Forbes: Open Mic: The Investor Pitch As Performance Art

November 1, 2015

(As appeared in Forbes.)

Having worked with entrepreneurs for nearly 30 years, there are certain subjects that are talked about constantly—technology, talent, capital and revenue. But over time, there are also little threads of genius that pop up and persist. One of those fascinating unknown secrets of fundraising entrepreneurs is the use of stand-up comedy courses and courses on performing your story to turn your pitch, timing and corporate story into a blockbuster.

You have to start with great material

There are plenty of mentors available to help you with making sure the meat of your presentation covers both what you need to say and what investors need to hear. As a mentor for Founder Institute, I was privileged to watch founders hone their message and practice their pitch. The first and hardest step is often shaving down years of effort, research, interest and work into the most compelling threads of a story. An investor pitch is not a book report. When seeking funding, you are not conveying all you did or all you failed to learn, you are conveying what you learned about your unique opportunity (a unique opportunity for them now.) Cull down your material.

They’ve heard it all before—why is your story special?

You may feel like you’re the first person ever pitching because it may be your first time, but you must consider the audience. They have heard it all before. There are a million great resources on what not to say in an investor pitch. Make sure when converting your pitch from the ‘telling of your business idea’ to the ‘ask’ that you do not make rookie mistakes. There are tons of romantic comedies that are made into films each year, but someone pitching that idea to the film industry managed to convey something special about that ‘familiar theme’ and they got the funding. Those pitch men and women graduated from learning ‘what to say’ to learning ‘what to say to encourage people to bank on the compelling twist.’ Do you have a compelling twist or know why your story is special?

You have to take the audience somewhere

If your story is really compelling, investors may give you a pass for being nervous, but this is not high school theatre. You are expected to show up prepared and compelling. When you have only 90 seconds or 3 minutes with an investor, it’s critical to convey the few amazing elements to hook their interest and keep it. You want them to be hanging on your story and wanting to hear more from you.

One of the best books I’ve read that has surprisingly helped me in business is The Elements of Screenwriting. The Elements of Screenwriting is a great book for two reasons. First, it can help you develop a narrative arc that shows progress, conflict and rising action. If you didn’t go to school as a copywriter, marketing or PR professional, you may be missing some of the fundamentals that can help you tell the story from the reader’s perspective. The second great thing about the book is it helps you boil your story down to the abstract or the pitch. Again, boiling a great story down is one of the most difficult things for the entrepreneur when you’ve been so close to the action. Have you taken the time to craft your story to be told in a short and long-format?

You must have impeccable timing and delivery

When watching entrepreneurs pitch, I am often struck by an amazing business idea that is trapped in an awkward delivery. There are many stories of shy or introverted entrepreneurs—the founders of Hubspot and Pinterest among them—but successful introverts never allow their natural tendencies to get in the way of telling their story in a compelling way. Some founders may not be natural storytellers but they benefit from a co-founder with those gifts that can become the pitch person. Not every startup is gifted with a storyteller and they must invest in learning better timing and delivery to ensure their own performance isn’t the barrier to success.

Ricky Steele, a legend in Atlanta for growing business and giving back, and a fellow Leadership Atlanta alum, is a natural born storyteller. He was an entrepreneur and is a gifted orator. Here’s a good one-liner from Ricky: ‘An entrepreneur is someone stupid enough to work 80s a week for themselves to keep from working 40 hours a week for someone else.’ You want to listen to what he is saying because you know there is a punch line coming. You know there is something coming you will not only want to hear, but you will want to repeat. When you develop your skill beyond telling a story well, to telling a story that people want to repeat, you have graduated to another level of talent that can make the difference between another pitch and a meeting with an investor. What part of your pitch do potential investors want to repeat?

Nothing tests timing, delivery and fearlessness like stand-up comedy

Spanx mogul, Sara Blakely, before becoming the first self-made female Billionaire, was a failed stand-up comic. And while her career in comedy wasn’t her path to success, I have no doubt the training in comedy was one of her secret weapons. Something she and Ricky Steele have in common is having attended stand-up comedy classes with Jeff Justice. He has a course on using humor effectively in business presentations. It is amazing to me how often over the last few decades a quiet entrepreneur has mentioned to me that they were taking a stand-up comedy course.

One thing that comedy and an investor pitch have in common is that they are wholly terrifying because you must carry an audience on your own talents without props and presentation gimmicks. Another thing is that refined comedy routines are often boiled down to 3 minute or 4 minute pieces. Going through an exercise like a comedy class can not only build your courage, but can help you understand how critical three minutes of material can be. And also, how in a matter of seconds, you may lose an audience and need to turn them. How often to do you speak publicly? Have you worked hard enough to refine your pitch and are you practicing to ensure you are using your best material?

The best entrepreneurs are always working on themselves

While you are working hard to build your business and ask for money, take some time to invest in how well you deliver your story. It’s something we can all do better. Videotape yourself and watch it. If you’re brave, watch it with someone else and ask for feedback—then, do it again.

You may invest more time as an entrepreneur asking for money than nearly anything else you do. It’s worth your time you make sure your time at the Mic is unforgettable. Your delivery may be the one thing that sets you apart from the thousands of other well-groomed, fresh-faced, technology aspirants with a great headshot on LinkedIn and a successful, well-placed mentor that gave you seed money.