Ditch the stale pitch deck format, use storytelling to capture investors’ attention

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

The opening line to The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, who expertly crafts a beautiful allegorical tale of an aging fisherman, Santiago, struggling with a giant fish far out in the Gulf Stream. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and contributing to Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, storytelling doesn’t get much better than this.

Ever since humans discovered the ability to create cave paintings, we’ve used stories to communicate, from gatherings around campfires to traveling poets. Modern-day storytelling is reflected in the popular TED Talks, and its slogan of Ideas Worth Spreading. Stories represent 65% of TED Talks content. We are wired to respond to stories and share them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a business idea, a political vision, or a toothbrush as your subject matter, if you’ve got a good tale, people will listen.

Storytelling is a powerful mechanism for sharing insights and ideas in a way that is memorable, persuasive, and engaging, so how can we use storytelling as a tool when seeking to connect with investors? Far too much focus is given, in my view, on the structure and content of pitch decks, which are a brief snippet of what your startup does so investors can decide if it’s worth considering, but they are formulaic, often simply crammed with ‘facts’. Instead provide the narrative of why you, why now, and why this opportunity?

We are all emotional decision makers, so focus more on storytelling and leave the deck at home – literally. Entrepreneurs are doing all the work for investors by providing a deck, instead make them do the work by listening to your story, asking smart questions, and you can work out if you want them and their money in your venture. Ideas are like belly buttons. Everybody has at least one. So, everyone has a deck, and they’re all 12 to 15 pages with the same structure derived from Airbnb, Uber, or Guy Kawasaki. So be original and create a unique narrative of your own story instead. Your storytelling will be more influential and memorable than the data, slide design, and the financial projections in a generic deck. Stand out from the crowd, take the road less taken.

For all the time, angst and money founders put into perfecting their pitch deck, you’d think investors would review them carefully with scrutiny. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. New research from Tech Crunch shows investors are spending 24% less time looking at pitch decks in 2022 compared to 2021. On average, you have just under three minutes to convince them to take a meeting with you. For decks that fail to raise funding, investors give up in just over two minutes. That’s not a lot of time to make a first impression, so you’ve got to make it count.

Let’s start by understanding what a deck needs to accomplish. If you think the purpose is to get investment, you’re wrong. It’s nice if it happens, but that’s not what investors are thinking, their goal in reviewing decks is to see if the venture is a fit to their interests, and if not, get it out of the queue. Rather than waste time reading every deck carefully, they skim quickly looking for that needle in a haystack.

A pitch deck won’t get you funding, but it will get you a meeting or a screening to go through the basic points. If that’s successful, it gets you a longer meeting to dive into the details. If that goes well, you start the due diligence process. The pitch deck is just an introduction, an overview. Investors are spending a lot less time on slides, but where that time is spent is shifting: the Tech Crunch research shows its why are you doing this, why you and the company purpose sections that are getting attention.

Investors want to know at a glance whether this venture has a reason to exist before even going through the rest of the deck. If you can do that, you’re hooking investors, you’re showing that there is this thesis fit, and then that gets investors primed to hear the rest of the story.

This is why storytelling is vital, it engages the part of the mind that wants to believe. A pitch deck is an analogue tool having to smash through that barrier with uncomfortable force. Storytelling works well because its innate to us, it’s human and it’s interactive. And let me say one more thing. Don’t use a pitch deck template, it puts you in a box. Your unique value proposition and story will get diluted with a one-size fits all approach to marketing.

Instead, craft your own story, shaping messages around brand, culture, customer needs, product, and future strategy. An inspiring narrative helps investors relate and connect to both the founder and the business idea, providing a unique perspective of the founder’s voice. As a result, the best stories take on a conceptual role in creating a start-up’s core business strategy. Stories have more impact than simply listing and highlighting ‘features’ and talking about the team enables you reference their personalities and showcase examples of their work. Indeed, there are two ways to share knowledge with people – you can push information out with a traditional deck, or you can pull them in with a story.

For example, Fatima is a socially responsible entrepreneur who has set up a fair-trade coffee shop. Why would consumers drop into Fatima’s café and not Starbucks? It’s not because consumers lack for places to go to get caffeinated, it’s because her core purpose is to help consumers build a more equitable world through socially mindful sourcing and sustainable buying. What are you really selling? Fatima isn’t positioned as a coffee shop, she sells compassion, her customers are proud to support an enterprise that makes life better for others. They’re excited for the opportunity to buy coffee grown by farmers who are paid a living wage. They’ll pass a closer Starbucks to buy from Fatima’s.

And recall Uber’s story: So, you called a cab, but no one’s showing. The only thing the cranky dispatcher will say is He’ll be there in 15. You call back in 15, and he now says the driver’s on the way. Any minute now. Click. It’s cold, it’s getting dark, and you’re already late. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app that let you tap into an unused supply of empty cabs and cars to get you where you want to go, perhaps with a little style? So goes the story behind Uber, a story now encapsulated in a single tagline: Everyone’s private driver.

As the Uber story shows, the best marketing campaigns are a combination of great stories, our own emotions, and authenticity. It works for customer acquisition so it can do the same for investors, to capture their attention and differentiate yourself. Good storytelling can convey complex messages and engage our emotions to positively influence our buying decisions by tapping into our intrinsic emotions. Too often, businesses focus solely on their product whilst relatable stories capture an investor’s attention and bring them along on an emotionally rich journey.

So, let’s look at ten storytelling tips to nail your next pitch – and either make this you pitch agenda or simply replaces the deck entirely in a passionate, authentic narrative in your own words and voice.

Show your long-term vision Don’t pitch to raise money. Pitch because you have never been more excited about what you could accomplish. Show your vision, purpose, and passion. Receiving funding comes as a by-product of investors buying into you, and why you’re doing this.

Identify the problem This is how it is today… it sucks! Start by naming the thing that’s getting in the way of your future customer’s happiness. It doesn’t have to be Darth Vader or The Wicked Witch of the West – or a massive innovation – it can be a boring, routine thing that impacts many, and you can improve it significantly.

Agitate the problem If we do nothing, this is where we are heading. Show that we’re at a pivotal moment. If we don’t act now, things will get much worse. Create the picture of the future opportunity.

Spark intrigue I think we can do something remarkable about this. The investor will prick up their ears. They may not roar with excitement but make them aware of where you’re heading, and just maybe, they’ll want to come along with you.

Offer the missing piece of the puzzle As we are all aware, the sun doesn’t shine at night. What needs to be achieved to get to the promised land? Demonstrate possibility by showing what needs to happen, and how the funding will be deployed.

Show, don’t tell Share the story so it unfolds naturally Describe what’s happening as if the action is unfolding right now in front of you, and as Mark Twain said, help people to answer the question What does this looks like in practice? Founders sculpt the best startup stories by using anecdotes, with a sense for what investors might think of as interesting angles.

Sell benefits, not features It gives you safety, security, and a complete affordable solution. Tell the investor exactly how your solution will benefit customers, not listing the features. Bring the solution alive and make it personal to them, so they come to their own conclusions. People don’t just absorb facts and information, they actively listen and make their own inferences.

Create urgency You can order the MVP right now on our website. Draw them in with the current position, highlighting you’re ready to go and that time is of the essence. 

Build trust Remove uncertainty from your pitch by giving a demo. If you’re an early-stage startup, use demos, videos, customer feedback and testimonials to show the reality of what success looks like today.

Demonstrate the potential The whole system is designed for infinite scalability.  This is something we must do, can do, and will do. Make them feel part of your journey already. Investors don’t like missing out, so embed your startup story as a narrative about your north star, growth, and passion.

Research shows that telling stories helps people understand information you are sharing. A London School of Economics study found that 10% of people retain information when you simply share statistics, 30% will retain it if you include a story with your statistics, but if you simply tell a story, 70% will retain the information shared. That’s powerful! In these days of information overload, a good story will always win over a proposition explained just using data.

Stories help people learn, but don’t tell investors everything, leave gaps to give them time to think and reflect, joining the dots for themselves. There is beauty in brevity, so make your story descriptive and captivating. Watch how the narrative draws them in. Use visual metaphors to create bold rich pictures and imagery to make statements stick. Present your solution in terms of the ‘old world’ and ‘promised land’ you’ve painted. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.  Always tell a short customer story focusing on the metrics you helped them achieve.

Neurological research proves storytelling is the best way to capture people’s attention, bake information into their memories, and forge close, personal bonds. Every startup creates a detailed pitch deck  but producing more content doesn’t necessarily mean it’s attracting more attention, it’s really just making more noise for investors to work through. If startups want to slash through the clutter and engage an investor audience, focusing on the standard pitch deck structure won’t suffice, they must also tell gripping stories.

Good stories surprise us. They make us think and feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that a PowerPoint crammed with bar graphs never can. The engineers of the future will be poets. Investor engagement is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell. The purpose of a founder storyteller is not to tell investors how to think, but to give them questions to think upon.

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