Don’t Bury The Lede In Your Startup Pitch

Don't bury the lede

I recently coached four startups on their final accelerator pitch, and I had to tell two of them the old newspaper editor’s advice: don’t bury the lede.

So what’s that mean?

Back when newspapers were the primary way news was shared, it was critical to write the most important details in the opening, punchy paragraph. In fact, that’s still true with blogging!

In newspaper lingo that “lead” section started to be called the “lede” in the 1970s, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. When a cub reporter started a story with fluff, and put the most important details deep into the story, they’d be told: don’t bury the lede.

Startup Pitches Regularly Bury The Lede

I’ve been listening to startup pitches for longer than some entrepreneurs have been alive. And I’ve been coaching entrepreneurs on their pitches for more than 7 years.

I’ve had to go dig out buried ledes a lot.

Here are four examples. Two are from my recent coaching session, and the other two I often mention in my “Art of the Pitch” talk.

One entrepreneur last week was pitching her “love cards,” a kind of physical heart emoji that she’d been printing and giving away to people for a few years. Lots of pitching time was spent on the incredible emotional impact this new type of greeting card had on people. Sound like the ramblings of an unfocused do-gooder? Well, she buried the lede. She didn’t say until 15 minutes into my post-pitch coaching that she’s started and run 5 different businesses in her life, and the love cards began as a side project that suddenly seems to be getting traction.

Another entrepreneur pitched a diverse performing and fine arts education program for kids after school. She’s a performer herself, so she kept me engaged early in the pitch as she told her positive impact stories. Then she shared her numbers: rapid growth in year one, although without context as to how big she was in her market. Two buried ledes surfaced in the post-pitch coaching. First, she already has more students in her programs in less than a year than any of her competitors, by a lot. Second, her proprietary curriculum ditches the expensive concerts / recitals / showcases of other arts programs and instead focuses on individual progress through process. In other words, she’s reinvented kids arts programs and it’s taking off!

I often tell the buried lede story of Ben Polito, cofounder and CEO of Pika Energy. He was going to seek equity investors at the end of the Top Gun accelerator program I was running. I heard his fundraising pitch one on one, then I started asking questions. After about 20 minutes I learned that he and his cofounder had not only been working together for 10 years, but they’d been in this exact industry – wind turbines – and had helped develop the market-leading small wind turbine together. These details weren’t in his pitch. Since cofounders often don’t get along and kill startups as a result, this was a very big deal for potential investors – a buried lede!

Final example: I was listening to some University of Southern Maine (USM) students pitch their new online computer game. The pitch included lots of technical details, and just a little bit about their target users (young kids). Is this a business, or unique, I wondered? I probed for a while after the pitch to find out what was different about their approach. It took a while, but eventually I learned that the targeted young players could actually change the ending of the game in a wide variety of ways. So the USM students had developed a game parents should buy for their kids to start learning how to design games at a young age. Another buried lede!

Why Are You Burying The Lede In Your Pitch?

I’ve probed for and found enough buried ledes at this point to know that, not only are they a thing, they stem from two really common problems. First, entrepreneurs (including me!) are so close to what they’re doing, so deep in the weeds of the details, that critical big picture details are often overlooked, especially:

  • What’s great about who you are
  • What’s great about your special sauce

Second, entrepreneurs generally don’t understand the investor or pitching judge mindset. When you have an entirely different frame of reference it’s easy to overlook what may be considered critical to others. By the way, that’s often true when startups try to explain their products to customers!

Especially if you’re looking for investment or trying to win a pitch competition, it’s important to get outside help on these two issues.

The first job is to make sure that the essence of “what’s great” is clearly identified. Experienced pitch coaches can help identify those essential details.

The second job is to express it in a way that triggers investors’ or competition judges’ pattern recognition.

To put it differently, successes and failures don’t repeat but they rhyme (to paraphrase a meme about history). If you can tell your story in such a way that those listening can say:

  • Wow, that’s a huge risk averted or managed; or
  • Wow, that’s a common trend in other successes I’ve seen…

… then you’ve taken a few big steps towards being chosen from among a competitive field.

Find someone to help make sure you haven’t buried those pattern-matching ledes!

Note To Self: Don’t Bury The Lead (or The Lede)

I should add that I had my own lede unburied the day before I was unburying ledes in my pitch coaching. A friend of mine who’s an executive coach had offered me a free session to focus on my upcoming podcast, The Funding Coach.

He asked me about my special sauce, although not that bluntly. He didn’t really like my answer. He then told me, to oversimplify, that connecting with people emotionally was his special sauce in being an effective executive coach. Often it’s the emotional part of the brain that needs to “get it” before behavior actually changes for the better.

And he observed that I was already good at connecting with entrepreneurs at the emotional level – I just hadn’t recognized it myself.

He’s right, of course. That’s an important part of my special sauce. As an entrepreneur I connect naturally with other entrepreneurs, and I hadn’t even realized it!

And he told me all this so much more artfully than I just summarized because… well, he needed to get me to connect to the concept emotionally for it to sink in and have an impact on my thinking and behavior.

So even if you aren’t pitching, consider spending some time with a good coach. It may help you understand what’s great about you, and what’s great about your special sauce. So you can stop burying your lede!

Don Gooding

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