MicroStories for Pitching

If you want to craft a compelling narrative for a book or a presentation, I recommend the format pictured below.

This structure works best if the audience has already committed to your story by buying your book or attending your talk. It will keep them from switching sessions or defenestrating your book. It’s less effective if you are trying to get the attention of someone who has not bought in yet.

Pitches show up often in life: job interviews, trying to convince your boss to try a new approach, or luring a VC to buy into to your big idea. Too often we try to use facts to convince people of our point of view — even through storytelling is more effective — because we think story will take too long or be unprofessional.

Let me convince you otherwise.

Make a pitch from the atomic unit of story: the microstory, made of only one to three sentences. A microstory requires the three S’s — situation, struggle and solution.

The atomic unit of story: setup, struggle, solution

Situation

This is the set up. It should consist of only the most important facts about the story you are about to tell. You don’t need the full “what, what, why, when, how” of journalism. You do need to tell your audience what was thechallenge you faced in enough detail so that they understand why what you did was difficult yet worth doing.

For students presenting work to a panel of reviewers, what matters is how long the project was, and what they were tasked with. In student reviews, I’ve seen students criticized because they didn’t do something they were told not to do, and judged as if they have three months when they had three weeks.

I recall an early job interview with a little startup called Google. My final interview was with a guy named Larry Page, who skewered me for how slow a page from my portfolio loaded. But I had only designed the UI, and I hadn’t done any of the coding. Because I explained my situation so poorly, I was lambasted for what I didn’t do, rather than judged by what I had. If I had laid out my constraints before showing my work, perhaps I’d be a millionaire now.

Beyond setting expectations, explaining your constraints adds DRAMA.Finding a way to get people to recycle in an area with no recycling, and doing that in 2 weeks? Whoa, how will that turn out?

For startups, the challenge can be the mysterious 20 billion dollar market everyone knows is out there, but no one has cracked because the incumbent is satisfying customers… but that’s about to change.

For a boss, try “We’ve been trying to crack organic prepackaged lunches for months now, but no matter what the focus groups say about health, consumers keep picking the cheapest options. But just recently…”

Hook ‘em

These sentences have a challenge, but they also have a hook:

“…but that’s about to change.”

A hook is a miniature cliffhanger that keeps people listening. I use them a lot in my longer nonfiction articles, because you can nod off in the middle of a list of facts.

“Little did I know I was completely wrong.”

“It proved even harder than we thought.”

“No one suspected then that the opposite was true.”

You don’t always need a hook, but if your microstory is longer than a sentence, it can increase interest and buy you time to finish your pitch.

Use Goal, Motivation and Conflict to Frame Your Situation Statement

There is a technique from fiction writing you can use to shape engaging situation statements: goal, motivation, conflict (GMC). For example,

“We want to get people recycling in places without formal programs because 30% of pollution happens in this scenario, but it’s already hard to get people to create new habits. How can we do this with no support from government?”

Note: don’t make up facts like I just did, btw. Do your research.

Here is a madlib for your opening sentence: I tried to achieve Goal BECAUSE motivation BUT Conflict.

Because and But are the money words here. Because tells you why it’s worth doing, But provides the intrigue.

Many pitchers will state the goal, but because they are so deep in the problem, they forget to clearly say why it matters to the pitchee (BECAUSE) and why it’s hard to do (BUT.) Startups will assume everyone knows why natural language processing matters, but VCs want to hear why you care so much. Is it because new mothers have their hands full with the baby, or because chefs can’t program the oven with hands covered with raw chicken juice?

The classic VC query, “What problem does your tech solve, is it a problem worth solving, and why hasn’t anyone else solved it?” is another way of saying Goal, Motivation and Conflict.

Note: I’ve been both a new mother and a contaminated chef, and I’ll tell you, a good voice interface would be a gift.

Struggle

Struggle provides the conflict, the drama and the answer to why this particular story is worth paying attention to. Humans used stories as a survival mechanism before they invented writing to pass on knowledge. We’d tell stories of grandpa who almost got eaten by a jaguar, almost got gored by a bull, but then died because he didn’t inspect the mushrooms very closely. Now when we hear of a struggle, our brain says, “Pay attention! We might need this information later.”

If your Situation has a very daunting challenge, it may be enough struggle to make a one sentence microstory interesting. But to increase drama and interest, add a “try/fail cycle” to the microstory.

There are two great forms to a try/ fail cycle (from Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham.) “Yes, But” and “No, Furthermore.”

Yes, But: I was finally able to land a famous blogger for my new platform, but that day my cofounder quit to become a life coach.

No, Furthermore: Our first coffee store in Shenzen was struggling, and then we heard Starbucks was opening their first store in a month.

Both should get the listener to ask, “what the heck are they going to do next?”

Solution

The solution is the answer to “what the heck are they going to do next?” It’s where you pop the bubble of tension you’ve been blowing up. Keep it short, and let it tease the audience into asking questions.

A solution can be really really short if you want to start a conversation: “And then we realized: it was all about culture.”

Imagine chatting with a VC or a prospective employer at a networking event. A short incomplete solution acts as a hook, so you can show off your brilliance with a more complete explanation of the solution.

(Watch people’s faces closely. If they are bored and don’t ask a follow up question, don’t give them the long explanation of your brilliance. Instead, ask them to tell you about themselves. “So, how did you get into hog futures anyway?”)

If you’re presenting your microstory in a less interactive format, like a job interview presentation, give a slightly longer solution.

“It killed us, but we had to go back to those early adopters and show them a new product that actually solved their problems: a mini-hoe coated with pesticides!”

“When we did usability testing, we realized color-blind people weren’t seeing the button. Fixing that solved the mystery we saw in the A/B test results”

“We’d thought that people in China wanted a familiar atmosphere in their coffee shops, but what they really wanted was a tiny vacation to visit the west. We redesigned our stores to give that to them.”

Note: I am making all of this up. I have no idea how the Chinese feel about coffee or if anyone wants a poisonous mini-hoe.

From a Tiny Microstory, a Mighty Tale Can Grow

The more indifferent the audience, the shorter and more dramatic the ministory should be. If you are pitching a VC at a networking event, a hook may be all you can pull off.

You: “Our company has been attacking the cat meow translation problem, and recently we had a breakthrough. Turns out we were solving the wrong problem.”

VC: “Fascinating. Here’s my card, we’ll talk later.”

If you’re lucky, the VC might invite you to tell the longer version. “Really? Tell me more.”

You: “We all know pet owners will spend ridiculous amounts of money on their pets, but the market for food and toys is so saturated, we decided to tackle a harder problem: communication.

Well, it turns out translation wasn’t that hard, once we had enough data, but cats just aren’t that interesting of conversationalists. Honestly, they are a bit selfish. Most of the meows are “Feed me” and “Pet me” and “Sleep now.” Then our designer asked, ‘what if we don’t translate them literally?’

We ended up making a collar that spells out three key messages — “Hungry” “Fresh Litter” and “I love you.”

The last one should actually be translated as, “pet me now,” but “I love you” tested better.”

VC: Take my money now.

Note: while I am not a cat translation specialist, I’ve had cats my entire life and I’m pretty sure that’s the extent of their vocabulary.

Practice many lengths of your pitch stories: micro, mini and extended dance remix. Microstories to get people interested, ministories once you have your audience hooked, and full stories for when you are you on the TED stage.

Say hi to Bill Gates for me.

Note: he won’t know who I am, since I don’t know him, but he’ll probably pretend to, since he meets so many people. It can be your ice breaker. You’re welcome.

Bonus Examples

Here are some more examples for students because I love my students:

Template: I had a X week project in class name where we were asked to challenge. I did this, and it’s important BECAUSE.

I had a 3 week project in Story where I was challenged to create empathy for people struggling with a stereotype. I’m particularly proud of this story, which really shows the consequences of stereotyping.

I had a two week project in research, and we were asked to understand single mothers. Even in the tight time frame, we talked to 8 mothers in three income ranges, and during synthesis realized they all struggle with childcare.

In Visual design, we were all asked to spend 6 week exploring a tuktuk taxi service from logo to final interface design. Out of the 100 logos I sketched, this one became the base of all my design decisions, as it messaged reliability and hipness. You can see how that message is realized in this moodboard, the style tiles and final design.

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