12 Storytelling Techniques for Pitching Your Business
Written by Dave Bailey
Facts tell but stories sell. If you need an engaging story that helps explain your business to investors, these practical storytelling tips will help transform your pitch from flat to fantastic.
Do you know the most effective way to present your business idea?
I’m not talking about what to include in a pitch. I’m talking about how to deliver it. Presenting to an investor (or a group of investors) is a different kettle of fish to writing the deck and it comes with its own set of challenges.
If you’d been in one of my earliest pitches, you’d have seen me talking through each slide, simply paraphrasing the information on the screen — a bit like a newscaster reading a teleprompter. And something wasn’t clicking. You know that feeling you get when you lose someone’s interest? That’s what was happening in too many pitches. So I went to a mentor to get some honest feedback.
‘The right information is there and it’s logical,’ she told me. ‘But here’s the problem with your pitch . . .’ And then she said something I’ll never forget:
‘I don’t just need to think this is a great idea, I need to feel it too.’
My pitch needed a story to bring it to life.
The Power of Storytelling
Everyone loves a good story. And that’s not just my opinion — researchers have shown that our brains are hardwired to enjoy and remember stories.Many blog posts recommend storytelling to investors, but they often fall short on one crucial question: how do you tell a good story?
That’s when I stumbled on an e-Book by Ty Bennett called The Power of Storytelling. Ty was fascinated by the following question: are there specific techniques that help you impact your audience emotionally?
I realised that those techniques wouldn’t just help you tell better stories . . . they’d help you deliver better pitches too.
The Structure of an Influential Story
Influential stories have three sections:
- The Setup
- The Struggle
- The Solution
The setup provides the listener with context that sets the scene. The struggle describes the conflict and confrontation among the characters. And the solution is the idea, strategy or product that helps the characters overcome the struggle.
If you race through the setup and struggle to get to the solution as quickly as possible, you’re making a mistake. It’s the struggle that really engages the audience, far more than the solution — it would be like having the final battle scene in Star Wars at the beginning of the movie, with the rest of the film dedicated to ‘happily ever after’.
What Story to Tell
There are many types of stories you can tell investors. It might be how your company came to be, how you landed your first customer, or your ‘hockey-stick’ moment.
The point of a story is to explain the logic and data arguments in a way that resonates emotionally with your audience. Whatever the story, the following techniques will help you tell it in a way that connects with people.
Part 1. The Setup
1. Ask your audience questions: Questions are powerful because they create a curiosity gap. For your questions to land, make sure you use the word ‘you’ in them.
- ‘Have you ever met . . . ?’
- ‘Do you know much about . . . ?’
- ‘Hands up if you have ever . . .’ (Great for groups.)
2. Place your audience in the scene: Your goal isn’t to retell; you want your audience to relive it with you. Place them into the scene with you, to fire up their imagination.
- ‘I was with a group of people.’
- ‘If you had been there, in that group of people.’
- ‘Imagine yourself in that group of people.’
3. Make the characters relatable: Every story has characters. They could be your teammates, your customers, even your competitors. To make a character relatable, you can compare them to someone your audience is likely to know; perhaps their boss, a common entrepreneur profile, or even a celebrity.
- ‘Cindy is a bit like Monica from Friends, in that . . .
Part 2. The Struggle
4. Make the problem seem familiar: Just like comparing the characters to familiar people, you can compare the problem to something your audience is familiar with. This is why you have to do your homework on your investors — so you can use the information to relate to them.
- ‘It’s just like when you . . .’
5. Replace ‘I’ and ‘we’ with ‘you’: When you talk about your business, there’s a tendency to overuse the word ‘I’. A powerful technique of storytelling is to replace ‘I’ with ‘you’. For example, compare the following sentences:
- ‘I saw this all the time.’
- ‘You see this all the time.’
- ‘When I spoke to other CEOs, I learned that . . .’
- ‘When you speak with other CEOs, you’ll learn that . . .’
6. Use dialogue in the present tense: Dialogue makes people seem real — and people like to hear about other people. It also lets you take things from the past and talk about them in the present tense, which creates a sense of urgency. Here are a couple of examples to see the difference:
- ‘I knew I had to do something.’
- ‘My board member looked straight at me and said, “Dave, you have to do something!”’
7. Use specific details: Statistics are attributes of a sample. But in your story,you want to present real, observed values. Details about location, time and money can bring your story to life. Again, some examples to contrast:
- ‘Customers take on average 2–3 hours to . . .’
- ‘James actually sat down with a stopwatch and measured how much time it took to . . . and it took him — an expert — 2 hours and 48 minutes.’
8. Use the ‘pregnant pause’: It’s in moments of silence that the audience can really check in with their feelings. Use a dramatic pause to emphasise the significance of a certain point in the story:
- ‘She came to me in tears. [Pause] That’s when I knew . . .’
9. Prompt the audience to feel: The goal of your story is to create an emotional impact, not just a logical one. So at the most emotionally intense moments in your story, ask your audience to imagine how they would feel in that situation.
- ‘How would you feel if you . . . ?’
- ‘Imagine what it feels like when . . .’
Part 3. The Solution
10. Introduce the solution as a question: Before you tell them about your product or solution, ask the question, ‘What if . . . ?’ Again, open the curiosity gap before you fill it.
- ‘What if there were a way to . . . ?’
11. Let someone else be the hero: Don’t assume that you have to be the hero of your story. Giving credit for the solution to someone else can be a powerful way to come off as both humble and relatable to your audience. You can credit a mentor, a book, a teammate, another product, or even a stranger.
- ‘It was at that point that her husband, sitting behind her, chimed in and said something profound . . .’
12. Physical gestures: Using motion — hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture, even just walking around — is an advanced technique. However, done correctly it can add to the narrative and make your story even more memorable:
- ‘We took our client’s productivity from 60% [hand position one] to 80%[hand position two].’
Go Tell the World Your Story
As the adage goes, ‘If it’s not necessary to say, it’s necessary not to say’. No one appreciates a story that goes on too long, so try out yours with people you trust and get feedback. Counterintuitively, the more you rehearse, the more spontaneous you’ll appear.
Using these techniques will take your storytelling to the next level. And they work in other scenarios too — you can use them in sales meetings, in keynotes, and with your team. As the famous saying goes: ‘Those who tell the stories, rule the world.’
Continue reading about storytelling techniques:
- Want to build an effective marketing communication strategy? Here is a list of tried and tested communication techniques.
- Working on a pitch? Learn how to write the perfect pitch to win new clients.
- Need to develop a killer business strategy? Read these effective strategy tactics you need to employ.
Originally published Apr 5, 2019, last updated Jul 27, 2023
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