A prominent venture capitalist recently invited me to speak to leaders of his portfolio companies on the topic of storytelling. I joined billionaire Vinod Khosla at his exclusive Khosla Ventures CEO Summit along with an exceptional list of business leaders including Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Marc Benioff, Satya Nadella, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, and many others.
My experience at the Summit reinforced the common theme in my columns: the ability to tell a story is a highly desirable trait among leaders and entrepreneurs. In back-to-back presentations Khosla and I gave the audience a primer on persuasive storytelling. I began with the three unbreakable laws of storytelling (you can watch it here). I explained that in the information age you are only as valuable as your ideas. The ability to deliver ideas persuasively is the single greatest skill that will attract investors, partners, customers, employees, and evangelists. An inspiring pitch has three components. It must be emotional, novel, and memorable.
Emotion. A pitch that touches the heart before reaching the head will stand a much better chance of moving an audience to action. Ask yourself, “What am I truly passionate about? What makes my heart sing?” Once you identity the deeper meaning of your product, service, or company, the single most effective way to transfer your passion is through the power of story. Stories can be shared in the form of personal anecdotes, stories about other people, and stories about brand success. Above all the story must clearly show a problem that your idea solves. The problem is the “villain” and your idea or product is the “hero.”
Novelty. Ideas that stand out in an increasingly noisy world are notable because they’re novel. Humans cannot ignore novelty. According to neuromarketing expert, Dr. A.K. Pradeep, “Our brains are trained to look for something brilliant and new, something that stands out, something that looks delicious.” Ideas stick when they are packaged as new, surprising, and unexpected—something ‘delicious.’ When the brain detects something unexpected or surprising, it immediately senses, “Oh, here’s something new. I’d better pay attention.”
Memorable. You can have a great idea but if nobody can remember what you said, it doesn’t matter. Memorable stories are shared, spreading the message much further than its immediate audience. One of my favorite techniques is creating what I call a Twitter friendly headline. Before you craft your pitch ask yourself, “What is the one thing I want my audience to know?” Verbally flag it for your listeners by saying, “If there’s one thing I want you to remember it’s this…” Whatever you say next will be the one thing your audience remembers. And yes, it works nearly every time!
After my presentation, Vinod Khosla took the stage to explain how people destroy the emotional experience of their stories with poorly crafted presentations. My notes on Khosla’s presentation filled about five pages, but here’s a brief summary of his advice.
1. Decide what you want to say. Before you build your slides, decide what you want to say. Make two lists: the reasons an investor should back your company and the reasons why they shouldn’t (the second list builds trust because it shows investors that you’ve clearly thought through all the risks and how you’ll mitigate them). “Don’t hide the risk,” Khosla reminded the audience.
2. Narrow your pitch. Khosla and I agree that any audience—including investors— can only retain about three to five key messages. “Don’t try to tell the whole story,” says Khosla. “Your goal is to fascinate the investor. Give them one, two, or three reasons to invest; not sixteen. If you connect with those three reasons, you’re done.”
3. Budget your slides. Once you’ve decided on the key messages to emphasize, build a presentation with no more than 20 to 25 slides. Khosla also recommends building a backup slide for every hard question an investor might ask and add those slides to the back of the presentation or appendix.
4. Obey the five-second rule. “Clutter destroys emotion,” says Khosla. Here Khosla recommends a five-second rule. Build a slide and show it to another person for only five seconds. If that person cannot tell you the key message of the slide, it’s too cluttered, complex and ultimately ineffective.
5. Simplify slides and messages. The point of the five-second exercise is to simplify the story. Khosla used the word “simplify” several times in his presentation. Too many words, colors, and clutter confuse the audience and add unnecessary complexity. Investors demand clarity. They want to know the problem your idea solves and they don’t want to struggle to figure it out. “In 80% of the presentations, you don’t even know what the problem is,” says Khosla.
I found Khosla’s most profound takeaway to be a concept he calls “engineer the email.” The investor will finish a pitch meeting and send a three sentence email to the partners. “The tone of the email will change the bias of everyone who gets it. They will walk into the next meeting or discussion either for you or against you,” says Khosla. “Your goal is not to give them the complete story in the pitch. It’s to engineer the email.”
Although these tips were delivered to entrepreneurs who pitch their ideas to investors, these guidelines will work for anyone who wants to inspire an audience to take action on an idea. Your ideas matter. Don’t sabotage them with a poorly crafted story and presentation.
Carmine Gallo is the communication coach for the world’s most admired brands, a popular keynote speaker, and author of several bestselling books including his latest Wall Street Journal bestseller, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets Of The World’s Top Minds.
This blog was originally published on Forbes.