Myth Busted–pitching and the passion trap

By Chris Lundberg

A good bit of the conventional wisdom regarding pitching–especially in the entrepreneurial context–has solidified around two goals: 1) tell a good story, and; 2) pitch with passion. It is hard to argue against either of these things: a compelling narrative is always helpful, and showing passion can boost a pitch.

Storytelling–not “if” but “how”

Storytelling has ascended rapidly as a staple of business talk–so much so that large firms like Nike and Google have hired “Chief Executive Storytellers”, and Linkedin is virtually awash in people who describe themselves as storytellers of various stripes. Of course, the proverbial devil is in the details: scholars who study communication have long argued that almost all communication has elements of storytelling, because human communication always has a specific context and (almost) always has specific audience that it attempts to move from point A to point B–from a beginning state to an intended end.

If all human communication is a kind of storytelling, the question is not whether you should tell a good story: rather, the question is: “what is the best way to communicate so that you are employing the crucial elements of storytelling that help you to persuade people.” Those elements include things like relating experiences that people can connect with, foregrounding values, and signaling aspirations. It is not enough to simply tell people to tell stories, good communication practice requires a both a theory and concrete practices that make the stories pop. But more on that in a later post.

Pitching and the Passion Trap

Passion, too,  has been a staple of entrepreneurship–even before our current obsession with storytelling took hold. “The Nature and Experience of Entrepreneurial Passion” (Cardon et. al.) points out that passion was one of the earliest categories that folks used to talk about what made entrepreneurs unique–why they would take on high risk, why they would so often buck conventional wisdom, etc. And undoubtedly, the things that an entrepreneur can do to demonstrate passion in a pitch can make a difference. Showing positive affect (“I LOVE my work,” or signaling enthusiasm for the “fun” of the enterprise), self-consciously identifying with one’s role as a founder, signaling excitement and/or focus, and telling stories about persistence; can all help to solidify the perception that an entrepreneur is committed and worth investing in.

But the research around passion is much more complicated than the straightforward claim that if an entrepreneur shows passion, they will automatically pitch successfully. For example, there is a good argument that entrepreneurs fail not only when they show too little passion, but when they show too much. Research shows that sometimes investors take too fiery of a pitch as evidence that the entrepreneur is not coachable, not a flexible problem solver, or is prone to confirmation bias. Cardon et. al. also point out that given that each of us has a limited amount of cognitive capacity, energy, and time, signaling too intense of a passion around specific roles or tasks can also signal that an entrepreneur is likely to either over-invest time and energy in their preferred tasks at the expense of day-to-day operations, or that they potentially lack persistence in areas that, though potentially mundane, are crucial to the success of an enterprise. And, of course, when VCs are asked to rank the top factors that influence their decisions to invest, passion doesn’t crack the top three, which overwhelmingly favor the management team, market factors, and having a disruptive concept.

Of course, passion could fit in to the evaluation of the management team, but again the data are mixed on this account. While there is strong anecdotal data that passion matters, the empirical data are not entirely clear here. One study of VCs’ criteria for evaluating teams puts “personal motivation” on par with industry experience as a top category–though not at the exclusion of other factors that were highly relevant, like prior experience in a start-up and leadership acumen. Without parsing the categories too finely it is important to note that motivation and the external display of passion, while related,  are not the same thing–passion is one indicator of motivation, but so are persistence, investments of time and personal capital, and so on.

So what does matter most in a pitch if you want to shore up the all-important perception of the management team? The data say that preparedness soundly beats passion as a signal for the quality of the team, and by extension, the enterprise. In fact, the study hyperlinked immediately above (by Chen, Yao, and Kotha) found the subjective perception of passion to be a statistically insignificant factor in VCs’ decision to invest or not to invest.  Perceptions of preparedness, on the other hand were often decisive in estimating the talent of the team, the strength of their analysis, and the viability of the concept. The best indicators for preparedness, according to Chen, Yao, and Kotha were: rigorous analysis of the market, well articulated product/market match, and careful segmentation of the market.

Of course, this does not mean that passion is irrelevant. There are a number of good studies that show that demonstrating passion has an important knock-on effect on the perception of the veracity of your claims, likability, and so on. But the more interesting point is that “soft-skills” in presenting are more–not less–relevant in this model. In this light, coaching for good presentation means so much more than learning to convey passion–it means learning to make rhetorical moves in pitching that highlight your engagement with data and that control your audience’s perception and interpretation of the data. It means building in a narrative structure that progressively highlights the logical force of your claims, and it means using transitions and structure in your content that highlight the coherence of your movement between the various points of the presentation. And, finally it means making adjustments to your delivery that help you “speak for command” and demonstrate authority, as opposed to simply demonstrating excitement. In other words, if you want to nail a pitch, you need to engage the data on how to present data, and you need to know how rhetorical choices in your pitch strategy can boost or detract from the perceptions of your credibility and preparedness.

Stay tuned to for future posts  these themes–or, if you would like to start a conversation today about how best to achieve these goals in your pitching, email us at, tweet us at @VocableComms or call us at 919-421-7100.