Donna Griffit on Startup Storytelling

Special guest Donna Griffit joins Startups Live to share her storytelling expertise and to help Founders avoid taking the power of their story for granted.

July 5th, 2017   |    By: Keith Liles    |    Tags: Pitching, Startups Live, Pitch Deck

“It all comes back to our neanderthal brain craving the structure of a story.”

–Donna Griffit, The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for your Startup Investor Pitch Deck

Feeling self-confident that you could talk about your company to anyone? How ‘bout Grandma or your little niece? Could you hold their interest, make them understand quickly and clearly? Talk about a tough pitch!

The importance of startup storytelling has become a hot topic. Awareness is on the rise. However, most Founders have yet to master the science and art of storytelling. Why is it so hard? What are the key ingredients to winning your audience’s attention? Who does it well?

Special guest Donna Griffit joins Startups Live to share her storytelling expertise and to help Founder’s avoid taking the power of their story for granted.

Donna Griffit

“Ok, y’all!” Steph Newton summoned fellow tea and coffee junkies, “Super excited to introduce you guys to Donna Griffit.” 

Donna is a seasoned Storyteller and Pitch Alchemist for Startups who, over 13 years, has helped hundreds of startups and VC’s around the world raise hundreds of millions of dollars. We asked her to join us today to answer any questions related to creating a perfect pitch deck, and writing a killer brand story!”

“Hi Everyone! Excited to be here today, and thanks Stephanie and Lauren for moderating! I’m Donna Griffit, Corporate Storyteller. which basically means that for the past 14+ years I’ve been roaming the globe fighting boredom.”

“How do I make a complicated story concise and understandable?” Kim Daniels got things cracking.

“Great question! Stories are an age-old structure. Our brains are hardwired for stories and we think in stories all day long – cause/effect/cause. So we want to make sure to apply this simple principle to all of our messaging to help people’s poor overloaded brains capture the data.”

“So brand stories or startup stories are made up of 4 distinct parts:”

  1. Problem/Challenge/Need
  2. Solution – how it works and powerful demo
  3. Business that drives it
  4. Moving forward/next steps

“We want our readers/listeners to really feel that we ‘get’ them. It’s not about us at all – it’s about them and their needs!”

“Love that simple breakdown method,” commented Lauren Tiffan.

“What is a good example of a brand that we all are familiar with that tells a great story and has contributed to the success of the brand?” asked Dr. Deborah Hecker.

“One of the brands that I think does the best job is Airbnb. I use them as a benchmark for the almost perfect deck. They set out to solve a 2-sided problem in an era when staying at someone’s house was unheard of, but money was becoming more and more of an issue. Their motto is ‘Travel like a local’, so they hit on the fascination of traveling as if you lived in a city but at the same time saving money – or if you owned property, making money.”

“It’s an awesome story that everyone can relate to,” noted Lauren.

“YES! Also they have some great stories as to how they started. BTW,” she continued in response to the notion of startups addressing pain points, “it’s not always a pain. Have you heard of EatWith?”

“They are an AWESOME company, not solving a pain per se – rather bringing a new experience.”

“Yes! their origin story is phenomenal,” Lauren agreed, “which adds to their uniqueness and overall brand.”

“I worked with them in their early early days, and I’ve NEVER forgotten the Founder, Guy’s story of why he started it! Brilliant stories stick with us. And it doesn’t matter if they’re 100% tru or not – if they resonate, like Deborah said – they have us!”

As it tied in nicely to the conversation, Steph Newton drew attention to a recent feature, “if you haven’t read the interview we did with Brian Cheskey, Founder + CEO of Airbnb, here is your chance.”

“Have you ever found it difficult to tell a client’s story? Like if they haven’t faced very many obstacles, etc — what do you pull from to create a story that captivates readers?” asked Devon Milkovich.

“Actually I have this uncanny knack, not sure what it is, but I see stories. lol. And it’s rare that I can’t find the story of the ‘Why’ for a client. But sometimes if it’s super technical, it’s a challenge to balance it in a way that ANYONE can get it and, at the same time, do the technology justice.”

“Best way there – tell the story of a User before and after.”

“I love to focus on the transformation,” Ryan Rutan jumped in. “This is the story the user cares about – because it features them as as the protagonist!”

“Offering an example of working with a “super technical” client,” Donna shared, “I’m currently working with an Enterprise solution to make using SAP easier. And it’s a VERY heavy solution, but we broke it down to the user story of a successful client they have:”

  • the situation before
  • what they were lacking
  • too much time/money/resources
  • and how after – all was great

“That comes in at the demo, so it’s like setting up bowling pins and then knocking them down later in the story.”

“Are stories more compelling and inspiring than facts?” inquired Dr. Hecker.

“Stories inspire trust, and facts don’t matter as much as WHAT THEY MEAN.”

“People identify with the Cinderella story. If it happened to them – it can happen to us. Maybe there’s hope yet.”

Common threads emerged – to get people’s attention, somehow make your story about them. People love to know that ‘you’ understand them.

“So what about an ‘elevator pitch’ – condensing your story into a 30 second blurb?” asked Lauren.

“How can you do this authentically?” Steph doubled down.

“Great question ladies! So I said there were 4 pieces to any story. The good news? You can condense or expand them as much as you want!”

“BUT, the most important thing, do not give up the story aspect leading in with the problem/need/opportunity because then you sacrifice the ‘hook’ of the story, making them listen to you!”

“‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.’” Ryan interjected.

“Just shrink it down a bit. LOL Ryan, yep. BTW, Apple TV now has Planet of the Apps, Sort of like Shark Tank meets the Voice, and the Founders initially take an escalator down to the judges – it’s a minute ride and they can only pitch for a minute. So go practice on an elevator for real!”

“People realize more and more that they MUST be able to tell a story. I’s a matter of survival. It’s become a buzz word, but I’ve been doing this since before it was cool. The smart ones know they need some help. It’s SOOOOO hard to tell your own story. Founders waste tens and hundreds of hours creating subpar materials because it’s that tough!

“Donna, how can you effectively use your brand story in a pitch deck? What are investors keeping an ear out for?” asked Steph.

“I loved Steph’s question about authenticity,” said Lauren, “…how do you tell your story without seeming salesy?”

The duo had tag teamed questions again, and Donna promised to answer them both in due course.

“Investors are looking for 3 things all the time:”

  1. Credibility
  2. Likeability
  3. Momentum

“So credibility speaks to authenticity – how much do they trust you? Stories help. How good and trustworthy is your team, your product? Do they like you enough to want to spend many hours in the next 5-7 years with you? Investments last longer than marriages these days! And finally – how far have you gotten with your product? numbers? growth? revenue?”

“Also storytelling can evoke neurological responses,” added Dr, Hecker. “Touching tension/sadness evokes a stress hormone called cortisol; and happiness stories release oxytocin, a chemical that promotes empathy. We need to keep in mind the interplay of the limbic system and how emotions are touched.”

“Deborah, so true! If I just present with words, I’m only touching on one part of the brain -the language processing center. The more I relate stories, the more I engage all parts of the brain.”

“The science behind the cause of a purchase or interaction with a brand!” exclaimed Lauren. “Neat perspective to bear in mind!”

This important reminder from Dr. Hecker got people to thinking about how they might inject their investors with the right emotions, ha, ha, ha!

“Do you see any of your services getting more popular as technology changes?” Devon asked, preventing the conversation from quickly riding off the rails. “I see you offer a Product Film for example, where you work with animators, and video content tends to get a lot of attention on social platforms.”

“The classic product is an investor deck. I do write scripts for the explainer film, and there are all kinds of cool new mediums to create inexpensive explainer films, which is awesome!”

“Donna,” began Ryan, “you’ve touched on a point that is often painfully obvious – people are bad at telling their own stories. Do you have a framework or process for extracting those that you could share?”

“I do!” She then requested Steph locate her Ultimate Cheat Sheet for the Investor Pitch that was featured on

Meanwhile, she had also been asked about how you should frame/talk about competition.

“Ok, about competition… The most important thing – keep your cool, breathe, count to 10 and then answer a difficult question. Remember – they are watching to see how you deal with challenging questions even more than the answer! Having competition is a great thing really – you just need to be able to identify what truly sets you apart from our competitors. Group them into 3-4 types, explain briefly what each type does with a few examples of the main competitors and then say how you are different/better/doing more without bashing your competitors.”

“Also, it’s super important to know your Landscape Inside and Out! Look under every tree and rock to find who your direct and indirect competitors are.”

“There’s nothing more embarrassing than having an investor ask about an obvious competitor that you’re unaware of,” noted Wil Schroter.

“Don’t be alarmed by [a challenging question about a competitor], the secret is to build on your competitors’ success. If a competitor of yours just was acquired or received major funding, use this to show how hot the market is, hint that you might be next because you have a secret sauce that they don’t and make them feel that they could be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. No Investor likes to feel that they missed out on the next big thing.”

“Oh Wil,” Donna backtracked for a moment, “I’ve seen it happen! Worse than that, I’ve seen startups show up for meetings not having checked their [the investor’s] portfolio and realizing that they’re invested in a direct competitor!”

“Found it!” Steph had retrieved Donna’s cheat sheet.

“Apropos of what we are saying,” said Dr. Hecker, “I recently read in an article in Harvard Business Review that venture capitalists value character and trustworthiness over competency when considering where to invest their money.”

“I believe it!” replied Donna. “Skills can be honed, personality cannot really be changed.”

“So if you’re a solid founder, and you have a decent product, what are some mistakes you could make in your pitch that would turn off an investor?” questioned Lauren.

“Where do I begin? lol. First of all, in regards to competition No-Nos – don’t ever say anything bad about your competitor – you don’t know who might be sitting in the room that’s an Investor/Board Member/Mentor of one of your competitors. It also reflects badly on you that you have to trash your competition to aggrandize yourself. Always say something like – “What Competitor A is doing is ABC, we do ABC plus we have a magic dose of XYZ…”

“Another crucial thing with investors: Don’t cut them off – DON’T argue with them. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s not pretty. If they put you on the spot, don’t attack, breathe and show that you can take the heat – that’s part of the reason they ask tough questions, to see how you are under fire. You want to be the kind of person they’d be happy to invite to a 4th of July picnic or a Superbowl box. So be you, at your best.”

“And most important – NEVER EVER pad your stats and numbers or make up things about your accomplishments. These are things that they will check up on, and if you are caught in a fib, you will not only not be invested in by them, they’re bound to pass the tip on to other investors…”

“I’ve seen founders have the hardest time boiling down what their company does in one concise sentence. Any tips for that?” Sherad Louis-Charles asked.

“YES, Sherad! First of all, start with your ‘Vision Statement’. This is even more lofty than a solution statement – this is your purpose for being or your ‘Why’ as Simon Sinek puts it. This has nothing to do with what you are doing – this is the grand scheme of what you plan to achieve with it. So go big – get them intrigued before you start.”

“Your Solution – a simple description of your product, a killer demo, the benefits to the end user/s and your traction. I call it the SSS (Simple Solution Statement). We are doing (x) for (y) by (z).”

A cautionary note about formulas from Donna. “I don’t like to rely on the Uber for X formula. It sometimes works as a back up, but you need to be able to stand on your own and then say – ‘Think of us as an Uber for X’. There’s a hilarious website that generates we are a this for that.”

“Why do you think so many founders & companies have a hard time with telling a story?” asked Sherad. “Is it because they are not familiar enough with the audience they are reaching?”

“Not exactly. The big problem is they don’t write from the listener’s perspective!

“Here’s a tough revelation –  NOBODY CARES ABOUT OUR PRODUCT/SOLUTION/TECHNOLOGY – unless you can first prove WHY they need it in their lives.”

“People are motivated by 2 things: To avoid something bad happening or to make something good happen – the carrot vs. the stick.”

“When telling your story, start off by hitting them where it hurts – the problem! What’s missing in their lives (or the lives of your users)? What might happen if they don’t solve it? What won’t they be able to live without, etc. They will be so anxious for a solution that they’ll be dying to hear yours!”

“Make yourself so good, they can’t say no,” proposed Sherad.

“That’s what we’re aiming for!”

“Are you familiar with ‘Made to Stick’ by the Heath brothers?” Ryan asked Donna. “Thoughts on how they’ve broken down storytelling with their SUCCESS framework? Any other frameworks you think are valuable in telling a great story?”

“Look, there are lots of great frameworks. They’re all a means to an end. I’ve been working with my storytelling methodology for almost 15 years, and it works. Find what works for you, just try not to get to stuck in a tight framework because then it comes out stilted.”

“So if I’m an entrepreneur and I have an idea,” began Lauren, “I have my story nailed down in my slide deck and elevator pitch in my toolkit. Anything else?”

“You need a good blurb!” She went on to explain, “The best way to get a warm intro to an investor is through someone they know and trust – preferably a Founder they have already invested in. So if you’re asking someone to stick their neck out to introduce you, make their lives easy by having a company blurb – a brief paragraph or two simply explaining what your startup does to pique the interest of the receiving party. It can also be your LinkedIn summary.”

“Use the classic elevator pitch format of problem – solution and an exciting tidbit about an accomplishment or the market. Don’t just send a generic, technobabble paragraph that they would have to read 5 times to understand – make it interesting, make them curious enough to want to meet you. Oh and be kind to your intro’er – write in 3rd person so they can easily copy and paste the blurb into their email without having to rewrite the ‘I’s and ‘we’s.”

“This is a great tip,” Ryan enthused. “Never leave the storytelling up to a third party when you can help it – and if you need to – arm them with a good story to retell…”

“So true!!” Lauren concurred. “Control the story by tee’ing people up with it.”

“It is also highly appreciated by the person making the intro,” said Ryan. “I’d much rather have some talking points – saves me the time of figuring out how to summarize and do the story justice…”

“Agreed,” said Donna, before counseling, “sometimes they must tell the story – arm them well.”

Sherad asked Donna for her top resources i.e books/tools etc for founders.

“My blog? lol,” she joked. “I love reading Reid Hoffman and Mark Suster. I think they give great advice, also Joanne Wilson aka GothamGal Of course, has a daily email with great resources for startups.”

AirBnB crept back into the discussion as an example of being relatable, which turns that company story and the founder’s perspective into its own kind of resource.

“Your own personal stories can inspire,” said Donna. “I love the stories of the Founders of Airbnb – they were so scrappy, they just made it happen on a dime and a prayer. I truly appreciate people who have come from nothing and made SOMETHING!!”

“One of the things we’ve observed,” noted Ryan, “is that people are inspired by people who have achieved far more than they have – but are more engaged with people who are just a few steps ahead.”

“Interesting, Ryan,” said Donna. “I think you might be right. You want it to seem attainable.”

“Yet maybe people who are just a few steps ahead are more relatable because you can easily see yourself in their shoes,” said Lauren.

“Yep.” Donna added, “I think that failure stories are just as important – learning what not to do!”

Many participants were caught off guard to learn that the hour was already up. Safe to say that Ryan spoke for everyone when he said, “Thank you so much for joining us today! This was excellent. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed for a repeat performance in the near future!”

If anyone has any follow-up questions or wants to hear more from Donna, you can find her the following ways:

And, of course, her guest posts on!

About the Author

Keith Liles

Keith Liles is a freelance writer who loves travel, music, wine, hiking, poetry, and just about everything. He practices saying “yes” to life vigorously, rehearsing for the phone call when he’s asked to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Follow Keith on Twitter @KPLiles.

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