The Secret to a Successful VC Pitch is in the Language You Use


In 2020, Harvard professor Laura Huang and her colleagues Priyanka D. Joshi, Cheryl J. Wakslak, and Andy Wu ran a study that produced monumental findings for startup entrepreneurs. The team analyzed over 1,000 early-stage company pitches sent to a venture capital firm over a year. The academic group sought to uncover the connection between funding outcomes and how entrepreneurs communicated their ventures.1

What they discovered was noteworthy. Of course, the funding decisions accounted for common VC considerations - growth potential of the sector, scalability of the firm, leadership team, and the importance of the problem or opportunity. But controlling for those factors, the team discovered another factor that was as important as these track, jockey, and horse considerations.

The language that the founder used to pitch their business had a powerful impact on investment decisions. Even more noteworthy is that the less concrete and more abstract pitches more successfully got to the next step (typically a meeting with the VC to begin the journey toward funding).

The Differences Between Concrete and Abstract Language

Before we explain the reason for this finding and what it means to founders who are pitching startups, let's define concrete and abstract language.

  • Concrete language is specific and observable. It uses words that listeners can see in their minds (e.g., a juicy red tomato). This kind of language is effective because it is direct and specific. It encourages understanding and memorability because it does not require much intellectual lift from the listener.
  • Abstract language is less tangible and more conceptual (e.g., democracy or love). You may find it difficult to draw something based on abstract language. It encourages partnership and action because it requires the listener to share in the vision.

If abstract language demands more from the audience, why would pitches delivered with abstract language be more successful than simple, straightforward, concrete language pitches? Imagination and connection. The team found that pitches that "used more abstract language made investors think the company had more potential for growth and ability to scale."2

Consider the Audience

Pitching to investors is not the same as doing a sales pitch, where the goal is to get the prospect to see the business as a vitamin or aspirin for their specific needs. Investors are assessing potential - will the company survive, scale, and thrive. In other words, they want to know that their investment will pay off over time.

Companies that lead their pitches with concrete language sell the business model and its offerings. The story is tangible and immediate. Companies that deliver their pitches with abstract language communicate potential and invite others to join them in seeing a vision of the future. They are pitching the next Unicorn, not the company they are building and running at the moment.

Concrete language is essential, of course. It's just a consideration of when to use it. If your business or product is complex, concrete language will help the audience clarify how it fits into their view of the world/market/problem set/opportunity landscape. But to get to that conversation, you must first invite people to share your vision of a world that is better because of your innovation. At the start of the pitching process, the scholars found that broadness and imagination matter more than conversations and bullet points about widgets and APIs.

Consider Uber. When they launched, rather than describing the company as "a ride-hailing app" (concrete - what it does), Uber launched as a "transportation solution" (abstract - what it could do). Both descriptions are necessary. The first focuses on the how. The second focuses on the why. And at the end of the day, why is simply more promising and desirable.

The Expertise Behind the Counsel

The cited Harvard study and this practical counsel about why leading with abstract language when pitching VCs comes from Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a best-selling author and world-renowned authority on language, natural language processing, social influence, and change.3

If his credentials and citations aren't enough to persuade you of the value of his guidance, the comment below likely will. As a founder, you operate in rarified air. You see vexing problems and exciting opportunities that others overlook or ignore. And you have the courage and tenacity to invent and build a business to bring innovation to the market.

Using abstract language...makes founders seem like forward-looking visionaries, focused not just on the venture as it exists at the moment but how it might exist in the future; not just what it is but what it could be. They have a broad vision of what might be possible and how their business might grow or expand over time. (Jonah Berger, Magic Words)

If you've taken the leap to launch and pitch a business, you are a visionary. You do have a sense of what is possible. Believe in that and lead with it. If an investor shares your belief in the why, they will ask how. You can lead with the concrete details when you take the invitation for a meeting to answer their follow-up questions.

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