Start With Story: Creating a Great Pitch, Part 1

by Mar 16, 2022

Once you’ve gone through the process in our startup help series, including writing an executive summary, it’s time to create a pitch to give to investors. Your pitch has three components:

  • Your startup story—how you conceptually frame the “why” for investors
  • Your pitch deck—how you showcase the key points of that story in compelling visuals
  • Your presentation—how you present your story, and yourself, as a winning investment

In this post, we’re going to talk first about your startup story. In the next post, we’ll talk about the pitch deck and its slides.

Telling Your Story

A great pitch tells a story: it sets a plot in motion, establishes conflict, makes us empathize with the characters, and then resolves the conflict in a satisfying why. For a startup, that means:

  • Presenting the problem (the conflict—the reason why you’re telling this story)
  • Giving the context (who’s wrestling with the problem—the customer)
  • Making the case for your solution (your startup—product, team, competition, and so on).

When done well, by the time the audience hears the solution, it’s the perfect ending: the only thing that makes sense to meet the customer’s need. Your pitch should not be predictive. In other words, no spoilers! Don’t start with how great your solution is. Let the audience understand how hard the problem is first, then develop empathy with the customer’s need, and finally feel that rush of excitement for your startup’s product or service. A strong pitch is postdictive: once we see your solution, we understand that it’s the inevitable outcome of the story.

And like a good story, a good pitch is edited. Your goal is not to anticipate and answer every possible question an investor might have. Instead, your goal is to get other people excited about you and your idea, and to allow you the opportunity to continue to move your business forward. Focus on the most compelling, important aspects of your startup story: what your business idea is, who your customers are, what the opportunity is, and how you plan to build your business.

(Want to learn more about storytelling? Check out this article by Ashwin Kumar on how to use Pixar’s story formula to win over investors.)

How to Tell a Story With Data

Data is important. Data also makes people yawn. The more data, the more yawns, and the less we remember later. Information and data speak to the analytical part of our brain—the part that zones out and forgets details.

Story, on the other hand, makes us feel something. It speaks to the visual and emotional part of our brain, and it stays with us differently. Story communicates important information in an elegant way.

Like taking medicine with a spoonful of sugar, data is easier to swallow with story. So when it comes to data, numbers, and facts, keep it simple and focus on what the numbers mean. When you can, translate numbers into a point of reference people can easily understand. Consider:

Movie popcorn contains 40 grams of fat.


Movie popcorn contains as much fat as a biscuits and gravy breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, or a steak dinner with all the trimmings.

If you must give figures, avoid big numbers. Instead, transform them into smaller fractions:

300,000 parents think taking their child to the dentist is like pulling teeth.

might become

Two out of five moms say taking their kids to the dentist is like pulling teeth.

Rework anything that sounds too abstract. You may start to lose your audience if you start talking about numbers and data, without an anchor point of how the data affects the customer. Remember: you don’t need all the details to tell a story, just the most important ones. So a data point such as

We talked to 215 adults in Bloomington, and 67% of them agreed . . .

is more compelling as:

Of the adults we surveyed in Bloomington, two-thirds agreed . . .

Most people don’t care how many people you talked to, and the percentage is kind of meaningless, but two-thirds of surveyed adults in Bloomington is a figure people can wrap their head around. That sounds reasonable, and impressive, and like you did your homework—which you did!

The Heart of the Pitch

As you start exploring how to turn data into story, you’ll get closer and closer to the perfect “elevator” pitch: the shortest, most compelling version of your story. Consider how the promoter of oral hydration therapy (ORT) convinces people that his simple mixture of salts and sugar in water is a great solution. Instead of giving facts and figures, rattling off the acronym, and explaining the science, its promoter pulls out a packet of the powder and says, “Do you know that this costs less than a cup of tea and can save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives?”

When you know your story, you get to the heart of your pitch, and the hearts of your audience.

In our next post, we’ll explain how to design a pitch deck that tells your story.