What Movies Can Teach You about Pitching to Investors

Pitching is hard, and pitching in different contexts is even harder. I frequently see people struggle to shift from elevator pitches (30 seconds) to demo day pitches (5 minutes) to full pitches (30+ minutes). The problem is most acute for founders who really understand their businesses; they have tons of compelling points and metrics at their disposal, which makes it hard to decide what to include and what to exclude in short presentations vs. long ones.

I think a great way to think about different types of pitches is to look at what the movie industry does in various contexts:

Each of these products appeals to different audiences, and that’s reflected in the content and the design. For example, because posters are for passersby with short attention spans, they’re unlikely to include paragraphs of text or shots from many different scenes. A poster is typically just a photo of the best known-actor(s) in the movie, a one sentence tagline, a background that provides a hint about the plot, and maybe quote from a famous critic. For example, here’s the poster for Total Recall:

Total Recall

What does this poster tell you? The movie features Arnold, the tagline implies that it’s an action film, and the pyramid with two planets next to it suggests that the genre is probably sci-fi. That’s it. There’s no mention of Mars or mutants or erased memories or Philip K. Dick or anything else. Whoever designed this poster understood the audience (teenage boys) very well.

There’s no single formula for what a poster should show, only that it should show the most exciting things about your movie as quickly as possible. You absolutely do not have time for anything else. For example, a poster for The Expendables only highlights the action stars in its cast. It doesn’t bother with a tagline or quotes from critics because those don’t really matter compared to having Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham in the same movie. 


On the other hand, A Separation is a foreign film whose actors are not well known in the US, so its poster wisely focuses on awards and praise from critics. 


The Elevator Pitch

Your startup’s elevator pitch should mimic the brevity and information density of movie posters. It should cover your two or three biggest strengths and be easy to understand for everyone, regardless of familiarity with your industry. For example, “We’re a couple of Stanford grads who spent the last few years building trading platforms for financial institutions. Now we’re building a mobile-first commission-free stock brokerage for the Millennial generation.” (Robinhood) Or, “We’re the team that built Siri, and now we’re going back to work on an extremely powerful AI-based digital assistant.” (Viv)

(Note: these are made-up elevator pitches for Robinhood and Viv.) 

Don’t try to jam buzzwords into your blurb. Don’t use problematic analogies that create more questions than answers. Don’t make your elevator pitch longer than a few sentences.

The Demo Day Pitch

A demo day pitch is like a movie trailer. You typically have 3-5 minutes to talk about your company. While it’s clear that this is not enough time to cover every single thing that investors might want to know, many presenters still try to include everything but the kitchen sink. They exceed time limits and talk at supersonic speeds, all while going through slides faster than Larry King goes through spouses.

The key principle to remember for demo day presentations is that your mission is not to get someone to say “okay, I’ll invest”, but instead to get them thinking: “this sounds awesome, I should set up a meeting to hear the full pitch.” Like a movie trailer, your presentation should be a highlight reel, not 90-minute movie that has been compressed into an incomprehensible 180 seconds.

The Full Pitch

The full pitch is like a behind-the-scenes featurette – or better yet, a special edition DVD loaded with commentaries and other extras. You want to cover everything there is to cover about your startup and how it works. Prepare a nice deck that stands alone – because as much as you want to provide in-person narration when people first read your deck, that won’t always be possible. Have appendices and supporting materials prepared for common questions about financial projections and customer acquisition. Weave a good story around your pitch, which will make your presentation more compelling and more memorable.

Common Mistakes

There are three common mistakes that founders makes when delivering pitches of different lengths:

  1. Focusing on the wrong details. For example, an elevator pitch only gives you time to cover the 2-3 most notable and important things about your company. If you have a Top Ten list of things you can mention in your elevator pitch, make sure you focus on #1, #2, and #3 – not #2, #6, and #9. Analogously, you’ll notice that the Total Recall poster highlighted Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Ronny Cox or Sharon Stone. Ronny and Sharon are good actors, too, but Arnold is clearly the main draw.

  2. Including too many details. If you have 5 minutes to talk about your startup, don’t spend time talking about things like your cost breakdown or the competitiveness of the market. You can tell investors about those things later. You’d never see a movie trailer that says, “this is a really awesome racing movie… but_The Fast and the Furious_ and Drive are also great!” – so why would you waste your limited time on describing specific competitors or delving into accounting details?

  3. Omitting key details. The flip side of including too much information is not including enough of it. If everyone on your team has a PhD from Harvard or your last company was acquired for $800m, you should definitely mention those things. But those facts are meaningless if investors walk way from your pitch thinking “wow, that’s a great team… but I can’t figure out exactly what it is that they’re working on.” Any presentation that’s a few minutes or longer should at least cover the problem you’re addressing, the size of that problem, your solution, and why you’re the right team for the job.

The key takeaway is that you should consider your audience whenever you’re pitching. Do you have 50 minutes, 5 minutes, or 0.5 minutes? Does your audience know a lot about your industry, or nothing at all? Are you trying to get them to invest, to become interested in learning more, or to remember your name when they see you at a demo day next month? Whatever the ideal next step is, you should tune your presentation to get investors as excited as possible about that next step.

Tags: PitchingDemo Day
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