It isn’t very often that the CEO of a $100 Bn fund (who’s been called “the most powerful person in Silicon Valley“), makes a public presentation, just a month after his biggest investment has suffered an embarrassing debacle.

The stakes don’t get higher than this.

What does the iconic Masayoshi Son do? Beat around the bush and ignore the core issues? Or come up with a detailed nuts-and-bolts plan to fix the issues?

He does something in between.

This post is my attempt at deconstructing the recent SoftBank earnings deck (released on 6-Nov-2019).

Going past the initial shock …

I got to know of the deck through an IIMA Whatsapp group (one of the fastest news dissemination sources of our day).

Like many others, I was taken aback by some of the slides.

Here are 4 of them bunched together in one image:

Select Slides from the SoftBank Earnings deck

My first reaction: ‘Really, is this how the CEO of a $100 Bn fund presents? These slides seem like the work of a first-year MBA student!

I searched online for reactions and found that some news articles concurred. For instance, this one from Vice (‘These Delusional PowerPoint Slides Show How SoftBank Wants to Save WeWork‘) and this from NY Mag (‘Here Are Some Insane Slides From SoftBank’s Presentation Explaining (?) How It Will Fix WeWork‘).

But then (after a friend’s contrary reaction) I realised – I shouldn’t pass judgement without examining the entire picture. And so, I ended up watching the presentation by Mr Son himself, online.

(He’s speaking in Japanese and a voiceover is translating. Here’s a transcript I found later).

Having seen the presentation, I did see some merit in the slides being so utterly simple. (But also found some areas of improvement).

So here goes: My take on the 3 things that I liked about this deck and the 3 things that could have been better.

(Note: To keep this simple, I’m only reviewing the ‘WeWork Business’ portion – slides 48-61 – and not the entire deck).

3 things that were good

1. Start from Point A: Take the bull by the horns

For SoftBank’s investors, the over-arching concern was clear: WeWork.

And Son takes it head-on.

In storytelling, I call this ‘starting from the right Point A‘. You may have a thousand things to say – but you need to acknowledge the first/biggest question in the audience’s mind, at the beginning itself (you may answer it later – but at least acknowledge it).

2. A simple, clearly articulated plan

Instead of a confusing mass of plans and action-items, Son utterly simplifies the recovery plan into three initiatives: Pause new offices, reduce expenses and terminate unprofitable businesses.

In fact, this entire ‘symptoms-diagnosis-cure-outcome’ part of the deck really simplifies, what undoubtedly must have been some complex number-crunching.

Here’s my summary using the Pyramid Principle.

The heart of the SoftBank Presentation – the WeWork turnaround plan

The above messages are delivered using the simplest visuals possible – such that anyone would be able to understand them*.

3. Use an analogy to combat another

Analogies are powerful tools for a business storyteller, as we have previously discussed. Great communicators make frequent use of this technique to simplify complex topics and situations.

In this deck, Son uses two analogies (interestingly, both are inadvertently related!):

i. Stormy / calm seas: In order to indicate that SoftBank is indeed facing difficult times, he likens it to being in a storm (in the first slide). He mentions the starkly negative media coverage… and uses that as a starting point to explain why things are not all doom and gloom.

Towards the end, he indicates that the storm is a perception issue (“We don’t see any storm, rough orders. It’s just a soft order, to be honest.“) and they they would continue along the same path (“But from my perspective, no change in the journey, no vision change, no strategy change. All we will do is to just keep going, keep moving forward.“)

I thought that it would’ve been better to acknowledge that “yes, we are facing stormy weather now, but don’t worry, we got this ship under control and will soon be sailing in clear waters“.

But honestly, I don’t know enough about the business/sector to comment (read disclaimers at the end!).

ii. Sinking ship or basket of apples: The other analogy that Son employs is to combat one used by the press – who liken WeWork to a sinking ship, which might take down the entire SoftBank fleet with it.

Son acknowledges that this maybe what the external world thinks, and then counters with his own analogy – about apples!

According to Son, WeWork’s portfolio is like a basket of apples. Some are red and ready for eating (the 40% of buildings which are more than 12 months old), but most are ‘unripe green apples’ which will take some time to become ripe and edible. His point: As they ripen, WeWork’s revenue and profitability will increase.

Analogies are tricky^ – if used well they can be impactful. In this case, they seem to work to explain the simple concept of early-stage assets. The important thing to note is that by changing the analogy (from sinking ships to a basket of apples), Son completely changes the frame of reference for the discussion.

Those were the good parts. What could have been better?

3 things that could be better

1. Two separate slide decks – one for showing and one to download

There’s a saying in Hindi – ‘Haathi ke daant, khaane ke alag, dikhane ke alag‘ (An elephant has two sets of teeth – one for eating, one for showing) – which essentially means, don’t go by appearances.

I’m twisting the original meaning here – but my point is that a storyteller also needs to have two sets of presentations – one for presenting (Presentation) and one for downloading/email (SlideDoc).

I’ve explained the difference between the two in this earlier blog post (point #5).

In SoftBank’s case, the same slides that were used to present were then uploaded by them on the website. When such slides are seen without the accompanying narration, they lack meaning (and in this case look ridiculously simple – almost insulting the audience’s intelligence).

Also in today’s age, one needs to anticipate that a deck as important as this will be disseminated all over through social media – again without the crucial accompanying narration. Leaving it open to criticism of this sort. And this.

So what could have been done?

Two options.

i. A SlideDoc: SoftBank could have uploaded a slide with some text narration (the ‘SlideDoc’ version).

ii. Disclaimer with link: Alternatively, a simple disclaimer could have been included (a bit prominently) in each slide: “This document is incomplete without reference to, and should be viewed solely in conjunction with, the verbal briefing provided by SoftBank” (I should know – as consultants, we used to include this disclaimer on every presentation!) along with a link to the video on the website.

2. More detail about the turnaround plan

Given the magnitude of the WeWork debacle, and the extent of the hit on the valuation (and reputation), I think SoftBank could have provided more details about the rescue plan.

Just saying “Give it time – and we’ll soon be profitable” seems a bit superficial…

I understand that WeWork is a private company and doesn’t need to disclose numbers (which is why the ‘Hypothetical’ tag on the slides). But given the context, some details (especially on cost reduction initiatives) would have added credibility to the presentation.

3. Better preparation

Perhaps there was a time when a CEO could just land up on stage and share his/her thoughts extempore. Not any more. Since decades, business leaders (especially from Silicon Valley, led by Steve Jobs) have mastered the art of the scripted, rehearsed presentation. Why? Because they believe that the occasion, the audience and their company deserved the preparation. Otherwise, they would be doing a disservice to all the hard work that was done behind-the-scenes.

You could call Son’s presentation many things – but rehearsed and prepared would not be one of them.

Admittedly, he’s speaking in Japanese while a voiceover translates into English. If we go by the transcript however, there are many places where the lack of preparation is evident. For instance:

  • Getting basic numbers wrong (“Let me restate my earlier comment. Wasn’t that 4 out of 9? No? 5 out — so in final conclusion, it’s 5 out of 10. So sorry, let me restate once again, it’s 5 out of 10 Board seats.“),
  • Ad-nauseam repetition of some points (he narrates the logic of the impact of increase in occupancy ratio, twice!)
  • Mix-up of analogies (mentioned in footnotes)

Definitely you’d expect better from a senior leader for such a high-stakes presentation.

Overall take: This apple is neither ripe nor unripe

Overall it’s tough to give my take on the deck. I have very little context of WeWork and other investments of SoftBank, the business numbers, valuation details et al; and so, I cannot say if this deck does a good job of answering all investor questions. (On face value, it doesn’t seem to do so though).

In sum, it’s like a half-ripe apple? Some aspects to admire, and some to avoid.

All in all, good learning no?


* (About the need to keep the slides so simple) Honestly, I didn’t understand the need to make the slides so simple. What was the target audience here? Savvy investors can surely understand more complex slides. Was this made for a layperson audience? I’m not sure.

^ (About analogies being tricky) Incidentally, Son gets tied up in his own analogies here. In his fruit analogy, green apples are unripe (bad) and red apples are ripe (good); his slide visuals are exactly the opposite. In the slides, red stands for the ‘unripe’ assets (which are ‘in the red’), while green is used for the older ripe ones (with yellow indicating an in-between stage). He acknowledges the mismatch during his talk (“Green apples will turn. Actually, the color indicates the opposite, but green apple will be in red…“) Perhaps he could’ve used another analogy – maybe, using a traffic signal analogy?

Featured Image: From Wikimedia Commons by nobihaya [CC BY 2.0]

Some disclaimers (I’m a CA after all):

  1. This is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire deck – it only covers the WeWork Business portion.
  2. I haven’t been following the news/analysis about WeWork or SoftBank’s investments and so I don’t understand the investment, business context as well as I’d like to! Happy to know your thoughts in comments!

In front of 50,000 raucous spectators and millions more tuning in, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic speech to Indians and the world on 22nd September 2019 in Houston.

Acknowledged as a stirring orator, Modi used all of his rhetorical flourishes to mesmerise the audience.

But apart from his oratorical skill, what impressed me was the speech’s content itself.

Sure it had the usual suspects: the playing-to-the-gallery lines, the too-clever-by-half puns (“Energy at NRG stadium is a witness to the growing synergy between the two nations…” Groan) and the exhortations for standing ovations…

But if you look beyond these (essential) crowd-pleasing manoeuvres, you would find a solid, structured talk, with five clear points made – each supported by clear numerical evidence^.

What are these five messages? Let’s find out.

Using the Pyramid Principle to decode the Howdy Modi speech

In the past, I’ve used the Pyramid Principle to analyse letters by business leaders – such as Jeff Bezos (2019 and 2018) and Warren Buffett (2019). This is the first time I’m applying it to a political speech – and it’s surprisingly robust.

Here’s my take on the speech:

The 1-slide summary – best viewed on a big screen!

Just to clarify: All the ‘higher-level’ messages in the slide above (the ones numbered 1 to 5), have been ‘derived’ by me – as per my reading, these are the over-arching points that the speech is making (without actually spelling them out). When you read them though, you ‘get’ the clarity of thought.

3 things that impressed me about the writing:

  1. Clear flow and structure: which is apparent – whether you read the five messages ‘horizontally’ or delve deeper into them, ‘vertically’.
  2. Strong use of norm-variance: Almost no number was given without a relevant norm. I have written earlier about the importance of this critical storytelling principle.
  3. Balancing multiple audiences (with the need for editing): The speech was addressing 3 audiences at the same time – the Americans, the NRIs and most importantly the domestic Indian audience. It managed to masterfully engage each of them. In doing so, it could have become a long, unwieldy mess – instead, the content was sharp and focused. Great editing!

What could have been better?

Tough to say – but one area where they could have elaborated more is message 4: on the Way Forward.

I would have liked if the speech had a point on “These are the 3 big areas where we would focus our attention going forward” (for e.g. infrastructure, health and education/skills).

(Incidentally, my choice of these three areas has nothing to do with my past experience of having worked in the infrastructure, healthcare and skills sectors!)

Anyway… overall, I found the speech-writing stellar.

In a gloomy global scenario, India has a relatively good story to tell. This speech ensured that it was told well.


^ A disclaimer: This post is not attempting to endorse the speech’s content or verify the accuracy of its claims. Assuming the points are accurate, my endeavour is to study the storytelling principles used.

Featured image credit: By The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons

The phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’ returns an inordinate 75M hits on Google. The reason? Many users just consider PowerPoint as ‘MS Word plus Headers and Bullets’ and end up creating dense, soul-draining slides.

Perhaps that’s why Amazon did away with the use of PowerPoint presentations in its meetings…

That’s a pity, because, if used well, PowerPoint is a great tool to tell a compelling, visual story. And you don’t need designer-level skills for that – these 10 guidelines are a great way to super-charge your presentation.

I have divided these ideas into 3 sections: Narrative, Visuals and Delivery

–      Narrative: Your story in words and messages – what it is that you are trying to say?

–      Visuals: Graphs, pictures, icons (and tables, text) that illustrate your narrative messages

–      Delivery: Your verbal delivery of the presentation (either face-to-face or remote)

A.  Narrative guidelines

1. Start with Pen+paper and Word: Don’t start off your presentation on PowerPoint. You read that right. Before even opening the application, you need to firm up your presentation narrative on paper.

What is your ‘narrative’? It consists of messages (insightful and surprising findings), that are strung together to form a written story. Here’s an example of a Narrative for a presentation.

The best framework to build your narrative is the ‘Pyramid Principle’ (illustrated in the above example). I have blogged about how leaders like Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet have used it.

There are three advantages of crafting your narrative on Word before starting work on PowerPoint:

–      You can review just the narrative with your boss/peers, test it for completeness and flow and get clarity on what is your overall story

–      With a robust narrative, the job of slide-making becomes much faster and simpler

–      You also avoid rework and extra work (making unnecessary slides for instance)

2. Use the headline space for your message: Once the narrative is done, you start work on individual slides. The most critical portion on a slide is the top-left header. Many slides leave it as a title or neutral header. Instead, you need to craft a clear message that distils the slide’s meaning into one line. The main principle to use here is norm-variance, as written about earlier. A good message does one of three things vis-à-vis the information on the slide

a.   Provides a one-line summary (or synthesis) of the slide’s contents

b.   Prioritises one or two key findings among several on the slide

c.    Calls out the implication/recommendation arising from the slide

The examples below show how a message adds value to a slide.

Slide (with modified title) adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)
Slide (with modified title) adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)
Slide adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)

3. Use Outline & Slide sorter views to ‘review’ the narrative: An underused feature of PowerPoint is the Outline view (View>Outline view). The feature is especially useful if you receive a presentation for review – you can use this view to quickly check the narrative flow. If you feel the there is no flow, or it is completely broken, then don’t bother modifying the slides – revise the narrative first.

From fictional case study presentation (C) Ravishankar Iyer

Another useful view is the ‘Slide Sorter’ view (View>Slide Sorter) – I use it to get a birds-eye overview of the slides and move them around to get a better flow.

From fictional case study presentation (C) Ravishankar Iyer

4. Use story tools to make complex concepts relatable: If your presentation has slightly complex, technical stuff that your audience may struggle to understand, you need to use story tools such as ‘human stories’ and ‘analogies’ to make it relatable. This earlier blog post would give you a quick primer. 

B.  Visual guidelines

5.   Know which mode to use – Presentation or Slide-doc: A key question to answer is – Would you be actually presenting your deck to the audience (face-to-face/virtually), or would you be just emailing it to them? If the latter, then your slides need to be self-sufficient, i.e. like a document. Most consulting presentations come under this category. Here’s a sample slide.

Slide adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)

But when you are actually presenting your deck, then, apart from the slides, there’s a crucial extra ingredient – your voice! In this situation, if whatever you are saying is also present on the slide, then you end up completely overwhelming the audience: Should they read the slides? Listen to you? Look at you?

And so, most often there’s a mismatch between what you are talking about and what the audience is reading. And then they get onto their phones. It’s a mess.

Which is why you need to have a different type of slide in case you are presenting it – visual, simple and with minimal text. Here’s an example of a slide under both modes.

(C) Ravishankar Iyer

Of course, this means that, when you present a slide, you will need to prep and know your material well. But the preparation would make it significantly easier for the audience to understand.

6. Make your slide comic-book style!

Would it be fun reading a comic strip like this?

Dilbert deconstructed (C) Scott Adams

Not really? But isn’t the material all there…? I’ve just mixed them up! You say, ‘But, we need to figure out which message fits with which visual, and what is the order… That’s a pain’

I agree. But then, why do we create slides like these:

Masked and modified from real corporate slide

In such slides, you are making the audience play ‘Match the following’. The poor guys are trying to figure out which message goes with which visual.

Comic books get it right.

Dilbert reconstructed! (C) Scott Adams

We need to replicate this style on our slides. Here’s how it can look:

Case study based on actual corporate presentation (C) Ravishankar Iyer

To do this, you’ll need to ignore a lot of non-critical messages and focus only on the most important ones… and then make them flow like a story. Not easy, but rewarding for the audience.

7. Use pictures and icons: There’s an old saying in storytelling: Show, don’t tell. Our brains are wired to comprehend visual information much faster than text. So, in your presentations, when you are tempted to use words to explain something, ask yourself: Can I use a picture or icon to explain or add-value to what I am saying? Icons especially are great, since they are vector images – which means you can change their colour to keep it consistent with your overall slide’s colour palette. I will do a separate post on the use of images and icons on slides, but for now, just keep this simple principle in mind: Show, don’t tell. Here’s a sample slide. 

Fictional case study (C) Ravishankar Iyer

C.  Delivery guidelines

8. Prepare a script for each slide: When presenting a slide, we normally tend to say the first thoughts that come to our mind when we look at it. It’s almost as if we are grappling with “oh man, now that this slide is here, let me figure out what to say”.

The moment you are unsure about what to say on a particular slide and hesitate (or worse, try to over-talk your way through it) you risk losing the audience’s attention. The best remedy: prepare a script for every slide. For the script you’ll need to consider 3 things:

  • What to say
  • What not to say
  • In what order to say

9. Ensure smooth transitions between slides: A presentation is a conversation that has breaks in between – the gap between two slides. In this gap, if the flow isn’t strong, you risk losing the audience. Observe the 3 slides shown below. Does it seem like it has a clear flow?

From study by ‘Think with Google’ titled “The 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision

It doesn’t right? Which is why you need to ‘prepare’ the audience for the upcoming slide. This is best done by ‘planting’ a question in their head, as to what the next slide will be covering. For e.g. here’s how I would transition between these three slides:

Adapted from study by ‘Think with Google’ titled “The 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision

This simple act – of asking a question before moving on to the next slide – leverages the audience’s innate curiosity and prepares them to absorb the information on the next slide.

10. Know when to keep the slides off: A presentation is just a visual aid – the real objective is to have a meaningful discussion that leads to better decisions. If you find the audience engrossed in discussion with you or each other, feel free to switch off the presentation screen. There’s a simple hack to do that – when in full-screen mode on any presentation, just press the ‘B’ key. Go ahead, try it. The screen turns black. Want to bring the slide back? Just press B again – it is a toggle key. In my training sessions, I’m pleasantly surprised by how many folks don’t know about this (and they invariably find it very useful)!

Another cool under-used trick is the ‘Hide Slide’ feature (right click on the slide and select ‘Hide slide’). These hidden slides won’t appear during the slide show. It’s useful when you want to ignore some slides while presenting (without deleting them or pushing them to backup).


There you have it – 10 simple but powerful tips to super-charge your next set of presentations! 

Give it a ride and let me know how it goes. Happy to provide inputs if you need them.


Featured image credit: Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

Jeff Bezos published Amazon’s much-awaited annual shareholders’ letter on 11th April. It made the headlines for one particular inclusion: his ‘challenge’ to retail competitors, to match Amazon’s $15-an-hour minimum wage and employee benefits.

Looking deeper into the document though, there are some critical storytelling lessons that can be gleaned. Here are my top three:

  1. Make it Surprising
  2. Make it Structured
  3. Keep it real and relatable

Let’s examine each one.

1. Make it surprising

I have blogged earlier about the value of surprise (using the principle of norm-variance) to get the audience’s attention. Bezos uses it multiple times in the letter:

  1. Start with a surprising fact (almost shrouded in mystery): He starts with a startling fact of how their third-party business has grown at a 52% CAGR (compounded annual growth rate), more than double their first-party business. That surprising fact gets our attention and we are curious to know the underlying reason.
  2. Continue to use norm-variance throughout, to make facts stand out
    • eBay comparison: While the 52% CAGR sounds impressive, what if that was the standard industry growth? In order to make that number stand out, he had to give a norm. And what better norm than the growth rate of eBay – the original third-party marketplace. eBay’s CAGR number turns out to be just 20%, making Amazon’s third-party growth rate massively higher. (Incidentally, Amazon did get a snarky response from eBay…  but that’s how these things get more fun right?!)
    • Busting myths: To show how much headroom is available for growth, Bezos states that “90% of retail remains offline; more in other countries”. While there’s no ‘norm’ given in this case, it isn’t required. It is a surprising finding since many of us would assume that online retail is in a dominant position compared to offline.
  3. Failure needs to scale too: On the face of it, this statement is surprising. Which leader would openly state that they will increase the scale of their failures? Bezos does. And then goes on to justify the same with clear arguments.

2. Make it Structured

We had earlier dissected the structure of Amazon’s 2018 letter. The 2019 one is shorter, but a bit more ‘wandering’ (keeping with the theme!). Having said that, it does have a clear flow, with 5 main points being made. As always I have attempted to build the Pyramid structure for the same.

Here’s the detailed version of the same:

Amazon’s success is driven by listening to customers and wandering on their behalf; and taking care of employees with all heart

  • We’ve had some stunning outcomes driven by new initiatives
    • Third party sellers have grown at a stunning 52% CAGR; more than double our first party sales
    • AWS is now a $30 billion annual run rate business and growing fast
    • Thousands of customers are building machine learning models on top of AWS with SageMaker
  • This success is built on listening to customers…
    • E.g. Amazon Aurora: Companies felt constrained by their commercial database options and had been unhappy with their database providers for decades – these offerings are expensive, proprietary, have high-lock-in and punitive licensing terms
    • E.g Amazon Go: Checkout queues
  • …But more importantly, by guided wandering on their behalf
    • Some of our biggest successes are from guided wandering
      • Prime, Fulfilment were key drivers of the Third Party growth
      • Echo was a product of guided wandering
    • This is needed because customers don’t always know what they want
      • No one asked for AWS or the Echo
    • We had the ability and courage to innovate to give clients breakthrough products
      • Ability: A culture of builders
        • People who are curious, explorers, like to invent
      • Courage: Guided wandering needs heart
        • Programs like Prime and Fulfilment were extremely radical when launched and were taken up at significant financial risk and after much debate
        • The path is messy and tangential
  • However, as we scale, this policy would mean our failures would also scale
    • As we grow our failures will also grow – we will occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures.
    • We won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly; but not all good bets will ultimately pay out.
    • However, failures can be the stepping stones for success – e.g. the Fire phone’s failure gave learnings when building Echo and Alexa.
  • Finally, innovation is built on people; we take care of ours with all our heart
    • Current employees: 15$ min wage
    • Current employees:  Career Choice and Career Skills training programs
    • Future employees: STEM programs and Vets education

3. Keep it real and relatable

Just because you are making earth-changing moves, doesn’t mean that your language has to be a mystery to decipher. Bezos talks in conversational, everyday English and uses simple analogies where needed.

  1. Pithy, everyday language.
    • “Kicking our butt badly”. No MBA speak like “proving to be significantly challenging competitors”
    • “No one asked for AWS. No one.” Emphasising the point, like how we would do in a conversation.
  2. Analogy: Alexa compared to Star Trek’s first computer voice

By employing so many storytelling techniques Bezos vividly illustrates the thought and effort that goes into crafting this critical document. And by the way, he must have been really busy with the personal developments during this period. Despite these distractions, he’s put out a stellar document.

Having said that, what could be better…

As always we will look at what could have been better. Three things according to me:

1. Flow breaks down: The letter’s structure was fine for the first two points (success and its drivers). But the third one doesn’t really flow from the first two. It seems like Bezos just wanted to highlight those points (higher wages, impact on community etc.) for building some good PR. This article from Fortune surmises it could be because of the threat of ‘anti-trust’ legislation against the Big Tech companies. Whatever be the cause, the letter suffers from not having a clear one-line theme (as compared to last year’s letter – which had a clear connecting concept)

2. Way too much technical detail: In the discussion on databases, the geek in Bezos takes over. We could have used some editing there, as well as an analogy, to explain to us non-techies!

Bezos geeking out on databases

3. The human element: Like last year’s letter, this one too skips giving any anecdotes or human stories underlying the numbers. How about putting the spotlight on a third-party seller who exemplifies the impressive growth? Or an employee who’s maximised her potential after taking the Career Choice program? These stories make your data more relatable.

The final word

In sum, despite not being the tour-de-force that the earlier letter was, the 2019 Amazon Shareholders Letter packs in a mean punch in making its points… and leaves us with valuable storytelling lessons as always.


Featured Image Credit: Amazon Go in Seattle from Wikimedia Commons by SounderBruce [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Warren Buffett may be one of the most envied guys on the planet – for his unparalleled wealth, that magic touch in picking stocks, and decades of consistent outperformance.

But he also has a most unenviable task: to write a 12-page annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

Why should that be so difficult you may ask? Consider the facts.

75 companies, 365 days, 12 pages

Berkshire Hathaway is not your normal investment company. It’s the world’s third biggest by revenues ($247B) that owns an incredibly diverse set of companies – seventy-five entities across insurance, manufacturing, utilities and services (as he puts it, making everything from ‘lollipops to locomotives’). Take a look at this list below:

Berkshire List of Companies (Page 135)

Now imagine writing a detailed document that talks about all these varied enterprises, and the overall economy, and the impact of key accounting/tax policies and the future outlook … and (here’s the really difficult part): making sense of it all to the average shareholder.

Not an enviable task? That’s what I thought.

Buffett’s approach: Storytelling

Warren Buffett employs two masterful storytelling techniques to take on this daunting task:

  1. Get the ‘Big Story’ right (think of this as the basic pizza base and sauce)
  2. Embellish the Big Story with key story elements (think of these as the toppings that add flavour, texture and colour to the pizza)

Let’s look at each one in turn.

I. Getting the Big Story right

I had earlier blogged about Jeff Bezos (just two steps higher than Mr. Buffett on that Forbes list) who used the ‘Pyramid Principle’ in constructing Amazon’s succinct annual letter. Not surprisingly, Buffett’s approach is similar.

While he takes some liberties with the format, the broad flow is clear, and he makes three key points:

Main message: Berkshire Hathaway has consistently outperformed, driven by its unique structure, approach and American tailwinds; it is likely to continue doing so

  1. Berkshire has consistently outperformed the competition
    • We normally use two measures to state this (net profits and Share Book value) – but both have lost relevance
    • On the measures that matter however, we are doing great
  2. There are three key reasons for our success
    • Our unique structure: We are a ‘forest’ of companies with five ‘groves’ – where the whole is greater than the sum of parts
    • Our approach: Long-term shareholder oriented; prudence in use of debt
    • The American economy tailwind: which has propelled us for the last 77 years and will continue to do so going forward
  3. (Unsaid) You should (continue to) invest in Berkshire Hathaway to enjoy outstanding returns
The Berkshire Letter ‘Big Story’ by Story Rules

In addition to this, he does cover a couple of additional aspects – e.g. a fond farewell to Tony Nicely (the retiring CEO of GEICO, Berkshire’s flagship insurance player). But these are add-ons. His Big Story consists of the key messages above.

Clearly a good Big Story is not enough though; you need the little elements – the toppings – to enhance your story.

II. Adding the Key Story Elements

1. Analogies: Explaining the performance of 75 companies across multiple sectors was going to be tough. Buffett brilliantly simplifies it using the analogy of a forest. Asking analysts to resist the temptation of doing a company-by-company analysis of Berkshire’s value, he likens their holdings to a forest filled with five ‘groves’. Here he goes:

“Investors who evaluate Berkshire sometimes obsess on the details of our many and diverse businesses – our economic “trees,” so to speak. Analysis of that type can be mind-numbing, given that we own a vast array of specimens, ranging from twigs to redwoods. A few of our trees are diseased and unlikely to be around a decade from now. Many others, though, are destined to grow in size and beauty.

Fortunately, it’s not necessary to evaluate each tree individually to make a rough estimate of Berkshire’s intrinsic business value. That’s because our forest contains five “groves” of major importance, each of which can be appraised, with reasonable accuracy, in its entirety. Four of those groves are differentiated clusters of businesses and financial assets that are easy to understand. The fifth – our huge and diverse insurance operation – delivers great value to Berkshire in a less obvious manner, one I will explain later in this letter.”

Analogies are powerful when they are:

  • Simple: Easy to understand and visualise for the reader
  • Deep: Have multiple connections with your underlying concept
  • Referenced multiple times: In the story, indicating depth and continuity

(For some more examples of the use of analogies – especially a dancing geologist – you can read this earlier post I’d written)

2. Aphorisms: These are concise sayings (told sometimes in the form of a story) that pack in a lot of wisdom. Buffett is a past master at such sayings himself (e.g. “Price is what you pay, value is what you get”).

In this letter, Buffett is critical of companies which don’t show ESOPs (Employee Stock Options) as an expense. Here’s how he uses an aphorism (from another famous dude) to make his point:

“For example, managements sometimes assert that their company’s stock-based compensation shouldn’t be counted as an expense. (What else could it be – a gift  from shareholders?) And restructuring expenses? Well, maybe last year’s exact rearrangement won’t recur. But restructurings of one sort or another are common in business – Berkshire has gone down that road dozens of times, and our shareholders have always borne the costs of doing so.

Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street.”

Someone described proverbs as “Short on words, long on meaning”. I concur.

3. Norm and variance: We have written about this powerful storytelling concept before (and how Steve Jobs and Elon Musk used it). Buffett uses it at multiple places – for example in the below instance where he talks about the right (and wrong) performance measures:

“In the first and fourth quarters, we reported GAAP losses of $1.1 billion and $25.4 billion respectively. In the second and third quarters, we reported profits of $12 billion and $18.5 billion. In complete contrast to these gyrations, the many businesses that Berkshire owns delivered consistent and satisfactory operating earnings in all quarters. For the year, those earnings exceeded their 2016 high of $17.6 billion by 41%.”

I’ve tried to represent the above through some simple graphs:

Using the right norm-variance

In another example, he extols the virtues of the American economy’s tailwind – that has propelled growth across sectors, through good times and bad.

“If … $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, (the) stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019.… (if you had) opted instead to buy 31⁄4 ounces of gold with your $114.75… You would now have an asset worth about $4,200, less than 1% of what would have been realized from a simple unmanaged investment in American business.”

He then finishes with a flourish of wordplay:

“The magical metal was no match for the American mettle.”

4. Pithy, conversational humour: Buffett never misses an opportunity to poke some harmless fun – especially at himself and his business partner, Charlie Munger. Here’s his take on their age:

We continue, nevertheless, to hope for an elephant-sized acquisition. Even at our ages of 88 and 95 – I’m the young one  – that prospect is what causes my heart and Charlie’s to beat faster. (Just writing about the possibility of a huge purchase has caused my pulse rate to soar.)”

“In addition, certain shareholders will simply decide it’s time for them or their families to become net consumers rather than continuing to build capital. Charlie and I have no current interest in joining that group. Perhaps we will become big spenders in our old age.”

And that’s not all – there are more. For example, when explaining the reasons for why the ‘Share book value’ metric isn’t relevant anymore, he uses another storytelling concept: ‘The Rule of Three’ – and gives three reasons for why it doesn’t work.

(I thought of including it as a story element, but it was, well, violating the same rule, so I decided to keep it as an ‘extra’ item!).

Another striking aspect is the use of everyday conversational English, and not drowning the audience in business and financial jargon.

What could be better?

Superlative as the letter is, it could still be better in … three ways (there you go):

  1. Spell out the Big Story more clearly: As of now, I am inferring some of the bigger messages. It would be nice for Buffett to clarify those himself
  2. Reduce the preponderance of accounting terms: These may be a put-off for the non-financially savvy reader. I could get most of what he was saying (I’m a CA, guilty as charged), but someone who doesn’t understand financial analysis may struggle in some sections.
  3. Some visuals: The letter is worded evocatively – but perhaps some visuals/charts would make comprehension easier (such as the norm-variance one).

Unenviable task, Enviable result

Buffett may have a tough storytelling ask, but he sure proves his ‘magical mettle’ at it. I’ll be looking forward to many more such letters from him.


Featured image credit: From Wikimedia Commons by USA International Trade Administration

Do you get stuck in any of the following situations:

  • Your team has just completed a kickass project and wants to tell a story that does justice to their effort and outcome
  • You are pitching your company/product to a key institutional client
  • Your six-year-old never tires of asking you: “Papa/Mamma, can you please tell me a story”

In each of the above situations, the issue is not that you don’t know what to say (ok perhaps in the third one it is). The issue is you don’t know how to structure your thoughts in a simple, engaging story format. If only there were an easy to use, and yet comprehensive story framework that you could use…

A Cheat Sheet for the 7Cs

In an earlier post, we had seen how most major blockbuster movies use a simple yet reliable story framework to engage the audience – I coined it “The 7Cs Framework”.

Now while that construct is powerful, it can be a bit challenging to use, especially if you are a beginner at storytelling.

Enter – the Cheat-Sheet for crafting your own story. I have adapted this from a famous one-sentence story spine by Pixar Studios, which goes like this:

Once upon a time there was _______. Every day, _________. One day _____________. Because of that, _________. Because of that, _________. Until finally _________.

While this format is great, for me it is a bit too spartan to create a business story. And so, here’s my adapted 10-line framework that can get your thoughts flowing smoothly and enable you to craft an engaging, comprehensive story:

  • Once upon a time there was a:
  • And everyday:
  • Until one day:
  • Because of which:
  • Because of which:
  • So then:
  • Overcoming the:
  • By:
  • Until finally:
  • So now:

Let’s explain what each of the above lines stand for (and you’ll see our familiar friend – the 7Cs making their appearance here):

A short story structure with each element described

The structure is best understood through a couple of examples. Here’s a real-life business story:

The Netflix story

That’s the Netflix story in 10 lines! (By the way, if you want a more vivid narration, go no further than this absolutely fabulous podcast series, called Business Wars, recommended by a friend, Rahul Tawde. It brings the whole story alive.)

Here’s another example of the 10-line story. This was inspired by a discussion in a recent classroom session:

Do you know someone like this manager? 🙂

In the above example, notice that the tool (Trello) which helped the Hero, made an appearance only in the 6th line! Most often our solutions and products occupy prime space in our story – when instead it should be our customer and her problems. We come in much later.

Go forth and create stories

And so, you’ve been given the power to craft your own stories. Go wild, be creative, mix things up. It may help you get unstuck the next time you need to tell your project story.

A good way to practise this structure is to conduct a ‘story circle’ exercise (I underwent this in an improv training session organised at Storywallahs). You form a circle with 3 or more participants and one person starts off the story with line 1. The next person in the circle builds on the story by adding line 2… and so on. Sooner than later, someone introduces a funny twist and the entire group is laughing. You may not come up with the next blockbuster idea, but the exercise is a great stress reliever.

A disclaimer

Finally, a disclaimer, in case you are planning to use this to tell stories to your kids.

I once played the story circle game with my wife and my six-year old during a car ride and it was fun. A few months later, when he was pestering me for a story during sleep-time, I started off… “Once upon a time there was a _____ and everyday he would ______”.

I was probably on line 3, when he asks: “Appa, are you using that story format again? Please can you tell me a proper story”

With today’s kids, you cannot win.


Featured image credit: Pixabay

Is there one Story framework to Rule them All?

You have a big presentation coming up – pitching your product to a prospect, sharing a project success story, or just convincing your boss to approve a new training program.

You have your standard credentials deck/project presentation, but have the feeling that it is more snooze-inducing than approval-winning. The slides are filled with information, the flow doesn’t seem right and there’s too much “me” and too little “client/you”.

In today’s attention-deficit times, that approach cannot work. You can’t just inform – you have to engage.

Is there a way to persuasively structure your story such that:

  • You position the client front and centre of the narrative
  • The story ‘flows’ seamlessly, and
  • The presentation retains the audience’s interest throughout

Inspiration from the movies

To answer this question, let’s take inspiration from another industry: movies. Surely we aren’t the first guys grappling with the issue of crafting a compelling story. Can we learn from good movies on how they do it? To put it in other words, is there a story formula/framework that is used by almost all successful movies?

Turns out, there is.

By applying this framework, your business presentations would become much more impactful, engaging and … what’s more – faster to create! A participant at a recent workshop told me “I wish I’d known this framework a few months back when I started work on my key presentation. I would’ve saved so much time”.

At this point you may be like: “Cut it out, just spill the beans”. I will, but not before asking you a simple question: Who or what is the Hero of your business story?

Who’s the Hero?

You are making a product presentation to a prospective client. Who or what is the hero of the deck? Is it:

  • Your diagnosis of the problem your product solves
  • The proposed solution (product)
  • The client outcomes
  • The underlying technology


The answer: None of the above.

A typical mistake we make in our presentations is to showcase ourselves as the hero, coming to the client’s rescue. This means the deck focuses on our history, our team, our experience, our reach, our outcomes – you get the drift.

But the client isn’t interested in our story – she wants to solve her issue.

We need to reframe our story by keeping the client at its front and centre – by positioning the client as the hero.

The Hero’s Journey

This brings us to a reputed, decades-old story framework: The Hero’s Journey1, by Joseph Campbell, an American Professor of Literature who wrote about story structures.

When I heard about it, I looked it up and came across this:

Hm, quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Not the easiest to understand.

So I decided to simplify it and adapt it for a business context: presenting the 7Cs Story Framework.

The 7Cs Story Framework – In Movies

The 7Cs are: (Client) Context, Change, Conflict, Challenges and Counters, Conclusion and Call to Action

Does that seem like a theoretical construct that might be present in an obscure presentation slide? Well let’s take some of India’s most successful movies  – Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, PK (and later Dangal) – and apply the model on them:

Isn’t it fascinating – these three blockbusters, which seem so different on the surface, all have a similar underlying structure? It’s like people having vastly different body types, facial features, hair… but a similar skeletal structure.

In fact, to explore this framework further, I’d like to dive deeper into India’s highest grossing movie: Dangal. They have shown a fascinating use of this construct:

The Goal: Engaging your Attention

Why do such diverse blockbusters2 follow a similar (not-so-secret) formula? The reason is simple: they want to hold your attention (in today’s attention-deficit-age). To do that, they use two devices:

  1. The Conflict: This is the binding thread that holds the entire movie together. In Bahubali it is: Will the son be able to reclaim his kingdom or not? In Bajrangi Bhaijaan it is: Will Bajrangi be able to get the girl back to her parents or not? And in PK it is: Will PK recover his device and get back to his home planet or not? The conflict ensures that you are interested enough to watch the entire movie. However just one question cannot hold our attention for so many hours. Which is where the script-writers introduce the other device: challenges.
  2. The Challenges (and Counters): In trying to solve the conflict, the Hero would face many challenges (e.g. Bajrangi getting arrested, PK unable to speak the local language, the father-daughter tiff in Dangal). Each challenge is a question to the audience – how will the hero solve this puzzle? Each ‘Counter’ is the answer. And after all the counters, (usually) comes the happy ending – the Conclusion or resolution for the main Conflict.

The 7Cs Story Framework – applied for business

Now while it’s all fun and interesting to see this construct in movies, you may be thinking – heck, how  can I use this at work?

For a business story, here’s how the 7Cs Story Framework looks:

Let’s explain each ‘C’ in brief using a small case example: Samira, a senior sales leader at Abacus Tech, a healthcare IT company, was presenting to CHS, a US healthcare client which was considering setting up an advanced Business Intelligence (BI) system to manage its burgeoning data requirements. CHS’s President however, was a patient-and-employee-focused medico who was sceptical about technology and the need for a fancy new system.

Here’s how Samira can pitch to CHS:

  1. Context: This is the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario that the client (hero) was living in, before the change or disruption hit them. In a classic story, this is the “Once upon a time, there was a _________ and everyday he would _______” line. E.g. CHS is a leading healthcare system known for its focus on a superior patient experience. It leads the industry in patient and physician satisfaction metrics; however lags in technology adoption. (what is unsaid here is that: so far this tech-laggardness was ok and did not impact CHS adversely)
  2. Change: The change is an event which impacts the client. Changes could be sudden and dramatic (e.g. demonetisation); or an event which is known to be launched on a particular date (e.g. GST rollout). But most typically it’s an industry trend/process that plays out over a longer time period (it could be a few years, such as spread of smartphones, or a longer time period, e.g. the use of digital payments). Technology usually underlies almost all change. Most people are aware of such changes, but they tend to ignore/underestimate its impact. In case of CHS, the key industry trends impacting them are: healthcare data-explosion; higher patient expectations of customised care and the rising regulatory reporting requirements. Change is what makes the ‘business-as-usual’ approach redundant, risky or costly.
  3. Conflict: This is the central question which the hero needs to solve to address the impact of the change. A key sub-question that needs to be answered for the ‘conflict’ is the cost of inaction. What are the stakes? What would happen if status quo was maintained? Why should the client bother doing anything at all? Answers to these questions broadly come under two categories: fear and greed. Fear talks about what the client can lose out on (existing market share, relevance, regulatory costs), while greed explores what they stand to gain (new markets, leadership in a virgin space, cost savings). In case of CHS, the President’s heart beats for patients and employees. So the Conflict can be worded as: How can CHS deliver better patient care and employee experience (and derive other key benefits) by putting in place a state-of-the-art Business Intelligence system? 
  4. Conclusion: Before describing the challenges and counters, it is useful to paint a picture of the ‘happy ending’ for the client. If the Conflict shows the cost of inaction (by painting a doomsday-ish scenario), the Conclusion draws the client towards itself and makes them want to undertake the journey. You need to show them the Promised Land. Make it as vivid as possible – tell it from the point of view of individual actors in the system, rather than at an overall level. A great example is this video for a bicycle store in the UK.  In the CHS example, the Conclusion can be painted in terms of a pre-and-post scenario of much better experience of individual patients and hospital employees because of better predictive analytics, easier data retrieval and faster processes. Of course you need to also back this up with hard numbers – cost saving, potential new business, etc.
  5. Challenges: Once you’ve ‘sold’ the promised land, this section brings the client back to practical reality. Clearly the journey is not going to be easy. There would be multiple challenges: technical, financial, regulatory, people-related… The client needs to be aware of these, so that they know that they just can’t undertake the journey with any partner (or on their own). To successfully address the challenges, they need to identify the right partner for the journey. Which is where you come in (notice how late your entry into the story is). Here’s where we segue into the next section – your strengths in the form of special skill sets that enable the client counter the challenges. In the CHS case, the challenges could be: Presence of a complex legacy system; the need for a faster-than-normal rollout, given the upcoming centenary celebration; and a need for a multi-skilled workforce.
  6. Counters: In this section, you’ll state the counters planned for the identified challenges. You should also mention here, why you are best placed to support the client in this journey. Case studies of previous projects (your strongest suit), impact delivered, awards received, client testimonials – all of these need to make an appearance here, against the right challenge/counter. In the CHS case, your counters could be: Abacus has rich experience in handling similar complex legacy systems, as also projects with tight deadlines (give case studies for both) and it has one of the widest-array of skills in the industry, given specialisation in healthcare technology.
  7. Call to Action: Finally after explaining everything, there’s one place where the pitch can falter: at the last step when it lands in the zone of “we’ll think about it and get back to you, when we do it”. Many problems get solved only when they become really urgent. In your case, this is the section to answer the question: Why now? What is the cost of immediate inaction/delay? What if the client postpones it by six months? If your project genuinely has such a cost, then point it out. In the CHS example, Samira could end by saying: CHS has been a leader in patient care for almost a hundred years. For the upcoming centenary celebrations, it would be befitting to have a patient and doctor inaugurate the new BI system that would vastly improve their lives. If we decide to go ahead in the next couple of weeks, Abacus can ensure that the project is ready for launch in time.

So there you have it. For your next sales deck/project success story, position your client as the hero and show how they can undertake the journey through the 7Cs with your support to navigate the rough waters.

Feel free to reach out to me for help on your story structures. Happy storytelling!


Featured image credit: Pixabay

Hero’s Journey: From Wikimedia by User: Slashme

All movie posters/images courtesy individual movies

The secret of Amazon’s success: High standards

Amazon is highly respected and feted for its exemplary customer service.  What drives their unprecedented success? In this fascinating annual letter to shareholders (which is also a great marketing document), Jeff Bezos details the most critical factor: their culture of high standards.

High standards (of communication)

Now “high-standards” by itself is a sufficiently vague concept that can have multiple interpretations. What Bezos does is to expertly dissect it in a vivid, structured manner. And so, this letter also becomes a great example of written communication (apart from holding invaluable business lessons).

Amazon is a famous disbeliever of PowerPoint presentations and exponent of “six-page narratives”: clearly written reports in narrative style on the topic of discussion. This shareholders’ letter itself is a prime example of a ‘six-page narrative’ (it neatly fits in 6 pages of Word, with about 4,300 words); so I was keen to study it for the storytelling lessons.

Communicating using an old technique: The Pyramid Principle

When I read the letter, I was not surprised to see that Bezos had used one of the most robust (but little known) communication tools to structure his thoughts: The Pyramid Principle. I have blogged earlier here and here about this technique. It is a powerful tool: deceptively simple to understand, yet stubbornly difficult to implement.

Let’s deconstruct Amazon’s letter using this approach. (Incidentally this a good exercise that you can do, to extract the gist of any piece of communication – try it out on any important presentation/speech you have read). For the Amazon letter, I am only looking at the first part of the document: from the beginning till the Leadership Principle quote (right before the section ‘Recent Milestones’). Before you read further, it’ll help to quickly read the letter.

Using the Pyramid Principle to deconstruct the letter

Let’s recap the key tenets of the principle:

  1. Craft a one-line summary of your entire argument/report/presentation.
  2. Identify the 3-5 (and no more) next level MECE1 supports for the one-line summary
  3. For each next level support, group and detail the further supporting ideas

When figuring out where to ‘start’ and ‘end’ your arguments in (2) above, the ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ principle comes in handy.  In brief: When you’re writing an article or a presentation, think of it as moving the audience from their current position on a topic (say, Point A) to a new position that you want them to believe (say Point B).  It would really help if you start from a place that the audience already believes or can relate to (the Point A). In this article, Bezos uses the undisputed (and publicly available) CSAT numbers as his starting Point A, and builds his way to the ultimate Point B: the need to build a high-standards culture.

And with that background, here’s my take on the deconstructed shareholders letter:

As you read it you realise the underlying clarity of thought. I also loved the relatable analogy he used – of the ‘perfect handstand’ in order to explain the concept of ‘Recognition and scope’.

To reiterate, a couple of tips on building the Pyramid:

  • The one-line summary should cover the entire communication – in this case, the key problem being solved/goal being aimed for (customer satisfaction) and the solution distilled in one line (culture of high standards)
  • The next level ideas should read in flow (if you read them from left to right) and should be MECE

And now for the critique: Clearer headings and anecdotes

The letter undoubtedly is a high-quality piece of communication (with the ‘clarity of angels singing’). But I would make a couple of modifications:

  1. Clearer headings: The headings are indicative (“Intrinsic or teachable?” and “Universal or domain specific?”) and have an air of mystery. But I would rather give out the messages upfront – like in the Pyramid above. While such headings do lose out on the mystery element, they aid the ‘skimming’ reader in getting a quick gist of the document.
  2. Use of work anecdotes: The document can do with more real-life anecdotes. Bezos does use a vivid non-work anecdote (perfect handstands), but in a place like Amazon, there would be scores of rich, real human stories – of people having demonstrated high standards at work. A brief write-up (say 200 words) of one such instance would have given some evocative colour to the points being made.


Sometimes concepts like the Pyramid Principle may seem theoretical for real-world situations. So, when you see one of the world’s most admired leaders using it for one of his most critical pieces of communication – you realise how robust and timeless the tool is.

For your next critical communication, I would urge you to try and apply the same. In case you get stuck, I’m happy to help!


Featured image credit: From Wikimedia Commons by Seattle City Council

This post is about a most common activity that business leaders engage in: attending review meetings. I think the existing format is ineffective and needs a significant overhaul. Let’s look at two examples that I came across.

Story 1: An emerging technology company

“Whenever a presentation needs to be made, the CEO calls me” stated Frank* proudly, as he browsed through his laptop to show me some decks he had made. He was part of a 20-participant batch undergoing training in better storytelling techniques at a rising technology company. Frank opened a document and ran me through the slides. He was clearly impressed with his work.

I, on the other hand, was gobsmacked. Each slide was absolutely filled to the gills with text and numbers. It was like a detailed word report on a slide. How were the audience meant to read (much less absorb) this, while the speaker would be holding forth during the session?

And if the company’s CEO was referring to this as the ‘good presentation’, what would be a bad one, I shuddered?

Story 2: A leading services company

In another company I worked with, the quarterly business reviews would consist of presentations packed with detailed data-tables, copy-pasted from Excel. Clearly, the leadership team would’ve been overwhelmed looking at them and were unlikely to have meaningful discussions.
But there was another issue. By just showing the data in raw form, and not diving deeper into the underlying drivers of performance, there were multiple instances of inaccurate diagnoses. Business leaders would routinely attribute Factor X as the performance driver, when in fact, it was Factor Y or Z. This was not deliberate – but it was still happening. Why?

What’s the issue: Skills, Masochism or Obfuscation?

Why do CEOs/business leaders settle for (and sometimes actually encourage) such complex, cluttered outputs? There could be three reasons:
1. Lack of Skills: They don’t think their employees have the skills to craft a story from the data, and so they ask them to show everything
2. Masochism: You read that right. Some leaders believe that they can just ‘power through’ the discussion and extract meaning/insights from the data despite the cluttered slides, not because of them
3. Fear of Obfuscation: Leaders worry that if the employee isn’t showing ALL the information at once, he/she might be hiding something
Let’s go in reverse order on the reasons above.
– Regarding #3 – it is a genuine concern. I have attended many business meetings where employees would selectively highlight positive business metrics and conveniently leave out the troublesome ones. (It’s a natural reaction – ‘If you can’t convince them, confuse them’!). To address this, it is important to have a format/template of the base minimum metrics to be covered. But having such a template doesn’t mean just dumping these metrics on the audience on one big ‘Dashboard’ slide. Underlying the metrics, there would be a story in the data – it is the presenter’s job to unearth that story and present it clearly and visually.
– On #2, there’s not much that can be done to address the bravado of a masochistic leader! All I would say is that we need to recognise that all of us have limits to our information-processing ability. Let go of the bravado. Demand clear communication from your colleagues… Your busy, information-loaded days don’t need to be hijacked by cluttered slides and long-winded, unclear emails.
– Which brings us to #1. Can your employees learn to become better storytellers even if they naturally aren’t so? Of course they can. With encouragement from the top, desire to learn from their side and the right storytelling coach (ahem), you can transform the quality of your review discussions.

An example

Let’s take an indicative example to illustrate the above. Abacus Tech is an IT services company and runs a process for a US based client. Its project manager makes a quarterly presentation to the US Client coordinator about Abacus’ work. This primarily involves dealing with ‘tasks’ raised by the clients employees and how well does Abacus service them.
The last quarter was especially busy for Abacus’ team as they did 441 tasks. The project manager (let’s call her Sneha) prepared the usual ‘dashboard’ report for her client counterpart.
That’s got all the information, sure. But imagine the client coordinator trying to make sense of all those numbers, while Sneha talks through the slide. Definitely not impactful.
On the other hand, let’s say Sneha applies storytelling principles to extract and then present the story from her data. Here’s how the same slide could look:
Let’s assume the above slide was emailed over to the client before the review. Imagine if you were the client, reading through this slide. Would you have any confusion in understanding the story of Abacus’ performance? I don’t think so.
Admittedly, the slide does look packed if we were to present it in person/over a call. However, even in that situation, there are two options:
– Sneha can keep each chart on a separate slide, so that the audience isn’t overwhelmed with too much on one slide
– If there is a restriction on number of slides (and she can use just 1 slide), then she can animate the charts, so that they come in the right sequence.

Time is money

Business leaders – you are right. You may be able to ‘extract’ the story yourself even from a cluttered, data-heavy slide. But it will take you much longer than it should. Your time is precious. You need to spend more time discussing the root causes of performance and not in trying to derive them yourselves.
Ensure that your presenters (and you yourself!) are skilled in the art of crafting, preparing and delivering an impactful story with their data. You will get insightful presentations, richer discussions and ultimately better business outcomes.
* All names changed
Featured image from Wikimedia, By FAEF Wiki

Ram is the earnest, go-getter CMO of an exciting agri-tech startup. His was one among 10 promising ventures being mentored by Agri Udaan, a leading Hyderabad based agri-business accelerator.

An ‘accelerator’ is a program that speeds up a startup’s evolution, and gets it ready for the next stage. In such programs, a key milestone is typically the ‘Demo Day’1. On this day, the Accelerator gets folks from about 30-35 funds in one room and provides the startups with a rare opportunity – to tell their story to a large set of potential investors at one go.

But here’s the challenge – within just 8 minutes a startup has to coherently pitch the following: the customer need, its (technically complex) product, the market opportunity, the business model, performance metrics, the future potential, the team, competition, differentiation, client testimonials, financials, funding needed… and did I mention they only had 8 minutes?

No wonder, Ram and his co-incubatees found the task daunting. So, to help them pitch better, Agri Udaan organised a 2-day workshop and called me in to mentor the startups and help refine their pitch.

I landed in Hyderabad on a cool February morning and reached the gorgeously green campus where Agri-Udaan was based. After a hearty breakfast of uthappams and coffee, we reached the training room where all the startups were gathering. We had less than 48 hours to redo 10 startup pitches. Our task was cut out.

Template: good for MECE, not as a story though

In order to ensure some standardisation of pitches, Agri-Udaan had given the startups a pitch template with 10 aspects to be covered:

As a template there’s little to fault with the one above – it covers all critical questions and doesn’t have anything irrelevant. It seems “MECE” (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive). The trouble is, that’s not enough.

That’s because – just covering all these questions in your pitch deck won’t guarantee a winning document. For instance, check out this pre-workshop pitch made by Ram for his startup:

Sample startup slides pre-workshop

Sure, it answers all the questions, but one would hardly call the bullet-riddled document an alive (pun unintended) and engaging pitch. A good pitch can’t be put together just with a template or an SOP. For that you need to apply the right storytelling principles and tools. And while there are guidelines on how to use these tools, it’s only with practice that you learn the critical lesson: which tool to apply in which context.

Like Ram’s, the nine other pitches needed a strong infusion of storytelling principles to make them clearer and more impactful. To achieve this, we followed a simple plan for the workshop: first a 3-hour session where I outlined the relevant storytelling tools (illustrated by vivid examples); followed by individual mentoring sessions with the startups.

Step 1: An overview of the storytelling tools

The key storytelling tools were divided into three parts:

In illustrating some of these tips, we took inspiration from some superbly-crafted pitches by global startups. The 500 Startups YouTube Channel is a great source for such pitches. For instance, watch this absorbing presentation by a quirky, funny founder:


After the 3-hour session, suitably enlightened and inspired, we got down to the real task: re-doing the Agri-Udaan startup pitches

Step 2: Pitch makeovers

Over several intense one-on-one discussions with the startups, we slowly started cranking up the pitch storylines and visuals. Some founders struggled with the makeovers given the limited time, while others flowered.

Ram was one of the latter – it was as if a switch had been turned on in him, and he beautifully channelised his inner storyteller to completely revamp his pitch deck:

Sample startup slides post-workshop

Instead of boring bullet points, this is how he told his visual story:

  • Let me start with the story of Mr. ABC, the CFO of an industry leading brand M. He is fed up of this major issue X.
  • Mr. ABC is not alone – Issue X is widespread across the agri supply chain and is a massive market opportunity sized at $Y Bn and growing at Z%
  • We have come up with a proprietary, AI-based deep-tech solution for this issue. Here’s how it works. With this solution, Mr. ABC can breathe easy.
  • Mr. ABC isn’t alone – here is an indicative list of the marquee customers for our product. We are getting massive traction and have demonstrated N% month-on-month growth over the past 6 months
  • Here’s a snapshot of our competition: We are the only company to have both Characteristic P and Attribute Q.
  • Our promising traction has been made possible by a stellar team with rich credentials. I’d like to point out Mr. D and Ms. E for what they bring to the table.
  • We are at an exciting stage now, poised to scale up. We would love to partner with the right-minded investor who can add value to our venture and help us effectively solve Issue X. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have.

A pitch like the one above makes a clear, compelling case for your venture. Like Ram, many of the others too achieved significant clarity in their presentations.

The COO of Agri-Udaan, Vijay Nadiminti was very happy with the workshop outcomes.  He found a significant improvement in the startups’ communication of their message in a crisp way.

Outcome: Improved odds

Of course, you may ask a fundamental question – Did this exercise lead to instant success with deals being signed left right and centre on Demo Day?

I wish I could say that… but investing doesn’t work that way. There are a thousand factors that play a role in getting funding – the startup’s intrinsic ‘invest-ability’ (good storytelling cannot shore up a bad idea or execution), the investor’s mindset, the investment cycle, hype around certain themes, global events … it’s a long list. Many of these factors are not in your control. But some – like how well you tell your story – are.

Even if better storytelling doesn’t assuredly result in that signed cheque, at the very least you are improving your odds of getting funded. And just for that reason, there is tremendous value in getting your story right.


Featured image credit: By ILRI from Flickr (CC BY 2.0)