Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 28, 2022
by Neil Senturia
I recently spent a morning listening to 25 startup companies tell their stories at the New York University Pitch Session, three minutes each. Some were memorable, others not. It was less than two hours from start to finish, and it was run beautifully. But as I reviewed my notes, I wondered why certain companies stuck in my mind. What happened in those three minutes? I suggest that it was not just the content of the deck.
The movies. Why do some of them elicit a standing ovation? Is there a science to blockbusters?
And so we turn to Jonah Berger, Wharton professor, who has written a paper, “How Quantifying the Shape of Stories Predicts Their Success.” Pay special attention to that specific word: “story.” In thinking back about the pitches, the ones that told a story were the most effective.
My connection was not grabbed by TAM or SAM or ARR or CAC — that stuff was noise. When I look back, what I remembered were the voices and the stories.
Berger’s field of study is measuring language to determine why some narratives are more effective than others. “When we make a presentation, we are creating content that’s like a story.”
What makes a hit movie or a best-seller book or an online article so engaging that we can’t put it down? What is the secret sauce to the “science of stories”? This is heady stuff, and Berger goes deep in the weeds. He looks at all kinds of things, from “writing complexity to anxiety to sadness to time of day.”
He contends that the key to a great story is “the progression of ideas,” and he analyzes content in three areas — speed, volume and circuitousness.
Let’s look at speed. Berger tells us to think about stories “unfurling over time,” even if that time is no more than the three minutes for the pitch. And he wants to see how one idea is “related to the next.”
Should the founder jump from benefit to benefit or focus on one thing and drive it home? In a perfect pitch, the audience gets carried along, almost sensing the next thought. Berger works with artificial intelligence and natural language processing to understand what creates emotion. Berger talks about “embedding” in a story so that each idea links perfectly and logically to the next.
How does Siri know? Because she has looked at several billion words and data points and in what order they fit together. My wife has read a thousand mysteries. When the movie starts, she ruins it by telling me in the first 10 minutes who committed the crime. Thanks.
Berger goes on to explore “volume.” Are the points in a story spaced properly? Think about it, how much data can the investor absorb in three minutes. A pitch should not need a firehose.
“Circuitousness.” Does the pitch go direct or hold back something? In my own pitching, I try to give the investor the “wow” at the end. The one hook that they did not see coming. The unfair advantage, the rockstar customer. The razzle-dazzle finale with dancers and a full orchestra.
The bottom line — I think we have been teaching founders the exact wrong way to give a pitch.
Founders obsess over the slides, but not the presentation. They want to raise money, and they need to give their audience a reason to write the check, but what they often fail to do is tell a story that grabs you.
There is a famous Hollywood legend. When the producers of the sci-fi thriller “Alien” went in to see 20th Century Fox to pitch the movie, the studio exec behind the desk says you got two minutes. One breath and then Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon said, “Jaws in outer space.” The movie was greenlighted on the spot.
I know that the incubators and mentors in town all teach how to build a pitch deck, and we all steal from Guy Kawasaki and his infamous 10 slides. But I wonder if we are teaching the right stuff.
Tradition is that the CEO gives the pitch. But being a CEO and being a “pitchman” are two different skills. They might both be in one person, but if they are not, well, I’m just saying.
Please email ideas to Neil at [email protected].
Rule No. 706:
“Mommy, tell me a story.”