Friday, May 28, 2004

Telling Stories - How to Pitch Your Company

At last week’s Red Herring Spring, I got a unique opportunity to sit in on a dozen or so pitches from CEOs about their companies. The concept behind Red Herring Spring is simple: take 100 late-stage private companies with a proven track record, and put them in a room to pitch VCs and investment bankers on what they’re doing. The companies get a great opportunity for wider exposure, and the money guys get a chance to learn more about both the companies and the industries they represent.

And as I listened to these pitches, I recalled a post by Jim McGee a few weeks ago about organizational story-telling. That post points to an interview with Stephen Denning, program director of knowledge management at the World Bank from 1996 to 2000. Denning, who wrote a book on the subject titled The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, has some great observations about how to tell stories, and how it helps organizations learn.

He explains his book’s title: “A springboard story is a story that can communicate a complex idea and spring people into action. It has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding.”

Applied to the pitches at Red Herring Spring, it seems that some CEOs just came up woefully short, while others were exceptional in their ability to take their 10 minutes and use it well. Those who succeeded did so by putting themselves in their listeners’ chairs: assuming they knew nothing of the industry or the company’s background, the CEO focused simply on the points of the story that, when woven together, presented the listener with a compelling narrative that encouraged you to want to get involved.

When CEOs failed to tell a story, and instead focused on a laundry list of facts, was when they failed to engage the audience. As Denning says, “People can’t absorb data because they don’t think in data. They think in stories. If you give people a story, then they can absorb the meaning of large amounts of data very rapidly.”

Denning has a new book (published today) titled Squirrel, Inc.: A Fable of Leadership through Storytelling. Both books sound like worthwhile pick-ups. Perhaps Red Herring should make them required reading before the next batch of pitches?

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