Storytelling Fundamentals: Use Storytelling to Master Your Next Pitch

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Storytelling Fundamentals

I love the deceiving simplicity of Andy Raskin’s much-discussed and crazily helpful article on Medium about how to pitch like Tesla’s Elon Musk.

I love it not only because it provides some solid, easy to follow (and remember) tips for crafting better presentations, but also offers a nice outline for how you can tell better stories, regardless of format, without requiring you to be a particularly compelling performer or professional storyteller.

Want a better pitch? Raskin asks in his article’s title. Watch this.

The ‘this’ in question is (as you may have just viewed) a video of Elon Musk’s Powerwall pitch, which Raskin dissects in order to identify the key elements of a thoroughly convincing pitch–one that’s got, as he puts it, oomph — in spite of what he describes as ‘self-conscious and fidgety’ performance by Musk.

It’s well worth reading Raskin’s article in full, but here’s a quick summary of what he sees that Musk does right in his pitch — and what you can do all the time, in any pitch you want to get right:

  1. Name the enemy. Identify–right from the start–what’s getting in the way of your audience’s happiness.
  2. Answer: why now? Confront any skeptics to directly address why your pitch matters now, more than ever.
  3. Show the promised land before explaining how to get there. Describe–and show–the happily ever after.
  4. Identify obstacles–then explain how you’ll overcome them. Identify what stands in your way, and show step by step how you’ll get past each.
  5. Present evidence that you’re not just blowing hot air. Show that your vision is attainable.

What makes Raskin’s essay brainily compelling is that he follows the very steps he’s prescribing, in the article he’s writing. Which means that you can use his outline not only for presentations, but for articles (and stories of all sorts) as well.

  1. Raskin begins by telling a story about how a CMO asked him to add oomph to her presentation (the enemy? Lack of oomph).
  2. As Raskin’s story goes, he was too busy to take on the project right away, but sent the Musk link along to a fellow named Zack, who’d done the original oomph-lacking presentation for the CMO. Before Raskin could get to it, the CMO emailed him back saying the presentation was markedly better–and wondered what Raskin had sent Zack. (Why would you, the audience, heed this article and/or view the Musk video now? Because it will make your presentations instantly better.)
  3. He’s already shown the promised land: better presentations. You may already have watched the video, too, thanks to the title.
  4. Raskin outlines the steps.
  5. He shows the Musk video, which exactly matches his description.

So good, right?

On closer examination, Raskin’s breakdown of the Musk pitch offers a different variation of a fairly traditional storytelling structure.

The Three-Act Storytelling Structure

Looking at Raskin’s breakdown of the Musk pitch in a different way, one can see that it’s actually a different variation of a traditional storytelling structure — which you may find useful as well.

Indeed, you’re probably already quite familiar with the traditional Three-Act Structure, whether encountered in your English 101 class way back when, or less consciousnly encountered in pretty much any Hollywood (or other) film. It’s the basic premise that a good story has (you guessed it) three main ‘acts’: the first largely focusing on setup (introducing main characters and the world they inhabit); the second focusing on conflict or a problem (often characters attempting to resolve a problem that cropped up at the end of Act 1); and the third providing resolution of the main story and any subplots, hopefully leaving the story’s characters changed in some way as a result of the story. Note that within a three-act structure, there is almost always a ‘problem plot point’ introduced at the end of Act 1, and a ‘lowest point’ (or descent) plot point introduced at the beginning of act three–yielding a kind of five-step outline (much like Raskin’s).

How, then, might this translate to a pitch?

  1. Set up your characters – ideally focusing on your audience or customers, and seeing the world from their perspective.
  2. Introduce the problem or challenge your audience needs addressed.
  3. Describe how you — or others — have tried to solve the problem in the past.  This might include noting the obstacles along the way, as Musk did.
  4. Offer transparent examples of failures to solve the problem. This should lead to clear evidence of what you learned.
  5. Show the end result. And feel free to shuffle this one to the start for a different kind of impact.

Where to Start

Simple. Try applying one of these models to a previous presentation, to test the impact of the structure. Ask yourself, and maybe others, if it helps. We suspect that it will.

Or eliminate your blank page bydrafting a kind of worksheet, including the 5 steps as questions, and providing note-form answers. Create your presentation or pitch from there–in rough form–and test it out on someone you know.

Then tell us about it. Happy pitching.

Storytelling Fundamentals

More Storytelling Fundamentals: 

Tell Better Internal Business Stories

5 Ted Talks to Make You a Better Storyteller

Core Elements of a Great Business Story