Tonight I had the pleasure of being an advisor to Sydney's latest cohort at Founder's Institute. I received many pitches and consistently had the same internal reflection: How can we encourage founders to focus more on substance than style?
I often couldn't understand what was practically proposed. If you come across polished, and you have catchy taglines, but I can't picture exactly what your product is and what problem specifically it's solving, it's unlikely to get me excited. At best, you'll get a follow up question, but more often, your listener will give up.
But it's not as though anyone intends to write a presentation that's vague, right?
I'm being presented to by a group of people that believe they're being as specific and helpful as they can be. They put a lot of work into these pitches, it’ was obvious. Yet I'm sitting here and it is unclear.
So what is the problem?
I would argue that this is not a lack of the right pitch frameworks or even practice. It is a lack of subtlety and precision in the founders thinking that is getting reflected in their materials. And this is what founders should be working on (but are not).
If you can fundamentally improve the way you understand what your business is, it's simple to improve the clarity of your messaging. This leads to better pitches, sure, but it also leads to better client meetings, more successful hires, and better decisions in general.
And what is your business other than a sequence of decisions you make?
So let's stop talking about investing in your pitch, even less about your presentation style, and let'slets instead start talking about investing in yourself and your quality of thinking. Let's improve the depth and specificity of how you understand the problem. (Or even deeper, for another blog post: Let's improve our self awareness to the biases you have towards and away from parts of your business, certain types of decisions, and certain types of presentation styles.)
These things, fundamentally, will be what gets your capital raise done. And more importantly, it will be what leads you to take the thousand decisions between here and next month correctly, and give you any chance of putting this business on a pathway to growth.
How do you invest in yourself? Glad you asked.
A number of disciplines are dedicated to being more nuanced, specific and logical in their thinking. I've experienced three of them: mathematicians, actuaries, and strategy consultants all train precision and specificity. This proved to me that it is a skill that can be trained, because everyone who persists with this training gets dramatically better - including a friend that "hated numbers" yet made an excellent consultant.
I believe the most important fundamental skill boils down to improving your ability to put knowledge into the right category and hierarchy. This sounds simple, but there is no end to the depth you can improve in this skill. It is what underpins every great strategy consultant, as well as the McKinsey problem solving framework.
Transition needed for flow
Even after five years of dedicated study, I am/was would be incredibly impressed by my consulting mentor's re-write of a project synthesis. You could not look at mine and say it was wrong, but he would often come at it from a different angle, categorising the issues in a fundamentally different yet subtle way, and it was just better.
So for founders to apply this, I would suggest less time on a fancy pitch and more time on a boring single page of bullet points, honing and refining the substance and sequence of your messages.
What's the first thing that you want to tell investors? Write this in the first bullet point. Perhaps it is your background and why you have an insight into this problem. How do you write that bullet point? If added support sub bullet points, what would they be? How beautifully can you write them and understand what's at the essence of each message.
Don't jot down a few words and say "I know what that means and it’s good enough,", really work on it and get it right.
There is nuance around "getting it right". It's easy to begin polishing and wordsmithing, which feels like progress but is not actually working on the essence of the message. Attempt to distinguish this nuance. Use straight forward language, avoid flash and pizzazz. Seek to whittle away as much as you can, in an attempt to allow the most essential message to emerge from the noise.
Ask yourself: Are my words capturing more substance and more clarity, or are they just getting fancier and more clever? We want complex concepts explained clearly with simple language, not complex language giving simple descriptions of concepts.
You have real decisions to make here, and these decisions will deepen your understanding of your business. Which of these possible essences is the right essence for this message? It can be painful as a founder to choose to let some concepts go, it's natural to want them all. Maybe one day you will grow to a scale where you do all of those things, but let's start with clarity on one of them today. It will make a far more impressive and credible pitch.
The more you can use writing and synthesis to force you to go from the swirl of ideas in your head, to hard tangible clear categorisation of messages, the better you'll understand your business. And in parallel, you'll be investing in your ability to think logically, crisply and cleanly, which will improve your ability to communicate well to an investor, a client, an employee, and so on.
I don't want to give all the credit to logic. For me, coming from maths, actuarial, consulting, I experienced no discussion about gut feel. I attempted to rebalance this over the last 10 years with some deep dives into theory of the mind, wim hof method, and about 12 months of full time meditation.
What this has taught me is that there is a real time data feed from our feelings that is incredibly information rich, independent and complementary to our logic based understanding, communicating and decision making.
Unfortunately, many of us act like we are only allowed to use one of these two allies: logic or feelings. If you are a logic based person, you weigh up the pros and cons, and feelings are not to be trusted. If you are a feeling oriented person, you are intuitive, trust your gut, and they have never been good at that mathsy, logic, stuff.
Both of these attitudes are unnecessarily limiting.
You have two incredibly powerful, independent decision making tools, and if you're only using one of them, you're attempting to build a business with one arm tied behind your back. I have heard countless stories about decisions that went wrong, where the founder had a bad feeling upfront but ignored it because the decision made so much sense by logic.
There is a rich data source available to be mined from our subconscious, which will be missed if we exclusively look through logical frameworks.
So how can you develop your feeling based decision making?
A great topic for a future newsletter! In the meantime, as you're working on your messaging, pay attention to how it feels. When you get the essence of your message just right, it should feel good. Artists and mathematicians relate, when they talk about how good it feels to get the brush stroke/equation in just the right place. There is a feeling of rightness, completeness, joy, that your subconscious is happy to share with you if you listen to the subtle way you feel as you work.
And if something isn't right, you can feel that too. It might make logical perfect sense, but feels off, wrong, flat, or boring. You want to pay attention to this, because if you're feeling it, your audience will too.
Trusting an "off feeling" is obvious to some, but dismissed by many that are particularly strong in their logical side. To those people, I encourage you to begin to listen for and to trust your feelings of wrongness and rightness, as a powerful complement to your logical faculties.
The more you pay attention, the more your feelings data feed increases in resolution and moves towards real time, which is an incredible asset to your decision making and communication capability.
Let's wrap this up
If you want to raise an epic round, and if you want to grow your business, then you probably want to invest in yourself as a founder.
There is no moment that is too soon to do so, because this is the foundation upon which you build your compounding returns. If you improve your capability to assess and make better decisions, this will lead to compounding effects of those better decisions, of your operational outcomes, of the quality of employees/clients/investors you can attract, and so on.
I can't see anything more foundational to growth for founders.
So stop fiddling with the pictures in your pitches, and start investing in your logic and feeling driven understanding of your business.