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Enough about the problem already — get to the point, fast

The problem is one of the most important elements of a pitch, but it’s way too easy to spend way too much time on it.

Young man covered in sticky notes, work overload

While mentoring at a startup accelerator recently, I had the opportunity to see in action a common challenge with technical founders. By technical founders, I don’t mean engineers and coders, but the subject matter experts who start their company because they have experienced a problem in their own industry that they want to solve.

The problem is spending way too much time trying to explain the problem their startup is solving. It’s easy to do. The most common reason is just that the founder doesn’t understand the problem well enough to articulate it succinctly. They’ll give a huge survey of the many problems experienced by their ideal customer, and all the many features their product or service has to solve those problems.

But, by and large, people don’t buy a solution to a dozen problems. They buy a solution to one BIG problem, and it may happen to solve other problems, too. But if you can’t identify what that one problem is, then you don’t understand your customers well enough yet. It’s time to get out of the building and go talk to more of them.

But that’s not the problem we’re talking about here. Technical founders understand the problem _all too well_. Because of their great expertise in their field, they feel it is their mission to educate the listener on the many nuances of the problem, and they don't know how much knowledge is ok to leave on the table.

In a five-minute pitch, they’ll spend two full minutes just talking about the problem, and we’ve already tuned out.

The reason is that we just don’t care enough yet. We definitely need to know what the problem is, for whom you’re solving it, and a credible reason to believe that there is a sufficient volume of these people who experience the problem acutely enough that you can turn this into a scalable enterprise. In other words, we need what Alex Blumberg called “a credible theory of hugeness”.

But do we need to know all the ins and outs of the problem? No. We just need enough to sink our teeth into it and to frame the story you’re telling us.

So how do you get more succinct? How do you take a problem you know so well and of which have such vast knowledge that you could just talk about it for hours, and make it simple, short, and sweet? More importantly, how do you make it compelling?

The key is to hand-wave away as much as you can. You want to take as much as possible as a given and only explain what has to be explained. So try this: in thinking about the problem, just finish this sentence: “as you can imagine…”

What you’re doing is priming your brain to connect what can be assumed to what you’re saying out loud. Let’s try some examples.

One of the founders with whom I was speaking is creating a coordination and scheduling platform for the coaches of youth sports. It’s not a world most of us know very well, but we all understand scheduling. “As you can imagine, coordinating schedules between 50 coaches with a limited number of parks to play at is a difficult task.”

This doesn’t tell us enough about your problem, but it does tell us enough to frame everything else you might need to say. You’ve earned the right to talk about the current spreadsheet-based solutions and hacks that just don’t quite get the job done.

For another example, rewind to before we had GrubHub, Uber Eats, and DoorDash. “People often want food delivered to where they are but, as you can imagine, it’s logistically challenging for restaurants to run their own delivery operation, especially since they already operate on tight margins.”

“As you can imagine” helps us get to the core of the issue. And now, based on the time constraints of our pitch, we can choose to expand on that, as necessary and in support of that point. We can use statistics, facts, research, and (best of all) stories to help us understand the severity of the problem; to give it a little nuance; to talk about current solutions or competitors; and to raise the stakes. But we can be secure in the knowledge that we’ve already stuck in the hook. We’ve opened the story loop that we’ve earned the right to explore and, ultimately, close with our solution.

To be clear, this is just a tool to get you started in finding the core of what you’re trying to express — in finding that brevity. You don’t actually have to say “as you can imagine” in your pitch. You probably shouldn’t, and you definitely won’t nail the wording the first time you try. Pitching takes practice and repetition, but you’re off a pretty solid start.

This is an example of what we mean when we say that innovation and creativity aren’t about thinking outside the box, but about finding the right box in which to think. “As you can imagine” is one such box, and it's simple.

Published 6 months ago

Josh David Miller

Josh David Miller

Managing Director // The Right Box

JDM is the founder of The Right Box, where he facilitates the process of innovation with startups and Fortune 100s alike. He and his team help get new ventures to market, innovate on business models, and establish a culture of intrapreneurship. JDM spends his free time as a startup ecosystem builder, connecting founders and funders in the Sacramento area — where is known as that guy wearing unusually colourful shoes.

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