Recently James Smith from Masters Academy and I had the opportunity to present to MBA students taking part in an innovation and entrepreneurship course at the Australian Graduate School of Management (UNSW). Because we covered some new material that’s broadly applicable in many business contexts, we wanted to share some key takeaways here.
Our brief was to help the class develop their presentation skills in the lead up to an assessment requiring them to share the story of their entrepreneurial journey so far. Whereas we usually help craft pitches about the product being developed, the purpose of this session was to help students communicate the progress they had made in developing their solution (e.g. how they came up with the idea, how they tested it, where they are now and what comes next).
How useful is this?
A presentation like this is not usually required upfront in the startup world, but I’m starting to think it should be… I think many investors are best persuaded by the skills, qualities and experiences of the people on the team. They also like to know the origin story behind a startup, the adversity it has overcome and the opportunities it has uncovered. Most of this stuff is left out of a first pitch, usually due to time pressure and the perceived need to discuss the full brilliance of the idea itself for the entire allocation.
Usually these stories aren’t told in a pitching context but over a couple of drinks or a meal (which not every entrepreneur is able to secure with quality investors/customers). Maybe these stories should be told upfront, or maybe the status quo means that only the best “hustlers” get their opportunity to speak authentically with potential investors in a relaxed setting. A sort of entrepreneurial natural selection. I’m not sure what I prefer at this stage, but I do think the tips below (if used upfront in a product pitch) could help more deserving startups get to their intended outcomes.
Okay, back to the session…
The topic of our presentation was persuasive narratives: how to tell a (business) story in an engaging and memorable manner. To start, James warmed up the group and eventually secured a few volunteers who were willing to brave the room and present their work-in-progress presentations. While he watched them for presentation styles and body language, I mapped out their presentations on the whiteboards. Three whiteboards in, I was starting to feel like an eccentric maths professor (for someone who dropped maths in Year 12, it was a nice feeling)!
After each speech, James and I would provide our feedback and elicit other impressions from the audience. We would mark key pieces of feedback on the board with the aim of improving the flow and persuasiveness of their stories. Here are some of the key tips that you may find useful:
Persuasive narratives: 4 tips on preparation and presentation
- Visually map your presentation before writing: you may not have access to a whiteboard, but any piece of paper will do. Have the key themes, events and topics you need to communicate in dot point form and arrange these into a logical order. Post-it notes would be a good idea. Check for repetition, weak parts (that could be cut to save time) and strong parts that should be emphasised. Throw in some adversity (e.g. a failed pitch or poor market feedback) and provide the matching resolution (e.g. a product iteration).
- Try to avoid writing full presentations: a great story is simple enough to tell off-the-cuff, whenever/wherever you’re asked for it. Simple stories with a couple of key characters and events are easy to share, easy to remember and easy to be shared again. Nothing that should need writing down. In startup contexts, what the audience remembers about you is what they will share with the people they know. It’s important that your story is simple enough that they get it right. In marketing, this is critical. In politics, this leads to 3-word slogans (so be sure to stop way short of that)!
- Add deliberate emotion: when you have your presentation mapped out, consider adding emotional cues (like the smiley face you should be able to see on the board above). This is a note to yourself about the delivery of this section (the non-musical equivalent of seeing fortissimo or andante on your sheet music). James went into quite a bit of detail on inflection, pace and volume; tools you can use to influence the mood of a section, draw the audience in, keep them interested and excite them about what’s coming next.
- Just be natural: a good story is generally delivered in a conversational manner, with the right emotions at the right points. This is usually because they’re delivered in casual settings (that make the presenter comfortable). But even if your setting is a university lecture hall, emulating that natural style makes you seem confident, authentic and honest. James suggested not pacing around too much, not physically approaching the audience and using hand gestures in a normal way; all things that make the presentation less confronting or “salesy”.
Persuasive narratives: 4 tips on content
- Use the narrative structure: tried and tested, the setup/conflict/resolution structure has worked for time immemorial. Sometimes the ending isn’t great for the protagonist(s) e.g. Romeo & Juliet, Gladiator or Titanic; sometimes it is e.g. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Inside Out (loved that movie)! People relate to underdogs facing adversity, but most entrepreneurs paradoxically refuse to admit to their past challenges, failures or lessons. As long as there is a resolution, and we are in a better place now, it’s good to go there!
- Memorable through detail: a story pitch (and product pitch) will become more memorable with the amount of detail you provide. Names, places, dates, dollar amounts and any other hard facts. It will help if the events you describe are impressive, unusual or shocking. For example, getting a strategically important meeting with a high profile executive, politician or celebrity and pitching them your idea is a memorable detail. Include every detail that will stick, and in some way contribute to a positive impression of your skills and experiences.
Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is a great book on this topic.
- Memorable through emotion: of the ancient tenets of persuasion (ethos, pathos and logos a.k.a. credibility, emotional appeals and logic), emotion is probably the trickiest one to use without looking like you’re being disingenuous, dramatic or condescending. Subtlety is the key. A slight frown with a drop in pace and tone will make a particular setback seem troubling. It will quickly be followed with a slight smile and an upbeat description of what happened next or what the future holds. James uses this masterfully.
- Structure it logically: beyond the narrative structure, more specific headings will help organise your thoughts or post-it notes. From what we were hearing, there was a common approach to this: who we are (company name), our initial idea, design process, market testing (usually negative), version 2, market testing (less negative), version 3, market response (now positive), next step. Unlike most books and movies, it probably helps to deliver an elevator pitch (the ending) at step 1 and then follow a similar process on how we got here.
As we were drawing towards the end of our session, a student in the front row finally asked us for a demonstration (I was wondering how long we could discuss their presentations before having the tables turned on us)! I was happy for James to field that one, and even happier to deconstruct and critique it for the room afterwards. It was great fun. The story, which was completely impromptu, followed the narrative structure perfectly (with two or three setbacks). It ended on a bright note, as all entrepreneurial stories probably should, and was very effective in communicating three main things…
Firstly, he has a compelling story which includes repeated triumphs over adversity. Secondly, he has a firm set of beliefs that most people would agree with and a big vision for the business he is currently working on. Thirdly, he’s a relaxed, unpretentious presenter who is clearly a nice person. Someone you would want to have a drink or meal with. Creating that impression should be a key aim of every presenter hoping to see the audience (or key individuals in it) again!
What do you think?
Has storytelling benefited you in your career or business? Should a pitch feel more like a story for maximum persuasiveness? Add your comments below. If you are interested in more tips on presentations and pitching, check out these prior blog posts:
Written by: Shahe Momdjian