Two TED Talks That Tempered My Tongue

When I started Pitch Practice in June of 2013, I didn’t know what it would eventually be or what value it might have to others. It was simply a fun gathering of fellow entrepreneurs to help each other answer the question, “So, what do you do?” a little better, and also help us prepare for events like Atlanta Startup Village and Startup Riot. The weekly event certainly has accomplished all those reachable goals.

However, it wasn’t until running the meeting for a more than eighteen months that I found two TED talks that completely changed the way I lead Pitch Practice, and the way I help startup entrepreneurs (a) develop their elevator pitch and (b) tell their story.

In developing a 30 second elevator pitch, I developed the following formula, and have used it in every pitch talk since.


  1. Name
  2. Company name (if you have it yet)
  3. Problem you’re solving
  4. Solution
  5. Customer (who pays you money)
  6. Ask


There’s no right or wrong order, and you don’t have to use all these elements if you don’t want to, but this is a place to start, a structure, a set of boundaries that will help you get from a blank piece of paper to a very short and eloquent elevator pitch that you can say to anyone and they’ll get it.


“Problem” is in red because that’s where your focus should be in starting a tech business today. We get this structure from the Lean Startup Methodology, codified by Eric Ries and Steve Blank. The basic tenet is that you don’t come up with great ideas. Rather, you create solutions to really big expensive problems. So, if you’re not solving a painful market problem, you might want to re-evaluate your idea. That’s where your focus is in your 30-second pitch, because when you’re talking to your proper audience, they will all get it, and immediately want to know more about your solution.


You’ve heard the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” but I say that’s a myth and a hoax. You can make that horse (your audience) drink, if you put salt in their oats. The problem you’re solving is the salt. That gets us to the first TED talk (sorry it took so long), which is from 2009, in which Simon Sinek brilliantly explains that people don’t buy your “what” they buy your “why”. Sinek refers to Apple as one of the examples of how a brand can be so good at their “why” that it doesn’t matter what their “what” actually is. Why would you buy a music player or a phone or a watch from a computer company?


Because you know it will break all the previously defined boundaries, just like the Macintosh did in 1984, the iPod did in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, the iPad in 2010, and perhaps the iWatch in 2015.


In your pitch, the problem you are solving is your “why”, and is the focus of all your energy and words. When you can simplify a huge market problem into just a few words so that your 5 year old kid or your 85 year old grandmother understands it, then you truly understand it and can convey your vision for solving that problem to anyone. Too often, great ideas are presented by entrepreneurs who have no desire, preparation, or structure for telling their story, so the problem goes unsolved until a “visionary” who can focus on the “why” enters the market.


The second TED talk involves actually telling your story in a pitch much longer than 30 seconds, and is a bit more complex, but incredibly powerful when utilized properly. Part of Apple’s amazing success is the ability of its founder, Steve Jobs, to keep his audience on pins and needles. Nancy Duarte took a deep look at the speech Jobs gave in introducing the iPhone in 2007 and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. She dissected both speeches so thoroughly as to bring out a purposeful and powerful pattern that keeps the audience thoroughly engaged and on the edge of their seats.


The pattern itself is simple: down and up and down and up and down. But what does that mean to the entrepreneur pitching his or her startup to any audience? It really is simple, and yet so powerful:


  • Down: The market space today has a problem
  • Up: I know how to solve that problem.
  • Down: The problem is costing us billions every year.
  • Up: The problem can be solved.
  • Down: There are many obstacles to this solution.
  • Up: We have a plan to change the market!
  • Down: The competition is fierce and well funded.
  • Up: Our team is the very best in the space.


This simple pattern of carrying the audience to new highs and new lows one after the other has an amazing effect on the listeners, mainly by keeping them thoroughly engaged until the peak of the speech in which the solution is shared and the vision cast.


I’ve listened to and offered suggestions for more than 700 pitches from all kinds of markets and entrepreneurs, but until I heard and applied Sinek and Duarte’s TED Talks to Pitch Practice, it was based on nothing but “that seems to work better”. Now I have wonderful inspiration for positively leading entrepreneurs to focus on the problem they are solving as their “why”, and to tell a story with a pattern.
Having a structure to anything makes it so much simpler to begin, and having a structure to your pitch and your story can carry your startup a long way towards success.

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