Why You Lose VCs at "Hello"

For a successful business pitch, capture your audience's attention in the first 8 words.
Business Writers
February 29, 2012

Never mind "You had me at 'hello'" (unless, of course, you're Renee Zellweger talking about Tom Cruise-as-Jerry-Maguire). If you're talking to VCs, "hello" is where you can lose them.

Allison Shapira, who teaches public speaking workshops in the Harvard Kennedy School's Communications Program and consults with entrepreneurs, interviewed venture capitalists about the hundreds of startup pitches they hear.

"What's important to you in a pitch?" she asked them.

"Within the first 8 words, I've decided whether or not to keep listening," David Wells of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Buyers told her.

Eight words. (That's about half the amount Wells used to answer the question in the first place.)

Wells explained – and she paraphrased on Boston.com – that the first eight words of a pitch need to have the core innovation.

"If it’s not in the first 8 words, it’s probably not there. That’s when I either stop listening or interrupt the speaker to ask," he said.

Writes Shapira: "In a nutshell, it’s about having a strong opening line. It’s about grabbing your audience’s attention so that they put down their iPhones and listen."

Entrepreneurs need to get straight to the point and explain why their idea is worth throwing money at. But, Shapira says, Wells' comment is a good guide to anyone who has to speak in public.

Lose the "It's great to be here" and "I'd like to, um, thank the organizers." Get your audience to stop checking e-mail and text messages (or playing Angry Birds) and capture attention with a personal story, an unusual quote or a counter-intuitive statement, Shapira advises.

"If you capture your audience’s attention early on, you are more likely to keep it," she says.

She likes to use the theory of Chip and Dan Heath – authors of the book Made to Stick – for what gives ideas traction. The authors suggest the SUCCESS model: Simple, Unusual, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories.

"Any combination of those descriptors would make for a compelling speech opener," she says. (For Shapira's account of coming up with an opener herself, click here.)

How to gather the ingredients you need? Shapira suggests determining the goal of your speech – what do you want the audience to do or walk away with? Then – and give yourself plenty of time for this -- brainstorm possible openers related to the goal and your audience. These could be quotes, stories, or statements. Make a list, and let it marinate for a while. Brainstorm again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

"Finally it'll come to you," she says, noting: "Good openers are part preparation and part inspiration, and you need time for both."

What has been your most successful speech? What kind of opener did you use?

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