. 12, “Why hasn’t this been done before?”
This seemingly ridiculous question is meant to test how you think through trends and changes in your ecosystem.
If it is such an obvious opportunity, what is your key insight or secret that enables you to know about this that others do not? Your domain knowledge? A new trend you are part of?
Whatever it is, every startup needs to have a solid answer for this.
Full podcast here.
Selling the cure is always easier than selling prevention.
It’s part of our human nature.
We are willing to pay for an expensive pill, diet, personal coach to lose weight before heading to the beach. We are not so interested in a daily healthy lifestyle with long term benefits.
That’s also why cancer drugs can command a high price, whereas vaccination rates in the western world are declining.
Unless there is urgency, that is.
When the risk of catching a deadly virus gets dangerously close, then prevention feels like a cure.
If you pitch an inherently preventive product, creating urgency will help you position it as a cure and get your audience’s undivided attention.
‘Reduce anxiety, reduce risks, or provide some sense of safety and belonging’.
This is what people –and businesses– right now are looking for in products and companies.
If you are not providing any of these, you’ll be ignored.
Time to reconsider not just your communications, but also your strategy and your value proposition.
Here is how.
As Marc Andreessen says, “there are no bad ideas in tech, only bad timing.” So many ideas fail not because they are not good but because the time is not right.
This is especially true for high tech companies. It was not the right time for MySpace until it was the right time for FaceBook. Not the right time for Altavista until some years later, it was the right time for Google.
If you are pitching for fundraising, why do you think your idea is going to succeed now? What’s changed? Pitches may start with a problem, or a product, or a team; great pitches start with change. By identifying and responding to an undeniable shift in the world, entrepreneurs can create both big stakes and tremendous urgency for their proposition. When the world is changing, no one wants to be left behind.
So, why now?
For Sequoia Capital, ‘why now’ this is the best way to open any pitch to investors.
Help investors understand why the right time for your product is now. Explain clearly the big shift, break-through, or innovation that opens the window to create a substantial new company. Your company.
And if you need some ‘why now’ inspiration for your presentation, check our the Sequoia “Why now?” video playlist.
Not getting funded… are YOU the problem?
Many startups don’t get funded simply because investors don’t like/trust the founders or feel that something is off.
2048 Ventures Managing Partner Alex Iskold has identified 9 recurrent patterns why investors won’t invest in a founder.
I find a lack of intellectual honesty—no. 2 on Alex’s list—particularly troublesome. Not necessarily straight out lies, often it manifests itself during the pitch as a lack of facts & data, accompanied by an overkill of subjective arguments.
Here is the complete list:
- The know-it-all type
- Not intellectually honest
- Not likable
- Not coachable
- Not enough experience
- No fit with the market
- Can’t pitch
- Cant build a team
- Odd co-founders dynamic
Let’s face it. There is ample published evidence of the gender bias in how #investors, both women and men, evaluate fundraising pitches. Not surprisingly, only a small percent of venture capital goes to companies with a female CEO (2.3% in the US in 2018).
A recent Harvard Business Review article suggests that eliminating the pitch from the venture capital process altogether could be a solution to fix this bias. The authors find strong financial as well as gender equity reasons for that.
But ask investors whether they always require founders to pitch, and their reaction will be a unanimous “Of course!”
Like all the most critical decisions in life, the decision to fund a company is never based merely on information and data.
Regardless of gender, the pitch is a unique opportunity for investors to get up close and personal with founders, find a connection, feel the spark.
“VCs spend a lot of time talking about markets and technology, but the decision should be around people. We are looking for a magic combination of courage and genius.”
Marc Andreessen, Sequoia Capital
CEO as the Chief Storyteller
Additionally, seeing the CEO in action during a pitch is an excellent way for investors to assess their leadership and communication skills. As de facto chief marketer and chief spokesperson, the CEO has to be totally comfortable pitching the company story to prospects, the press, and investors for future fundraising rounds.
“The great storytellers have an unfair competitive advantage. They are going to recruit better, they will be darlings in the press, they are going to raise money more easily. Perhaps more to the point, they are more likely to deliver a positive investment return.”
Bill Gurley, Benchmark VCs
Here are three of some of the most inspiring women CEOs that are disrupting the Healthcare business right now. And it’s probably not a coincidence that they are great at pitching their company story.
Kate Ryder, founder of Maven Clinic.
Maven is a virtual clinic for women and families offering on-demand Healthcare from anywhere and modern family benefits. Ms. Ryder secured $42 million in venture funding.
Jill Angelo, CEO and cofounder of Genneve.
Genneve is a Seattle startup that runs a telemedicine service for women experiencing menopause. Genneve recently landed a $4 million seed round led by BlueRun Ventures.
Claire Novorol, co-founder of Ada Health.
Ada Health helps people actively manage their health and supports health professionals by combining collective medical knowledge with intelligent technology. Ada has now raised $70 million in venture capital.
This is just a small personal selection. Here in Forbes, you can find 50 more great examples of women-led startups.
On a personal note, there is nothing more energizing than a compelling pitch by an inspiring company founder.
Ditch the pitch? I don’t think so.