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6 Ways to Structure a Memorable Impact Investor Pitch

Strategies from bestselling authors, Adam Grant and Daniel Pink, on how to stand out when pitching disruptive social change ideas to investors.

March 04, 2020

Even people who aren’t in sales roles spend about 40% of their time at work trying to move others—whether that is asking for their attention, encouraging someone to take action, or proposing a new idea or project. 

Communicating to move people to take action doesn’t come naturally to everyone but the good news is that the art of pitching can be taught.

Acumen Academy sat down with Master Class instructors, Daniel Pink, author of To Sell is Human and Drive, and Adam Grant, author of Originals, for their advice on practical strategies you can use to get people to listen to your ideas.

These six pitch formats compile ideas from management, psychology, politics, business, and even Hollywood, to help you move beyond the elevator pitch and present your ideas in a wide range of contexts—especially when you are pitching particularly disruptive or original proposals for social change.

  1. Highlight The Reasons Not To Support Your Idea

  2. Use The “Airbnb For X” Approach

  3. Become A Tempered Radical

  4. The question pitch

  5. The subject-line pitch

  6. The Pixar Pitch 

Use these frameworks as a jumping off point to draft compelling, trustworthy, and memorable pitches to grow your impact.

HIGHLIGHT THE REASONS NOT TO SUPPORT YOUR IDEA

Sounds counterintuitive, right? But Adam insists it can be advantageous to selectively outline the downsides of your idea—if you do it right. “Sharing the downsides is a great way to build trust with your audience and get good insights on how to solve your problems,” he says.

Why it Works

Featuring the “cons” of your concept also shifts the focus of the pitch from a one-way proposal to a collaborative conversation.  When most investors or stakeholders are listening to someone propose an original idea, they’re instinctively looking for the gaps in the logic or the shortcomings and teeing up their questions.  If you start by owning and listing the problems yourself, then your listeners have to work a lot harder to identify other issues, Adam says. 

“You preempt investors from thinking of their own downsides or objections. Instead of presenting problems, they actually can start to present ideas for how they might solve your problems. You start a conversation. Your investors might actually be convincing themselves that the problems you outlined are not so big.”

How to Do It

“Acknowledge in your pitch that your idea is imperfect in a bunch of ways,” Adam says.

List the 3 biggest problems with your current idea or concept.  Then present your current thoughts about how to address each challenge.

Finally, wrap up by inviting participation by saying something along the lines of: “I believe the strengths of this idea outweigh the limitations and I’m willing to do whatever I can to address these challenges. I’d love your thoughts on how to do it.”

Example in Action

For example, one entrepreneur Adam encountered—Rufus Griscom—opened his pitch with a slide that listed the 3 reasons why people should not invest in his company.  Rufus walked away with a $3.5 million dollar deal from Disney.

“He learned that listing the downsides of his idea was attention-grabbing,” Adam says, “There’s a time and a place to present the negative aspects. It can be advantageous to show that your idea is not perfect. It conveys that you are not blinded by enthusiasm for your own ideas. By employing this tactic, you present yourself as being more trustworthy and credible.”

USE THE “AIRBNB FOR X” APPROACH

If you’ve spent years developing a new water filtration device or devising a new way to get kids to stay in school, your original idea might seem very obvious to you. However, when you’re presenting to a new audience, Adam reminds us that: “what’s new and exciting to you might be totally weird and illogical to them.”

When faced with something very novel or unfamiliar, people automatically gravitate to analogies to try and make sense of the new idea.

Why It Works

“You should build the bridge for them and say: ‘Here’s how what I’m doing is similar to something that has worked before,” Adam says. “In the start-up world, it’s the Airbnb for X pitch. Some startups take this too far, but bringing that kind of familiarity into your pitches can be really helpful as you’re trying to convince people that your idea has merit.”

How to Do It

Think back to when you’ve pitched your idea before, what parts generated the most confusion or questions?

Identify the components of your idea that are most original or unfamiliar. Is it the platform?  The sharing mechanism? The purchasing function? 

Now look for analogs from other sectors or verticals that could illustrate this same component or facet of your product or idea.  

Test your analogy with a few people to make sure it works and they understand it correctly.  Make sure you’re not drawing false equivalencies and using an analogy that enough people in your audience with be familiar with.

Example in Action

For example, if you’re trying to launch a new book sharing program for rural villages, could you call it: “An ATM for books”?  Or if you’re trying to make affordable school lunches available to parents, you could call it: “The Blue Apron for school lunches?” so that people better understand what you’re trying to offer.

BECOME A TEMPERED RADICAL

Adam suggests that we could learn from research from Debra Meyerson at Stanford that suggests that if we’re trying to introduce approaches that will be very potentially disruptive, it can pay off to unfold them gradually.

Why It Works

In the social sector, many of us are idealistic and compelled by a sense of urgency to do all we can to help others. However, our sense of moral urgency can sometimes lead us to foist our original ideas for change rather forcefully on others. Yet, Meyerson’s research suggests that to be effective, it can sometimes pay to become “under-the-radar rebels.” Rather than pitching an original idea immediately or in its fullest form, build relationships first or share stages of your proposal more gradually.

How to Do It

Lay out your full vision privately. If you start to get a lot of pushback when you introduce it publicly, decide whether there are stages of this vision that are more concrete or immediate or easier to grasp that you can begin introducing first.

Build relationships with people. Establish trust. Work on parts of your vision behind the scene as you establish credibility.

Then, once you have a track record established—whether that is a few other paying clients or your first product launch—begin to pitch the fuller or more grandiose vision and see if people now are willing to buy in.

For all of these strategies, it’s not about substantively shifting your original idea or vision, it’s about strategically adjusting your framing. This doesn’t compromise your originality.  In fact, Adam argues that helping others become more comfortable or familiar with new ideas so that they are actually compelled to adapt and change with you is one of the key differentiators between creatives whose ideas burnout and originals who are able to move ideas forward.

“When I think of originals, I think of the people who drive creativity and change in the world,” Adam says, “It’s not just about having new ideas, it’s also about taking action to make them a reality. So originals are people willing to stand out and speak up. They take initiative. They look at the world around them and say, ‘Look, this is not perfect and I want to try to do something to try to make it better.’ Any time you take a little bit of action to try to improve the world around you and try to take something that existed before and try to replace something that with something new, that to me is original.”

Example in Action

Adam notes that this is the exact approach that serial entrepreneur Elon Musk took to get his SpaceX program off the ground. At first, his space program was being knocked down by everyone so he decided to just talk about a small aspects of his concept for launching a rocket as the initiative gained credibility.

In talking to Elon, Adam says that he learned: “There is a time and a place to unfold your full vision. But you don’t have to explain it all at once.  Sometimes it’s the more achievable, more believable, middle range goals that you want to explain to people and then once you prove you can make progress on those, it’s time to share the bigger vision.”

THE QUESTION PITCH

One of the simplest, yet most effective pitches is a pitch that comes in the form of a question. 

Why It Works

A question pitch demands a response, which forces the listener to think harder than if they were confronted with a statement, and it forces the listener to come up with their own reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with your proposal. 

When used in person, a question pitch also prompts interaction, which opens the door to developing a relationship with the person you’re speaking to. In that situation, the listener is no longer passive—they are included in the collaborative process of considering a choice, as opposed to being told what to do.

Daniel highlights research that suggests questions are most powerful when the underlying arguments behind a question are strong. Questions are potent when you’re confident in the alignment of the response.

How to Do It

When using question pitches in the social sector, think about your customers’ key pain points.

Could you phrase a question that allows them to independently confirm and speak to that pain point in their own life, such as “Do you feel safe in your home?” If you are offering an alternative to an existing choice, like a more efficient or solar-powered appliance, could you phrase a question that emphasizes the potential created by your product or service, such as, “What else could you spend your fuel budget on?”

Example in Action

Daniel’s classic example of this pitch is Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

THE SUBJECT-LINE PITCH

In 2015, research estimated that the average person sent and received 122 work emails per day—and that number was only expected to increase (Radicati Group). It’s a safe bet that you write more work emails in one day than the number of elevator pitches you present in a month. Whenever you write an email, you’re asking—pitching—someone to give you their attention, and you have an opportunity to create engagement.

Daniel’s research has found that three factors make email subject lines effective: utility, mystery, and specificity.

Why It Works

Utility refers to whether or not the contents of the email will be practically and/or immediately useful to the recipient.

Mystery refers to whether the subject line is intriguing enough to be appealing without clear utility to the reader.

Specificity refers to the concreteness and detail of what you’re describing, such as specifying a number of tips or steps, or articulating a particular time frame in which someone might take action.

How to Do It

In order to practice formulating great subject-line pitches, Daniel recommends going through your Sent messages box, evaluating which subject lines appeal to utility, curiosity, and specificity, and rewriting those that do not. Every email you write is an opportunity to hone your skills in communication and thoughtfulness.

Note that a subject line should be either useful or mysterious—trying to do both is rarely effective. Specificity can make either strategy more effective.

Example in Action

Steve MacLaughlin, author of Data Driven Nonprofits, writes annual roundups of his favorite fundraising subject lines, such as Oxfam America’s “No, you can’t have my blender” (playing on the power of curiosity), and Environmental Defense’s “mini serialization” with a set of emails, noted numerically as [1 of 5], that create anticipation.

Nonprofit Pro quantitatively evaluated the effectiveness of varying email subject lines, and found that Daniel’s recommendations do indeed hold up; they demonstrated the power of curiosity when “‘It's a trashy party, and you're invited!’ (35 percent) outperformed ‘Join us at the Red Clay Valley Clean Up!’ (28 percent),” and the power of specificity and personalization when "’Uh-oh, your membership is expiring!’ (35 percent) outperformed "[Organization Name] Membership Renewal" (29 percent).

THE PIXAR PITCH

The Pixar pitch is a structure created by Pixar Animation Studios that harnesses the narrative DNA of storytelling to craft compelling micro-narratives.

Why It Works

Pixar pitches are compelling because they take advantage of our natural love of stories and the way we identify with narratives and characters, and because they help to present cause and effect. This is particularly effective when you’re asking someone to take action, like volunteering or donating, because you can clearly illustrate how a contributor’s action will allow you as an organization to create a desirable outcome. 

How to Do It

When you make fundraising pitches or ask for donations, you could begin by telling a story about one past customer for whom you created significant impact, or the story of a community or situation that you seek to or have already been able to impact.

A Pixar pitch is a sequence of six sentences that follow this format:

Once upon a time ___________. Every day, ___________. One day, ___________. Because of that, ___________.  Because of that, ___________. Until finally, ___________.

It is important to note that you can use a Pixar pitch to tell a story about a broad situation or phenomenon (like Ebola or a tsunami), or you can use it to tell a story about an individual or family who is experiencing an issue that you seek to address.

Consider whether you need to contextualize your organization, product, or service in a broader circumstance, or whether you seek to elicit empathy from your audience by telling a story that they can identify with personally or emotionally. 

Examples in Action

Once upon a time, a mother of three named Faith lived in an urban community in Kenya. Every day, she spent a big portion of her income on wood and charcoal to fuel her cookstove so that she could feed her family. One day, Faith spoke with her neighbor about an investment she’d made in a more efficient cookstove—and she convinced Faith to purchase one of her own. Because of that, Faith saved a lot of money that she’d previously spent on fuel. Because of that, Faith was able to afford to send her youngest child to school—and she began to speak to other mothers about how the new cookstove had helped her to fund her children’s education. Until finally, Faith helped many of the mothers in her community save up to invest in stoves that helped them put more of their income towards taking care of their families.

Once upon a time, a devastating earthquake hit the nation of Haiti. Every day, families struggled to stay safe without adequate shelter and resources—they lived in crisis mode. One day, an organization began to speak with those families, and to build houses that were safe and appropriate for their circumstances and needs. Because of that, those families were able to stay safe, to rely on homes and land that belonged to them, and to put their resources towards food, energy, healthcare, education, and other needs. Because of that, those families were able to stop living in crisis mode, and start to work towards creating futures for themselves. Until finally, those families were able to start creating businesses in their homes, to support their children’s educations, and to build their communities—to move towards thriving.

CONCLUSION

You are pitching every day, in moments that demand merely a few seconds to take bold actions. Consider where in your daily work schedule you could practice each of these types of pitches, whether in-person or in an email. 

Practicing pitching in small-scale, low-stakes situations like email helps you get in the habit of considering what is important to your audience, and shaping your words to command their attention and action. 

Pitching practice may feel awkward at first (perhaps especially if you focus on writing mysterious email subject lines), but practice creates habits, and those habits are another tool that can help you create the impact you care about.

Author

Amy Ahearn

Amy Ahearn is an Associate Director at Acumen where she builds online courses to inspire new approaches to tackling poverty. She holds an MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford and is based in Acumen’s San Francisco office.

Author

Emma Funk

Emma Funk is an Instructional Design Summer Associate at Acumen where she builds online courses to inspire new approaches to tackling poverty. She is an alumna of Brown University, and studied in the Design & Technology program at Parsons School of Design in NYC.

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