The other day, while helping an entrepreneur prepare an investor pitch, she was trying to figure out how best to talk about her company's total addressable and immediately addressable market. This CEO knows her market cold, she worked as a consultant for years and knows her target customers and their needs intimately. She's a recognized expert.
And yet, while we were preparing for the pitch, she kept using jargon, confusing me like crazy. After a few minutes of back and forth that was frustrating both of us, I challenged her to put down the slides, stop trying to talk like an investor, and just explain to me as another human who her customers are and why they want to buy.
"You mean I can do that?" she asked me. "This would be so much easier if I can just explain what I understand, but I keep trying to do this the right way for investors." For some reason, she needed me to give her permission to be herself and communicate her truth.
With that permission in hand, she spoke casually using language that was natural to her, with passion and conviction about who her customers are and the market she could serve. It was compelling and inspired far more confidence than her stilted and contrived "investor presentation."
I had to learn this lesson as an entrepreneur, and I find myself constantly re-learning it as a writer. I always have to fight the urge to write what I think sounds good and instead remind myself to write simply, as though I'm talking to another human.
While trying to improve, I ran across some amazing advice on the topic that I now consistently incorporate when helping entrepreneurs improve their storytelling. Steven King, in his advice book to writers, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft tells prospective writers:
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. ... I'm not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct. Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word--of course you will, there's always another word--but it probably won't be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.
Throughout the book, King continually reminds his audience that trying to sound smart always fails. It comes across as fake to the reader and makes you seem like you're trying too hard.
The same goes for entrepreneurs. If you're starting a business, you undoubtedly have a conviction about major problems that you see in a customer segment that you know well. Because of the passion of that conviction, you throw caution to the wind, give up your day job, and decide that if no one else is going to fix the problem, then dammit, you will.
Keep that conviction and that passion. Speak plainly about it. Start with why your customer is feeling pain, and why you feel moved to solve it. But rather than trying to sound like what you think an entrepreneur should sound like or what an investor wants to hear, make sure you sound like yourself. Use your natural language. Explain your concepts and ideas. Try to avoid picking up jargon from the consultants and MBAs. Speak clearly, plainly, and with conviction and passion.
None of this changes when you get into the more technical parts of your presentation like the market size or your financial model. If anything, it's even more important to simply explain your assumptions and projections clearly. Don't try to sound like how you imagine "other" or "better" entrepreneurs would sound. Own your truth and communicate it clearly and passionately.
If you stay true to yourself, you'll be far more engaging and credible. You'll come across as more comfortable and more in command of the facts. Plus, the investors you are pitching will actually understand what it is you're trying to say! So often, entrepreneurs use phrases that are an indecipherable bunch of gobbledygook and investors nod along gamely. Neither person understands what was said, but neither wants to admit it.
When you are crafting and delivering your pitch, constantly ask yourself what it is you're trying to say, and whether this is the simplest and clearest way to communicate that message. Take a skeptical eye to anything that doesn't meet that criteria or where you're struggling to "sound smart." Instead, own and communicate your knowledge and truth in a way that's clear and authoritative. Your investors will be more engaged, more impressed, and far more likely to want to continue the discussion.