In a pitch, you have a short amount of time to engage your audience, and who knows more about audience engagement than storytellers? I recently attended a Start In Paris pitch event where five startups (Handlerz, Parkadom, Kitchen Trotter, Algolia, My Twin Shopper) presented pitches within a five-minute time frame, and I came away with a few thoughts on how French startups can apply storytelling techniques to strengthen their pitches.
Technique #1: Unique but familiar.
In a five-minute pitch, you need to grab and situate your audience fast. Storytellers know how to get an audience on board by starting with something familiar before throwing in the unique twist. The movie Speed was pitched as “Die Hard on a bus.” By comparing a new movie to a successful one, we know exactly what kind of film to expect even though we don’t have all the details. That’s why the formula “It’s X for Y” is often recommended in startup pitches. Parkadom could have used this formula to describe themselves as “airbnb for parking.“ Another method is to share the story of how the startup came to be. Kitchen Trotter talked about their love of travel and international cuisine and how whenever they cooked for their friends they’d be bombarded with requests for recipes. This worked because we’ve all asked or been asked for recipes. That’s the familiar part of the equation. But Kitchen Trotter’s friends also asked for the hard-to-get ingredients, and that was the unique piece that sparked their cooking kit business. Bottom line, no matter how groundbreaking and new your startup is, find a familiar entry point to situate your audience quickly.
Technique #2: Pay attention to the audience.
Every storyteller has to face an audience, and it can be nerve-wracking. The thing is, a story doesn’t exist without an audience and a business doesn’t exist without customers. Facing them and hearing their feedback is part of the game. I know sometimes it feels like the people listening to your pitch are your enemy, but believe it or not, they want to be on your side. Yes, even the jaded ones with the attitudes and the loud opinions. And even when they point out a potential problem that you hadn’t anticipated. Instead of becoming defensive, you should see it as an opportunity to grow. Sure, there’s the occasional crackpot or heckler to deal with, but if you stay open and you listen, you may be surprised by what the wisdom of the crowd can offer. Handlerz, a service connecting neighbors who need help with those willing to help them, wobbled on the audience front during the Q & A. When answering, they failed to respond to the whole audience, addressing only the questioner. The result was an increase in chatter throughout the room and dispersed attention. Because they lost the audience, Handlerz’ Q & A session was short-lived. By treating the pitch as a performance to get through as quickly as possible rather than a meaningful interaction, they may have missed a valuable opportunity for growth.
Technique #3: Adopt a hero’s attitude.
Story heroes have a goal they want so badly that they’ll overcome all manner of obstacles to achieve it. It’s the same in business. You need a vision, the drive to pursue that vision, and the perseverance to overcome obstacles. Earnestness, sincerity, a desire to help people, and excitement about an idea are endearing personal traits and possibly essential launching points, but heroes—and businesses—also require the courage to face reality.
Kitchen Trotter won the audience vote with their sincerity and an earnest foodie idea that appeals to the imagination and the senses. I’m convinced many in the audience imagined themselves ordering the cooking kits and trying the recipes, but I’m not sure how many will act on that impulse and become regular customers. When a question about current sales was asked, Kitchen Trotter fumbled badly, pointing to a possible flaw in their thinking. Avoiding a question is defensive attitude, not a heroic one. If sales numbers are not great, own it and be prepared with a strategy, a solution, or even a pivot.
Parkadom and My Twin Shopper also ran into bumps when the basics of their plan were held up to deeper scrutiny. When asked how a renter will be able to access a parking space in a secure building after the space owner has left for work, Parkadom gave a wishful answer: they’ll pick up the keys from a neighbor or a local business. Really? They’re counting on disinterested third parties to help them out of the goodness of their hearts? When asked why we should join their shopping advice social network when we already crowdsource the same advice on our existing networks, My Twin Shopper offered a sincere but unsubstantiated hunch that because they gather people who love to give shopping advice, they have an attractive value proposition.
Heroes achieve their goals by facing the flaws in their plans, not hiding from them. To pitch like a hero, you must be willing to recognize, think through, and address issues that arise. Do this, and even if you don’t win the vote or the funding right there and then, you’ll built a reputation as an entrepreneur to watch.
While all the startups did a respectable job despite a few bumps, Algolia had the best handle on the three storytelling techniques I’ve outlined. They hooked us through the familiar by reminding us how frustrating search functions in mobile apps are, and then they showed us their unique solution, a user-friendly search function that developers can integrate into their apps. Their pitch and demonstration addressed the whole audience even though their tool is targeted to developers. And finally, they adopted the hero’s attitude when asked about potential competitors. Facing the question without flinching, they admitted it was a concern, they provided a well-reasoned explanation of why they currently have an edge, and they spoke about how some competition might even be a good thing. They gave the impression they were aware of the risk and were navigating it sensibly. Even though they didn’t win the audience vote, Algolia is a startup to keep an eye on.