“Here’s what we do…”

Getting the next sentence right is not as easy as you think.

Confusion about “packaging the story” came up three times last week with three very different kinds of clients, so I decided it’s time to write up a quick “bookmark this” guide to a subject so critical for any startup… especially those for whom English isn’t their native language.

Four years ago, I chose a tagline for my company (at the time, we only produced Explainer videos): “Making a long story… short.” But in the years since, we’ve expanded that storytelling offering, because a client’s goal is, often, no longer a matter of making it short.

Below are definitions of each critical mode of “startup storytelling” text you’ll need along your journey, from shortest to longest.

Tagline (time to read: 2 seconds): This goes with your logo, to either provide a “spin” for the person who sees it for the first time, or to trigger a reminder for someone exposed to your brand in the past. The test: You give someone a business card at a conference. Three months later, they pick it up and instantly recall what you do. (This is a blog post unto itself, so instead of writing one, I’ll point to a great summary by someone who explains it well.)

The Homepage ‘Sentence’ (time to read: 5 seconds): This is a full sentence in plain English that explains what you do and why it’s important. This can be implied through the words you choose, rather than explicitly stated (e.g., “Never run over a kitten again.”). This “title” is almost always followed by a subhead that clarifies and expands on it, in an effort to drive visitors to click toward deeper pages on the site.

Elevator Pitch (time to read: 10–15 seconds): This one’s the text you use most often, primarily for when people ask what you do. You have about 15 seconds, the time it takes to travel a few floors in the elevator with the powerful decision maker you are trying to ‘wow.’ That means it’s roughly three sentences: What we do, Who it’s for, and Why they need it. Every word must be chosen with fanatic care to pack the maximum punch and paint a sharp, memorable picture.

Mission Statement and Vision (time to read: 20 seconds): While one could argue that each of these two terms has a unique function, it’s usually simpler to merge them, calling the result whichever name you prefer. This short paragraph explains your “corporate DNA” – what makes you tick. It’s what makes you excited to show up at work each day. What your “fantasy victory” looks like. It’s the end-game that helps the reader understand that this isn’t a flash in the pan or a short-term gig: you have a dream. It’s important for thee audiences: Investors (for obvious reasons), for customers, and importantly, for internal buy-in – helping current and future employees get on board and stay on board, their activities in line with the company’s priorities.

Explainer Video Script (time to read: 60 seconds to 2–3 minutes, depending on product sector, audience, and complexity): You cannot possibly get all you want to say into a minute or two, so here again, words and phrases need careful selection to do the job. The extra help here comes from the visuals when you produce the video – you can usually expand on the text without saying it out loud, using illustrations that don’t merely mirror what you say, but portray it in action to make it real, or feature text elements that can be skimmed easily to drive home the point. This buys you more than double the messaging power, and that’s why it has become a standard on the home page. Sometimes it’s all about the value prop, sometimes a demo, and sometimes a combination. But the script must always spend serious time laying out the problem you are coming to solve.

One/Two Pager (PDF) (time to read: 3 minutes): As I argue in this post, a PPT is often overkill as an intro document for a potential investor or partner. And it’s rarely a smart or appealing package to send to a customer. PPT’s aren’t generally pleasant to read; they require a lot of clicking that might encourage skipping ahead, and they can’t be skimmed smoothly. Also, the horizontal design creates awkward design parameters. Oh, and they limit the fonts you use; you need to either dumb it down, visually, or risk having it look ridiculous when your recipient opens it up. The solution: a nicely designed PDF that, well, solves all the problems above. It’s contains the “highlights” of what they would find on your website: What We Do, How It Works, Benefits, Contact info, and a few images or diagrams. Light, easy to skim, very much in the “less is more” style that readers appreciate.

PowerPoint (time to read: 5-10 minutes): I’ll save time and just ask you to look at the blog post mentioned above. But if you do need to create one, do it right. There are different styles and lengths, each with its own audience and purpose. Don’t cut corners on design, don’t numb the reader with too much text, and try to stick with the basic guidelines listed here by Guy Kawasaki.

Executive Summary (two versions; time to read: 5–15 minutes)There are some investors who need a super-short, single-page document as an initial introduction, and some who will ask for a bit more info after an initial chat. For them, you will need 2–3 pages to expand on the basic pitch you already provided. There is a very specific, effective strategy you need to follow in deciding what to include … and what not to. Each section (standard are more or less: The Product, The Market, Business Model, The Team, Technology, Competition, Use of Funds) must get straight to the point, with the understanding that there’s more info to come.

Business Plan (time to read: anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour): This is the longest, most complex document you will write, and requires significant time (and expense, if you ask a consultant for help). The days of 20–30 page business plans are generally behind us; a serious VC or angel investor sees too many of these to read that much. Aim for 7–15 pages, and leave the complex spreadsheets and illustrations as separate addenda. Again, each VC will have preferences for emphasis: One may want a lot of info about the team, another may need serious technical explanation, while yet another may tell you not to waste too much time on financial projections as we all know that too many variables can change. But there is a core list you need to cover, using concrete, down-to-earth language, without going overboard with hype.