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the ultimate startup pitch

Your Ultimate 3-Part Guide to a Winning Pitch Story and Deck

By Laurie Stach

July 06, 2018

“Most investors decide in the first few minutes whether or not you seem like a winner or loser, and once their opinion is set it’s hard to change.”

—Paul Graham, Y Combinator

Ah, Pitch Day — the most exhilarating (and sometimes dreaded) day at LaunchX! It’s to be expected, and doesn’t change much even when the players are older. In the world of entrepreneurship, pitch competitions or even pitches at VC offices can be exciting and terrifying. And haven’t we all sweated through pitches we’ve watched on Shark Tank?

Pitches are scary because they have a lot riding on them. In a very short amount of time, entrepreneurs are supposed to “wow” potential investors and hook them with their product or innovation. Preparation is key and the amount of preparation you’ll do for a pitch is exponentially higher than the amount of time you’ll actually spend doing the pitch. It’s like competing in the Olympics: lots of prep, just a few minutes to show what you’ve got.

The two main creative components of a killer pitch are a compelling story and a great slide deck. Putting those together, then getting a handle on how you showcase them, will go a long way to making your pitch a success.  

First, let’s get some confusion out of the way. The goal of a pitch is NOT to sell your product or get an investment. The goal is to make your audience care about your offering, and spark in them the desire to learn more, while keeping them comfortable with your “ask” along the way.

The best and easiest way to do that is through storytelling. Humans crave stories. From cave paintings that depicted hunts or served as warnings, to modern-day films, novels, news articles, even TED talks, stories captivate and motivate us. They appeal to and foster empathy, and make us care and invest in the lives and pursuits of people we’ve never met. They connect us, regardless of distance or other boundaries.

Maybe you’re thinking “yeah, but aren’t hard facts and stats better for wooing investors?”. In short: No. Studies have found that stories are more impactful in raising money than statistics alone are (and sometimes equally impactful with or without statistics). And storytelling is one of the most effective marketing, advertising, and sales strategies. Take a moment to think about the best (most memorable, most attention-grabbing) ads you’ve seen in the last week. How many of them just threw statistics at you? How many told a good story?

Bottom line: Stories give us access, context, information that statistics alone can’t.

So how do you craft a good pitch story? It helps to outline so you can get the shape of your story right. The model you should go for is the “hero’s journey”. In this classic structure, your hero starts off with a problem or a desire, and must then overcome obstacles to hit their life-changing goal or resolve his issue.

1. Structuring your Story

The Set Up: Who is your hero? This is the persona that your story is built around. It’s who you envision as the end user who’s benefiting most from the product your startup makes. Then, you must articulate your hero’s goal and fear. What is the hero trying to accomplish, and what are they worried about as they strive for it?

Confrontation: Your hero comes up against an obstacle (aka: the villain of your story). What is standing between your hero and their goal? What challenge do they face?  This is where you must explain why the existing solutions/options available to your hero fall short. What do they lack? Why aren’t they good enough to get your hero past their problem and onward to their goals?

The Solution: With the help of your product, the hero conquers the villain/problem and reaches his goal. How does what you built facilitate that? Here’s also where you prove that your product is not just the right solution to the problem you’re tackling, but also for the market in which you’re looking to make a dent.

The Happy Ending: You’ll wrap up your story with your hero’s life being greatly improved having conquered their problem thanks to your product.

Spend some time brainstorming and getting a rough outline of the above on paper. Refine it until it flows well, is engaging, and compels people to know more. Once you have the story pretty well worked out, it’s time to focus on your slide deck.

2. Creating your Pitch Deck

Pitch expert Donna Griffitt explains in quick detail what a pitch deck should include, and what each of the necessary slides should contain. You need to show investors that you understand not just your own product and business, but also your positioning and future. Here are a few things your slide deck should have (not in this order, though):

  • Basic information about your company & the market

    • Key players (founders, execs, etc.)

    • Company structure

    • Business model and plan

    • Milestones

    • Key Metrics

    • Traction + projections

  • Your “why”

  • The problem your product fixes

  • How your product provides a solution

  • The highlights of your story

  • Competitor and market analysis

Once you’ve gathered all the information, focus on how you’ll be presenting it. Your deck is the visual component of your pitch, not the whole of the pitch itself, so make sure that it functions as an aid to your story and delivery, not a replacement. The best pitch decks:

  • Contain around 10 slides 

  • Give a brief overview of your key points

  • Have a cohesive, professional look (consistent font, colors, slide styles)

  • Include high-quality graphics

  • Aren’t heavy-handed with stats and figures

  • Aren’t word-dense (2-3 sentences where needed, so that your audience can focus most on the story you’re telling).

It’s always worthwhile to look at examples of successful startup pitch decks for guidance and inspiration. You can find 30 great ones on Piktochart and a longer list (with links) on Startup Grind. Take a few minutes to analyze what makes each deck compelling and what you can learn from it and apply to your own presentation.

3. Mastering your Delivery

Once you have your amazing content — story + slide deck — together, it’s time to recognize that content isn’t everything. A large part of communication is nonverbal (the standard wisdom is that 55% of effective communication boils down to body language and 38% of it is tone of voice, meaning *what* you’re saying only accounts for 7%). You say more than you realize through how you stand, move, gesture, pause, and other nonverbal cues. So, it’s critical to practice your delivery.

You should “make sure that your verbal and nonverbal message are aligned,” according to a recent Forbes article with tips on pitching to investors. You don’t want your movements to oppose what you’re saying. Your pitch should be dynamic and have energy, so if you just stand in a corner of the stage stock still and mumble in monotone, that’s not going to get across the enthusiasm you have for your product and its potential. It will bore your audience and cause them to feel uncomfortable and awkward.

Keep your investor audience comfortable and engaged by conveying confidence, trustworthiness/honesty, knowledge, and competence. To that end, Harvard Business Review has some great pointers on how to stand and gesture. The authors suggest, for example, that you keep hand gestures within an imaginary box positioned in front of your torso, avoiding wildly throwing your hands around or flailing. One of the successful hand positions they highlight is “holding the ball”, where you motion holding an imaginary basketball in front of you to appear “commanding” and “dominant”. They also point out that a wide stance indicates that the presenter is confident and in control.

Here are some quick tips to help you nail the unspoken part of your pitch:

  • Don’t be still as a statue, but don’t pace.

  • Look at your audience, instead of down or somewhere else.

  • Smile at appropriate points. Don’t plaster a smile on your face and leave it frozen there, but realize that you also don’t have to be serious every second (even if you are talking about a product or a problem that is). You should at least smile and exude warmth at the beginning and end of your presentation, the parts where you’re making your first and last impressions.

  • Vary your voice’s tone and pitch to keep the presentation dynamic and engaging.

  • Avoid fidgeting (such as playing with your nails), as it makes you look nervous and unsure.

  • Maintain good posture.

  • Avoid filler talk like “ummm” and “uhhhh”.

  • Develop a good handshake — firm, but not a death grip. Make eye contact and smile as you shake the investors’ hands so that you really connect.

This may sound like a lot, but it’s nothing you can’t master with a little practice. While you don’t want to practice so many times that you start delivering the pitch like a robot, you do want to practice until you’re comfortable. The best thing to do is film yourself doing your practice pitch, so that you can watch it and see what improvements you can make. You’ll be able to tell where your nonverbal communication is falling short or where your delivery is not how it should be.

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