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Lessons in Storytelling
Lesson 2: "What Is" and "What Could Be"
Most pitch deck templates advise you to start with framing the “problem” and then how your company is a “solution” to the problem. While this can help illustrate the pain point you’re solving for, it can often feel formulaic or undifferentiated. Going back to our “Hero’s Journey” framing from the last piece, it is vitally important to illustrate what the vision of the world that is created after your company succeeds.
The most powerful way to do this is creating the contrast between “what is” and “what could be.”
“What is” refers to the current state of the world. “What could be” is the new special world.
Earlier this week, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. His most famous speech is a masterclass in this contrast. Before you watch it, prepare to notice how masterfully MLK undulates between what is and what could be.
The entire speech follows this flow, finally ending on the high note of “thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” The new world of freedom will ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire to every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
Now let’s go to Steve Jobs’ iPhone announcement in 2007. Just like MLK, Jobs starts with historical context—the “what is”—tracing back Apple’s history of delivering exceptional products and what the world currently looks like. He then shifts to “what could be,” the reinvention of the phone, a smart phone that is an iPod, mobile phone, and Internet communications device all wrapped in one. After the big reveal, he goes back to describing the world as it currently is, what the category of smartphones looks like and what the current problems are. Once again, he then jumps to the promised new world, a phone with a revolutionary new user interface.
As a founder, you’ve noticed that there’s something about the world that sucks or should be different. The world as it currently is does not look right. And instead of sitting around complaining on Twitter like most of us, you’ve decided to take that insight and build a company around it. Foregoing other opportunities, you’ve decided to take the entrepreneurial path knowing that you will most likely fail, that you will have sleepless nights, that you will sacrifice so much to do something that most don’t think can be done. The odds are completely against you. Yet you have to do this anyway: it’s something spiritual that borders on calling.
Show the world as it currently is. Tease out the historical context, why things are the way they are, what are the obstacles and issues that keep us stuck in the current paradigm. Then paint a picture of the world that could be, the one instantiated by your company. Go back and forth between these two worlds throughout the pitch, with the why now being teased out through this contrast.
Information like the business model, the market size, etc. can all be shared afterward in a document, appendix slides, or answered through Q&A. Use information to buttress the story rather than information be the story. This is a higher degree-of-difficulty, but it works so much better than reading off slides that all of us can read on our own time before or after the pitch. Use those 30-45 mins, particularly in the first pitch, as a way to draw a potential investor into a vision of the world that can be created. You can spend time in the weeds afterward, but at least they will go in there knowing WHY you’re in the weeds and thinking that it matters rather than just going through a script of asking you about your GTM motion.
“Problem-solution” provides information, but it ultimately fails to create a powerful context for why what you’re doing matters.
Learn instead from MLK and Steve Jobs and create a rhythm to your presentation, ending on the high note with the world as it is when your company is successful. Let that be the feeling the investor carries with them as they leave the pitch: a desire to bridge the massive gap between “what is” and “what could be.”
If you do it well, they’ll be eager to do their part in the Hero’s Journey by investing you and help make the “what could be” real.