Last week was a big week. In the time between my Monday morning coffee and Friday afternoon beer, I travelled between Vancouver, Seattle & Toronto meeting with prospective customers, investors, strategic partners, and even a few potential hires. While the core vision I presented to each remained the same, the way I delivered that message differed. And it got me thinking about the importance of effective communication. Simply put, Say what you mean, mean what you say.
As the CEO of a small but growing startup, I’m constantly pitching our company. I pitch to sole practitioners and national law firms. I pitch to provincial governments and federal courts. I pitch to angel investors and venture capital firms. I pitch to friends and family. Hell, I even pitch to strangers on the bus. Fun fact: on my red-eye flight to Toronto, I pitched the law student sitting next to me. She signed up before we’d landed!
Look around. If you don’t see any salespeople, you’re the salesperson. – Peter Thiel, Zero to One
Pitching a business can be tricky, especially if your interests aren’t directly aligned with those of your audience. Whether you’re dealing with customers, investors or partners, you’re trying to get to “yes”, they’re trying to get to “no”. Taking the time to better understand where your audience is coming from, what’s important to them, and what their goals are isn’t just good homework, it’s good business. By aligning on mutual interests and outcomes, it’s easier for everyone to get to yes.
Say What You Mean
As both a lawyer and an entrepreneur, I have to walk a fine line when delivering our vision for Knomos. If I start spouting verbose legalese or startup catch-phrases, I risk losing my audience altogether. You always need to tailor your message to the audience in a way that’s easily understood. An early mentor once put it to me this way: “Imagine standing up and making your pitch in a front of a large and diverse group, say a fast-food restaurant or a subway platform. What would you say to make sure your message resonates with everyone?”
Choosing your words carefully is even more challenging when what you’re trying to describe is a first of its kind. What exactly is a visual knowledge network of legal information anyway? One helpful shortcut is to describe it as a variation of something the audience already knows. It’s Google Maps meets Wikipedia for Law. Not perfect, but still off to a good start.
Better to start with an overly narrow description of your project than try to describe it in its full generality and lose the audience completely. If there’s a simple one-sentence description of what you’re doing that only conveys half your potential, that’s actually pretty good. You’re halfway to your destination in just the first sentence. – Paul Graham, Y Combinator
Mean What You Say
Equally important is that you believe in the message. Regardless of whether I’m pitching to a large government body or a national law firm, at the end of the day, it’s still just a conversation with people. And people respond to people. The best pitches I’ve given are the ones where I’ve made it relatable through a personal story, letting my passion and excitement for what we’re building shine through. Because if I’m having fun, chances are the audience is too.
Make it a story. Make it human. Make it conversational. Make it personal. Make it fun. – Peter Coughter, The Art of the Pitch
Standing behind your message sometimes means taking a firm stance that might not please everyone. When we started Knomos, we decided that we would never charge anyone for access to public legal information. Ever. Increasing access to justice is a core tenet of the company and one that we’re unwilling to compromise in the interests of short-term financial gain. This may have lost us some potential early investors who were focused solely on a return on investment. But such lost opportunities have been far outweighed by the many key partners who share our core values and are willing to work with us to realize our vision. More big news to share soon!
As we start to wind down for the holidays and look ahead to the new year, my pitch to you is simple:
We’re mapping a knowledge network for law to make legal information more accessible and usable for everyone. How might we work together to make things better for you?
Onwards and upwards,