Earlier last week, I got back from a late company board call, and unwound by watching a dvr of Charlie Rose's interview of J.J. Abrams, the director of the new Star Trek movie, released Friday. The movie is a successful attempt to restart the Star Trek brand, by retelling the past; it's a prequel or prologue to the original Star Trek series. It's something VCs and entrepreneurs know all about as a source for inspiration. (I think Tim Draper is still hunting for a Holodeck to back.)
Interestingly, JJ's core interview message was that in movies today, while technology driven special effects are cool, they don't automatically move audiences anymore to adulation as they had in decades past. The cool special effects are now expected. Audiences don't care about blowing up a spaceship in a movie; they only care if they care about the people in the spaceship. What moves audiences is *caring* about the characters. Once an audience cares about your characters, the tech has far bigger impact.
Now what gets audiences to care? J.J. says that its understanding the personal history of that character that drives real engagement. Once one understands the character's background from their own telling, the audience can begin to relate and will engage.
The same is true when pitching a vision. Both entrepreneurs and investors often mistakenly ask for, or start with, pyrotechnic demos, and cool market facts and explosive company figures about an opportunity. When in fact, we should start with the very personal and professional history of ourselves, as the founders, investors and managers; that back story is actually the most compelling part of any conversation. This introduction is often skipped or rushed through, even by seasoned executives. Its the number one thing VCs, entrepreneurs and managers often fail to communicate or request upfront in the beginning of a pitch to their mutual severe detriment.
Jason Greene of Emergence Capital, an early backer of my first company while he was at Venrock, put it best to me over a lunch discussion, far more succinctly by quoting Shakespeare: "Past is prologue".
Now for many entrepreneurs, that past might be relatively short. That's fine. VCs and others you pitch for money or resources or employment want to hear how you can do great things with little resources. And self awareness is critical. Share that. When I was pitching my first company, I shared minor stories of high school entrepreneurship, growing up in rural south Texas, getting the gumption to go to boarding school my junior year, getting into college, getting fired, going to grad school, having an epiphany about starting a company, how I learned about recruiting a scruffy management team and fellow entrepreneurs, and digging up some cash to do it, then delivering a modicum of success. Surprisingly, even the most seasoned pros often skip this simple exercise of introducing themselves properly. Especially in this environment, humbleness and self awareness are part of the path to a successful outcome.
When done right, beginning a conversation properly by explaining one's history appropriately engages your audience, and subtly reinforces and foreshadows the pyrotechnics you will soon unleash. It builds credibility and chemistry with the audience, so when the punch line about your opportunity hits, it's not just another spaceship blowing up with people in it that you don't care about.
For further inspiration, go watch the J.J. Abrams interview, and, if you haven't already, see the new Star Trek movie. I think it will go down as a classic prequel/prologue that revitalizes a worn out brand and extends hope for the future as the Star Trek series has done in prior generations. And perhaps, this prologue might remind us all from time to time, especially in an important pitch, that not all prologues are worth skipping!