The Momentum behind Dramatic Premises

Amin A.
By Amin Ariana — February 2015

How to write a Startup pitch Executive Summary that sticks in the mind of the VC investor for months after your presentation

In the course of the few days before a presentation, my co-founder calls me several times to test our pitch intended to raise Venture Capital. He shares the executive summary in writing for feedback; then we audition the 5-minute pitch with his most authoritative and charismatic voice.

His simplified draft asserts “We’re enabling efficient fundraising for schools and teams, while brands shoulder the costs through advertising. It’s a $240B market.” Invariably, my feedback is the same: “It sounds incredible, Mike. There’s only one ingredient missing for the investor audience: Momentum."

Momentum, make no mistake, is not the mass of your followers times the force of your intuitive optimism. Momentum is the first sentence of a story, a film, a pitch, a painting, or any dramatic art, that embeds in it all the driving forces necessary to predict, define and prove what is yet to come.

Steve Jobs was one of the most dramatic presenters of all time, so people attempt to intuitively emulate him. The buffoonery in the competitors’ ads displaying their products as “the best (insert crappy product name) we’ve ever made” is a prime example of the farce you can create by copying a dramatic master without understanding him. None of those ads create the kind of momentum that Steve Jobs created when he gave a keynote speech. To study the dramatic master, you must study his storytelling. So I did, and found the storyteller that Steve Jobs most identified with in his own stories: Bob Dylan.

I first studied Bob Dylan when I dropped out of Computer Science in University of Waterloo to go to an Arts college (a detour that I later reversed). There, one of the courses I chose was “Lyrics writing”, because writing expressive lyrics was how I used to cope with the post-immigration drama of high school isolation. The lyrics writing instructor would show up each day to the class with a harmonica and yet another Bob Dylan song. He was building up momentum for the idea that “Lyrics writing is life itself”. So he started playing and singing the song that has forever changed anyone who has ever been touched by its lyrics: “The Times, They Are a’ Changing’"

Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Bob Dylan is pitching a startup idea to you here. Notice that his premise is not quite yet clear in his entire first paragraph of the lyrics. But notice something else: you cannot help but want to see the next paragraph, because he has done that most dramatic of all: creating momentum.

Creating momentum in drama is not an entrepreneurial art: it’s an engineering formality. Much like how software can be boiled down to its Minimum Viable Prototype, a song, a story and a pitch can be boiled down to its essential elements: The Protagonist, The Antagonist and The Pivotal Character. You must know your Pivotal Character to engineer momentum:

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

The Loser Now is Bob Dylan’s protagonist, and The Growing Waters Around You is his antagonist. But even after the second paragraph of his pitch, you have no idea what the premise is. Yet, you salivate for the third paragraph. Why? Because the Wheel Is Still in Spin. Something is keeping up the momentum of his pitch:

Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

The Senators and Congressmen of Bob Dylan’s time when he wrote these lyrics embodied the antagonist that he mentioned earlier, The Growing Water Around you (America) when you’re The Loser Now. In the third paragraph, he is foreshadowing the conflict (Getting Hurt) between the Protagonist and the Antagonist. Conflict is the core element of a well-engineered and “fundable” startup pitch, because it irreversibly changes the world. And you cannot drive the widening canyon of conflict without starting with the driving force of momentum:

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

Mothers and Fathers, like Senators and Congressmen, are standing in the Growing Waters. They’re all antagonists. Sons and Daughters, in the Battle Outside Raging, represent the Loser Now who has Later To Win. They are the protagonists. But who is the driving force of the wedge between them? Who is the Pivotal Character that brings about this massive and irreversible Rage Outside on the Aging Road?

The line it is drawn the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

The Present Now Will Later Be Past. That is the startup pitch of Bob Dylan: Change comes with Time, and make all the wrongs right! If he had simply said “Politicians are wrong, young people are right”, that would be just another shoot-from-the-hip pop song: intuitive, charismatic, and forgettable. But Dylan did not want to be forgotten, because he stood for the conscience of an entire nation.

Swami Satchidananda opening the stage at the 1969 Woodstock Festival to half a million people arriving to celebrate an antiwar stance to US in Vietnam
Woodstock 1969, or Dylan's foreshadowed "The Battle Outside Raging"

Swami Satchidananda opening the stage at the 1969 Woodstock Festival to half a million people arriving to celebrate an antiwar stance to US in Vietnam

By identifying Time as the embodiment of the pivotal character that values moral change over the political drive behind drowning in war, Dylan guided his entire generation. He, in the lyrics, is addressing the United States’ unjust war on Vietnam; his foreshadowing premise is nothing short of prophetic. In fact, he was treated so much like the prophet of a liberal revolution after these lyrics that he had to do bizarre things to avoid becoming a populist god in the literal sense. He correctly predicted, in 1964, a revolution: the 60’s liberal movement. The artifacts of those times can be found today in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood and hundreds of songs about the Summer of ’69.

Steve Jobs, as a young orphan who had found the driving momentum of technology, saw himself as Bob Dylan’s protagonist in “The Slow One Now Will Later Be Fast”. His personal journey, from being born an unwanted child to leaving an object of desire in every household after his death, proved his personal premise; in Dylan's words, that There Is No Tellin' Who That It's Namin'. Jobs's legendary momentum may have been fueled by technology; but his dramatic personal legend followed the same ancient momentum that has driven characters for Aristotle, Dylan, Paul Coelho's The Alchemist, and the Startup Founders of today alike: "Times"; for They Are a’ Changin’. For Dylan and Jobs, in lyrics, song and keynotes, the premise of a character was destiny. A hero, on the shoulders of a pivotal character appearing in his first written sentence, raises the momentum of proving his premise. "Come Gather 'Around People," began Dylan's startup elevator pitch; and gather they did, in 1969.

When Mike and I corrected the Executive Summary for Sponsorbrite, we no longer worried about investors. “Fear”, we proclaimed, is the driving force away from tradition. The Order Is Rapidly Fading. "Social institutions, such as schools, cannot stand for more budget cuts while an aging society faces a widening $240B cut in services. They’re flocking online to raise money from their local communities”, we said, while “Corporate brands cannot continue with traditional marketing when customer engagement is moving to the digital world”. The Times, They Are a Changing, we cited, and The Waters Around tradition are Growing. Sponsorbrite is where corporations inevitably marry society again, given the momentum towards digital stewardship of social institutions.

Do you see the momentum behind Sponsorbrite? It doesn't come from intuitive enthusiasm. It comes from funding an aging society; For The Times ...!
US Federal Spending as Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Do you see the momentum behind Sponsorbrite? It doesn't come from intuitive enthusiasm. It comes from funding an aging society; For The Times ...!

We're a brand-sponsored platform for fundraising and community management: when an institution is raising money from the local community (US $240B), the cost of that activity ($60B) is covered by our corporate brands in exchange for advertising access; the net result is a larger pie of available funding. Whether or not you like the bitter advertising medicine, you cannot escape the momentum behind the logic of this pivotal character: an aging but broke society who still needs to fund programs for its children. Perhaps that's the premise of my own personal life: born in the ruins of revolution and war to water the seeds of a next generation.

I will post the formal Executive Summary as an example of a pitch, engineered to prove a dramatic premise. We will present it, but we are not worried about convincing investors. Once you’ve expressed the premise of your life logically, those who say no have never belonged to your destiny. And our premise is the following elevator pitch:

Tradition will, over time, become the dull knife in the sword-fight of survival.

But I like Dylan’s vivid premise for its timeless momentum:

You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone; for the times they are a-changin'.


Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.

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This was a draft of Chapter 12.2 from the book:
The Traitor in Silicon Valley

Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this essay:

  • Zohreh K.
    Zohreh Karimi

    Very unrelated but both Dylan and Jobs dated Joan Baez :)

    1474245256000 reply

    • James S.
      James Senior

      Love the idea of momentum in storytelling aka "the build". Thanks for sharing Amin!

      1432790210000 reply

      • Ankur P.
        Ankur Patel

        Brilliant post. Thank you for sharing.

        1432578377000 reply

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