Murder Your Darlings
Lessons 3: Cutting Out Excess to Create an Effective Presentation
It’s no secret that our attention spans have fallen off a cliff the past few decades, accelerated in particular by the Internet and the smartphone. While some of the hullabaloo is certainly exaggerated, I think we all intrinsically feel this. Songs are shorter, Tik Toks are more popular, and book-reading continues to decline. I remember being able to study for several hours in a row for the Spelling Bee as a twelve year old with hardly a break; now, I’m scarcely able to go 5 minutes without checking my phone. I have to use apps like Freedom and put my phone in another room in order to get focused work done like writing this article.
Hollywood has long known our weak attention span. Most individual scenes are limited to three minutes long because our attention tends to wander for anything longer. Even before the age of the Internet, Lincoln limited his speech that changed the course of the Civil War to two minutes. MLK shared his dream for America in less than seven.
Yet when it comes to pitching investors, founders often think they should talk for twenty or thirty minutes, explaining every nook and cranny of the business.
And I totally get it. You’re talking about your life’s work: one of the reasons you wake up most mornings excited to go to work, while most are dragging their feet. But remember Lesson 1: you are not the hero (for now). Instead, you want to invite your audience into their own Hero’s Journey.
So what should you do to cut the excess?
First, write out every general idea that is relevant to your company. These can be the secrets and unique insights that only you have, they can be the basic facts of the industry and market, but most importantly, it should also include the squishier parts of the business: the mission, the feelings it evokes in customers, the essential human element that drives it.
Don’t just put everything into a slide deck immediately once you’ve generated all your ideas. Nancy Duarte, an expert in presentations who has advised companies like Apple, believes that one of the worst things you can do is to go to the slide creation environment too early because you will let the slides dictate your story rather than the story dictate the slides.
Instead, map out the story of where you want to take the investor. This requires mapping out the contrast between what is and what could be: the world they’re starting in and the world they will end in (Lesson 2).
However, you will likely still have way too much information. If you have a technical mind, it’ll be even harder to cut this information down because you can already foresee potential questions the investor may have. The temptation is to get ahead of these and try to explain everything so that there’s no possible objections at the end. This is a mistake because it makes the presentation too long, meandering, and disjointed: it takes us out of storytelling mode and into explanation mode. The other person will get bored and distracted.
It’s okay for the investor to have questions at the end.
In fact, a feeling of curiosity and engagement at the end is better than one of boredom or confusion.
The best pitches start with five to ten minutes of storytelling followed by Q&A. I’ve been on many pitches where the founder has spoken for thirty minutes nonstop, leaving little or no time for questions. This usually leaves the investor uncertain whether they want to spend the time to dig in more. Many of their most pressing questions may remain unanswered and as they balance several founder conversations at once, you may become the victim of triage.
More subtly, this type of time allocation in a presentation is also negative for you. You have zero insight into how the investor thinks about your business, whether they understand it, or whether they’re just going to ask you a set of rehearsed questions that they ask every founder. Leaving more time for Q&A can help you assess the quality of the investor’s thinking and what it may be like to work with them.
Cutting your story to five to ten minutes will require you to follow a process that’s known as “murder(ing) your darlings.” This is a term popularized by William Faulkner for writing but it’s relevant for pitches too.
From Nancy Duarte’s Resonate:
“Filtering is very important. If you don’t filter your presentation, the audience will respond negatively—because you’re making them work too hard to discern the most important pieces. While they are listening, they are determining in their minds what was interesting versus what was superfluous….Make edits on behalf of the audience; they don’t want everything. It’s your job to be severe in your cuts. Let go of ideas even if you love them, for the sake of making the presentation better.
Audiences are screaming ‘make it clear,’ not ‘cram more in.’ You won’t often hear an audience member say, ‘That presentation would have been so much better if it were longer.’”
Murdering your darlings means letting go of things that you hold and love dearly, but aren’t the most relevant and important thing. A concrete example is the team page slide. Your team is precious to you and it’s tempting to fill the page with a bunch of pretty faces and fancy logos. Even worse is if a bunch of advisor faces and backgrounds are listed.Founders often think this will create the impression of a strong team, but the reality is this can be fairly irrelevant, especially at seed. The faces and logos could generally be swapped out for others and no pertinent information has been exchanged. A better page highlights the key, rockstar team members whose backgrounds are specifically relevant to what you’re building and answers the question: why are YOU the team that will build this product in what will likely eventually be a competitive environment?
Trim all the excess fat from your presentation until it’s down to five to ten minutes. Each slide should have one or two ideas maximum. You can always provide supplementary information in appendices or documents. Use the slides to tell the story and most relevant big ideas. If the key risk in the business is the GTM, spend time on that slide and have an opinionated strategy of what you want to do and what specific hypotheses you’re looking to test. On the other hand, if the GTM is straightforward for the type of company you’re building, spend much less time there and focus on other aspects.
Clarity of thought is the way to differentiate yourself as a founder. Acknowledge the risks and where you’ll be willing to change course, but avoid handwaviness.
You get the picture: what may be the most relevant to your company’s story will likely vary, but the key is to avoid over-explanation and long-windedness. Hit the main points, get the investor excited about the world that will be created if your company succeeds, and then dive into the various aspects of the business they want to double-click on together. Be conversational rather than explanatory.
People are more distracted than ever. Murder your darlings and get your story down to its basic, most compelling form. From there, you can enter into an engaging conversation that tests the investor as much as they’re testing you.
If you find this helpful and want a quick look at what may or may not be extraneous in your pitch, feel free to submit your information here for a chance to do a practice pitch with myself and Blake Eastman at Pitch Breakdowns. I was ranked #2 in the world for tournament poker with over $6m in winnings and now currently work as a venture capitalist at Susa Ventures. Blake is the founder of The Nonverbal Group, a company that helps business leaders and world-class poker players improve their communication and ability to understand others.
We’ve teamed up on a project where we’ll periodically select a group of founders to give pitch feedback to and then publish the breakdowns online publicly as a learning resource for founders. Everyone will be able to learn what are some of the nonverbal cues we’re unconsciously giving off, how to improve our communication, and the art of the pitch.
Together, we have a unique combination of skills that will help you improve both the behavioral and technical aspects of your pitch. Fundraising can often make or break companies and we believe this will be something that can help all founders improve their storytelling, in both substance and style.
If you’re a founder who’s looking to raise VC money in the next year and would like feedback on your pitch, please apply here.
Basically no VC cares who your advisors are unless it’s someone who’s specifically tasked with a job like getting you through the FDA process.
Normally this would go without saying, but just in case it isn’t clear in the current environment, this is free of charge.