When you are selling your business to any audience I think the most important thing to remember is to tell a story as opposed to recycle information and data.
So what does this actually mean?
I think it means making it personal and honest, providing relevant background information, giving it a beginning middle and an end, and, above all, making it entertaining.
Telling a story also means thinking about it in terms of chapters but at the same time making sure the there is a flow and continuity between them.
As an investor I listen to so many pitches and the ones that really draw me in are the ones that feel like a story, where you want to hear more and find out what will happen next.
To start with, I like to hear some background information about where the idea actually came from. This makes the idea feel more real and also shows you how the founder’s mind works and thinks about solving problems.
At MessageLabs we would always talk about where the idea came from. The idea for internet-level virus scanning was actually hatched within our previous company Star. Back in 1996, we were developing a single box plug and play solution to connect a small business network to the internet. We thought that it made sense to include anti-virus software in the box as an extra feature. But my brother hated the idea thinking that customers would have to keep updating their software and the solution was meant to just ‘work’ without any input from the customer.
This got us thinking. As an ISP we were moving around all this email – why don’t we scan it for viruses in our data center while it’s in transit so customers don’t have to worry about it? We felt an ISP was the utility company of the digital age and, like a water company filters its water, we should be filtering our email. This led to us building a prototype of the service and then soon after, in 1998, the Melisa virus was launched on the world, which was the first virus to piggyback on email, and the whole problem literally changed overnight. The service proved to be so successful within Star that we set up MessageLabs in 2000 as a separate company to scale up the technology and we never looked back.
Once you’ve established some background, it’s helpful to think of the main part of the story in terms of chapters. Chapters will all be built around an important subject – for example how the product works and why its different. At the same time, you want to ensure there is some good narrative ‘flow’ to the story so that there is a way of connecting the chapters together and certain common threads between them. It’s also worth thinking about the technique in story telling where you leave unanswered questions floating and then answer them further down in the story – this can be really effective when it is done well.
The best stories build towards a climax where a number of the themes are combined together to create some excitement. I recently saw a great example of this in one of the companies I’ve invested in. They had talked about market size, product, roadmap and business model and then had a graph that showed revenue growth building year on year, broken down by product type and in the context of the overall market projections. It was powerful stuff and, for me, did a great job of producing the climactic moment in the story.
The final part of the story consists of providing some kind of conclusion that wraps things up and touches on the central themes that you want to re-iterate
When you are putting this in a business context, inevitably the subject of slides some up. For me telling a story is most powerful with no slides and just the help of some writing on the white board or one of two graphics that you can use to illustrate a point.
At the same time I realize that using a slide deck is so woven into the process of pitching and it is a convention that many people expect you to follow. But if you do use slides I would see them as simply a way to illustrate your story and bring it even further to life. I like to see minimal words on the slides and always avoid reading off them. The more words you have on the slides and the more reading you do, for me, just puts distance between you and your story and undermines its impact.
Telling a story can be difficult but is so powerful when it’s done well. I have learned from experience of doing it well and doing it badly that perhaps the most important thing it to make sure you’re telling yourstory and not somebody else’s.