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What's The Story?

Story of your life

Once upon a time . . . meanwhile, back at the castle . . . and they lived happily ever after. You might be surprised, but these innocuous, chock full o' memory words may be your most important childhood lesson when it comes to creating your company's financing pitch.

Telling a story isn't as easy as it sounds, especially when your company's financing is depending on it. That's why the bigwigs of Silicon Valley--including Intuit co-founder Scott Cook and Yahoo! CEO Tim Koogle--pay approximately $6,000 per day for Jerry Weissman's coaching sessions. On four nonconsecutive days, Weissman takes his clients through every aspect of pitching to investors--from structuring your story to cleaning up graphics to body language and voice. He explains how to make the most of tools like projectors and computers, and offers a final lesson on how to field questions.

"What's of critical importance in my approach to presentations is [this] specific sequence. You have to get the presenter's mind clear on the story before you touch the delivery skills," explains Weissman, founder of Santa Clara, California, coaching firm Power Presentations Ltd. "I provide a set of techniques and tools and skills, and coach people in the application of those skills. I try to serve not as a critic but as a builder and creator."

So before you start practicing your presentation in front of your dog or your mirror, you need to concentrate on setting the record straight. Here's Weissman's advice on crafting your story:

  • Take a lesson from Aristotle: Fairy tales aren't exactly the original example of storytelling structure. "It goes back to Aristotelian unities: there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end," explains Weissman. "All too often, people take a collection of slides and shuffle them into an order that feels comfortable at that moment, with no thought to building them into a structure that has a progression." For your story, you might want to choose the obvious route of starting at the beginning and ending with where you want to take your company. However, Weissman says this is only one of a whole variety of choices. "There are many alternatives," he says, "but [you need] to think about a sequence that makes the presentation flow logically."
  • Me, a Valley Girl? As if! It may be acceptable to sprinkle "likes" and "you knows" around when you're hanging with your friends, but as soon as you walk into an investment meeting, you'd better begin channeling your favorite grammar guide. "A presentation is a championship event. You're either going to win the financing or lose the financing," says Weissman. "Most people use words ineffectively. If you use weak, unassertive words in a disorganized and ineffective manner, you'll be perceived poorly and your chances of winning are diminished."
  • Technically speaking: If your business is of the overly technical, jargon-filled, need-a-doctorate-in-computer-science-to-understand variety, you'll need to simplify your story. "If there are complicated terms, the presenter's obligation is to explain them to the level of the audience's understanding," Weissman says. Explaining technology using more tech terms doesn't help, he adds, but if a technology is explained through an analogy, then it works instantly.
  • Know your audience: Of course, you say, it's venture capitalists or the bank. But whom are you really focusing your speech on? "Customers want solutions; investors want return on investment," Weissman cautions. The story that works for the customer (explaining the product's benefits--it's faster, cheaper, easier) doesn't work for the investor. "The investor's not buying a solution," Weissman says, "so the story has to change: You're creating solutions that are fast, cheap and easy. That means the customers will come to you and deposit more revenues in your coffers, and the revenues will lead to better return on the investment. Hear the difference?"
  • The three Rs: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. "It doesn't come by wishing or thinking it. If you're going to tell the story, you've got to practice the story," says Weissman. Listen to yourself to catch stutters and slang. Practice until your transitions are seamless. And don't limit your practice audience to your family. Your mom can scold you for saying "um," but a colleague or peer who knows your business' story will be your best ear.
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