1. Dig the hole
Ideas (especially new or unconventional ones) need somewhere to live in your listener’s mind.
If you try and explain something without carving out that negative space for it, it will often just sit on the surface and only gain a superficial presence. And that’s assuming it doesn’t just roll away immediately.
What you need to do is pick a clear and specific frame of context, then start digging by describing a problem.
Picture the scene: you bump into your ideal investor (naturally one of the Forward Partners team) in an elevator (what a delightful cliche). It’s your lucky day — they ask what you do.
The temptation is to leap straight to your descriptor:
“My business is Uber for big cats. It’s a $45bn industry that we’re disrupting by democratising feline mobility.”
They don’t own a cat. If anything, they’re more of a dog person. And they’re busy. And they’re thinking about their next meeting. This couldn’t have gone worse.
So what’s the game we should be playing instead? Why dig the hole?
The fact is, there isn’t a human on earth whose brain doesn’t get sucked in by an interesting problem. It’s just how our heads work. Once you start building an incomplete picture, knitting an unfinished yarn, the human mind craves completeness and starts to wonder what happens next.
“Today, every member of your team is 45% less productive because they don’t know how they will get their big cat from A to B this weekend. Even worse, moving these animals around is basically impossible unless you can solve the machine-learning challenges inherent to which foods you need in which cages to lure them in. And all the while, this is taking resources from Government logistic departments that we need to spend on education, healthcare and more.”
Ignore the content in the above — but it should show you how we are digging a deeper and deeper hole in your mind, and in a really clear specific space.
Get this right and their brain is now primed and anticipating the resolution of the solution.
The “problem statement” part of your pitch works because of tension. And it’s not the only circumstance in which it can make the crucial difference to your persuasiveness.
2. Remember the tension
Every good story is the product of building, and then resolving, tension. In fact, even though genres like tragedy or comedy might seem radically different, they rely on the exact same dynamic.
The only difference is that tragedy resolves by allowing the inevitable to happen, while comedy achieves catharsis in the surprise reveal that it was all just a joke and everything’s actually fine.
When trying to persuade people you are part of an interesting story, it’s easy to forget to include the dimension of conflict and tension.
If you try to just tell them you’re a useful spokesperson on a couple of extremely broad topics, the claim is diffuse enough to only get you so far.
If you are a fintech company and you’ve done some research showing fintech is going to be big next year, this is exactly what anyone would expect you to do. There couldn’t be less tension. There isn’t even an obstacle in your way to liven things up.
By contrast, if you can demonstrate how late payment is putting tens of thousands of entrepreneurs out of business, and that actually it’s not your tech that is the solution — but the need for the Government to do XXX, now there’s a scene set with some natural conflict and an interesting problem.
Similarly, let’s say you’re a B2B company and you have another tech startup as a customer using your shiny new product. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen. By contrast, if you have one of the country’s oldest institutions adopting it, that’s much more interesting. There’s a natural tension there because we don’t expect these big companies to lead the charge with adaptation and innovation.
You either want to set a scene where there’s natural conflict or tension between the actors in the story, or between your audience’s expectations of behaviour and what’s actually happening.
Either way, if you can’t find it, there’s a clear force missing, and your story will be less interesting as a result. The example of this traditionally is the headline: “Man bites dog”.
Now, once you’ve sucked your audience in with a reason to care, you can make your claim about why you and your business are doing what you’re doing.
The catch is, there’s no reason for them to believe it, unless you build your argument.
3. Be a lawyer — present your exhibits.
Think of building your story as if you are a lawyer making their case in court.
You can make a claim about your business — but its persuasiveness if directly limited by your ability to produce evidence that proves it.
Take something like “we’re 5x years ahead of the competition” (a diffuse claim anyway, but we’ll come back to that).
It’s crucial to remember that the most compelling kind of evidence are the examples that nobody else can access. So if you try and prove this by just showing how nice your product is, you can bet your competitor will make the same argument.
Avoid these traps. If the evidence you produce to back up your claims is anything that anyone else can say, it’s almost of no value at all.
You should also bear this in mind when choosing which claims you rely on to emphasise your arguments in the first place.
If you don’t have the evidence to back it up, think carefully about why you are saying it.
On the other hand, if you do have some data to show what it means to be 5x years ahead, maybe there’s something there.
In the case of the iPhone, Steve Jobs made this exactly claim at the introduction of this product by showing off the current state of smartphones, and then emphasising the patents that the business had on its touchscreen advantage.
But your product is probably not the equivalent of the most valuable product in the history of the Earth.
Be realistic. Find the most impressive objective evidence you can to back up what makes your company great, then articulate it in the claims you make.
Playing the real game
Spoilers: it’s not whether writing is in the shape of a press release or not that makes a journalist care. There’s no secret to a certain sequence of slides that will make an investor go in on your business.
The real goal is one of meaning — and the way the human brain absorbs stories isn’t going to change.
If you can optimise how you tell your story toward that dynamic, it’ll serve you better than any “growth-hacking”, search optimisation or content strategy.
It will make it easy for people to care about your story, and help them remember both where you fit and why it matters.
Because the secret is, the real skill to writing isn’t necessarily in the specific words you choose, but how you orchestrate the understanding and meaning behind the scenes.
And anyone can handle that.