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Startup founders can have the most incredible idea and a winning team behind them, but at the end of the day, many need funding in order to succeed. Donna Griffit has built a career, and a thriving business, helping founders nail the perfect deck and preparing them for meetings with potential investors. She sat down with Jessica Abo to discuss the importance of storytelling in the age of funding.
Jessica Abo: Why is storytelling important?
Donna Griffit: Storytelling is thousands of years old. We’re talking about Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov — all the greats wrote in a very specific way. And that is the way we learned language, the way we learned how to communicate with the world as kids by telling stories. Stories are built this way. So what we’re doing is optimizing our message for the human brain, especially the adult human brain. People are not going to remember your numbers, your stats, your business model, your LTV, your CAC, your month-over-month growth. What they are going to remember is how you came up with this idea, the passion in your voice, examples of how you’ve helped people, customers that love you. Those are the stories that matter.
What makes a good story?
If you go to a movie today, basically you are watching probably one of eight archetypal stories that get written again, and again, and again, and again. So we’ve got the problem — there’s a villain out there, something’s happening, and then the hero emerges that’s going to save the world. And then the hero’s plan of action. Finally, what’s the aftermath, what happens after? That is actually exactly the way an investor, or sales deck, would look. You’re just shifting the focus as to whose problem it is. With an investor, you’re talking about the problem of the world at large. It’s like a four-act play — you’ve got a problem, solution, the business, and then what happens after, what’s your big vision, what’s your future looking like.
A lot of people are really nervous when they walk into meetings with VCs. What are some of your tips to help people prepare?
First of all, 50 percent of nerves, I believe, are not being prepared for a meeting. If you have a really good story, a really good flow, a really good script, and you’ve practiced it again and again, you’ll feel just cool, calm and collected — and that’s going to show through. The other thing is people usually don’t see how nervous you are. So don’t get self-conscious if you feel that you’re blushing, or shaking, or your voice trembles, because they’re probably not even getting it. Breathe — a lot of yoga breaths, meditation breaths. It supports your voice, it calms the nerves, and it just gives your oxygen and helps your flow.
What should someone do if they freeze, or if someone asks them a follow-up question that they didn’t prepare for?
If you freeze, that’s usually because you’ve memorized your script, and oops — you forgot one word and then your brain goes into a blackout. From the days that I was an actress, I know that those can be very amusing moments on the stage. So don’t memorize, know what you want to say, and don’t be afraid if you skip something. Go back and say it, they’re not sitting there with a script in their hand, they don’t know that you skipped it or came back to it.
In terms of questions, I always tell people — be as prepared for the Q&A as you are for the pitch. Because I see people preparing and giving amazing pitches and then the Q&A comes and they’re like, oh, deer in headlights. I have on my website a list of over a hundred questions that investors ask. Make yourself a list and write out the answers, and review the answers, especially if you’re the CEO and you’re not as adept at the technological terms as your CTO. Get a little bit of coaching on that and vice versa. Then, if they still ask you a question that you don’t know, it’s okay to say, you know what? Excellent question. I don’t have all the data in front of me, can I get back to you on that?
Is there a “do” that you tend to tell your clients and a “don’t” that you tend to share with your clients when it comes to these decks?
Do remember that you have to show an understanding of your audience and their needs, not just the investor’s. The more you can show that, the more you can showcase your numbers, the more you can show growth, and that people are excited about what you’re doing.
There are three things that investors are always going to be listening for, and you want to remember these three things and really stress them. One is credibility; how much do you know about your field? How much do your team members know? Likability; it’s not just being a rah-rah cheerleader. It’s being flexible. It’s being coachable. It’s showing them that they have something to do with you other than just pouring money into your company. And three is momentum; how far have you gotten? The social proof, the numbers. So that’s the do.
Don’t — please don’t argue. I’ve seen it happen and it’s so painful, because sometimes investors will ask very pointed questions just to kind of see how you’ll respond under fire. And it’s not a pretty sight when you start to argue. So take it in, try to keep the ego in check. It’s hard when somebody’s talking ill of your baby, but you have to remember that that’s just part of the course, so keep your grace under fire.
What would you say is a good beginning, middle and end when someone is working on their story?
I see time and time again, people missing this opportunity to really connect emotionally with people at the beginning by telling their origin story — how they came up with the idea, what lit a fire in them that was so strong that they had to leave all common sense behind and go on the path of a crazy startup, which is so time-consuming. That will be memorable, like I said, but it also speaks volumes to your passion.
Start off with the problem and then talk about the solution and show us that solution. Walk us through the user journey, this is the first time we’re seeing it. And then the business to back it up and finally, where are we going from here? We’ve got this great product now, but you need to be able to draw a picture of what your end game is, your “why” as Simon Sinek puts it, your reason for being, your north star as Silicon Valley investors call it. How are you going to get to that much bigger place that’s going to get them excited?
What advice do you have for female founders out there?
One of the things that we see constantly is women underselling themselves. It’s like we’ve been conditioned in a sense; it’s not polite, it’s not modest, we shouldn’t be tooting our own horn. I always ask women founders that I work with — if you were a 24-year-old male, a Stanford grad just starting off with a startup, would you have any qualms about painting a big picture? If you had the kind of achievements that you have, would you feel timid about putting them front and center? Most likely the answer is no.
So, paint a big picture, be confident about it, but also know your numbers inside and out because there’s a horrible double standard and scrutiny that happens with women founders. We’re under a much more powerful magnifying glass. Let them see that you’ve got it all. We have to start debunking this myth. We have to start flipping the ratios. So we have to be ready for it. This is where we’re paving the way for women generations to come.