How you can get that big elephant out of your story – right now

The elephant in the room

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.