Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Startups Should Write Prose

Added on by Spencer Wright.

And you probably should, too.

Note: I wrote this post in response to Eric Paley's "Startups Shouldn't Write Prose" post. While I disagree with the premises of his argument, I do concur with a number of his conclusions (e.g. that formal business plans have limited utility). Regardless, I have respect for his thoughts on the subject, and appreciate the ideas he puts forward in the original post.  

I am a big fan of accepting and accounting for uncertainty. Uncertainty has been a big part of my life, and I suspect that its role in the lives of those around me will only increase over timeIn general, I think that's okay. Partly because I think it's fun to embrace uncertainty, but mostly out of my feeling that, as Chuck Klosterman wrote, "the future makes the rules, so there's no point in being mad when the future wins." My best play is to construct general theories about what the world will look like in the future, and then try to position myself in such a way that the work I'm doing will be rewarded and the things I care about will be allowed to grow.

It's a tough thing to do. Humans are mediocre predictors, and they're terrible at understanding and evaluating predictions (see Subjective Validation, the Forer Effect, and whatever your friends think about their horoscopes). In philosophy and math, formal argumentation takes a large role here; it can be very helpful in evaluating the methods of reasoning used by predictions in general. 

While I was a passable student of higher order logic in college, formal argumentation has played a large role in how I understand the world. But I accept that my experience is not universal, and I care more about getting my point across than I do about the medium. And the fact of the matter is that prose remains my best tool for communicating complex ideas - and I suspect that the same is the case for most individuals and brands.

Startups, like the rest of us, deal in uncertainty. A startup is, in Steve Blank's definition, "an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model." That is, startups are inherently uncertain what business they're in, or what business model they will organize themselves by. The primary obstacle in any startup's path is figuring out what they can make that people will want.

In the early stages of a startup's life, investors constitute something of a separate class of customer; as funding options broaden (see crowdfunding; the SEC's recent actions), this line will blur even more. Regardless, all of a project's stakeholders will require some form of communication, and in the case of investors, a startup's goal is to show how and why its business will be successfulThere are many aspects to that equation, of course. But they generally include at least an implicit argument, which is communicated in a variety of ways. Startups need to communicate that there is (or will be) demand for what they're working on, and they need to show that they are uniquely positioned to meet that demand.  These are complex ideas, and not to be taken lightly. Moreover, investors won't want to feel like they're being argued into something, so startups would be wise to let the logic of their product, and the makeup of the team behind it, speak for itself. 

Slide decks do not generally convey argumentative structure well. Arguments are not constructed hierarchically, but slide decks present information in a top-down, slide-by-slide manner. They also measure information in discrete parts - the slide being the smallest unit of measurement. But arguments don't conveniently break up well into slide-sized pieces, and the result is that key points are often truncated in order to adhere to a slide's predetermined size. 

What slides are good at is creating a rhythm during a presentation. For many presenters, this is highly useful - but to my mind, the content of the argument should not be sacrificed for the sake of presentation, and any presentation method that requires arguments to be abbreviated should be avoided. Startups should avoid hubris at all costs - and the presentation of an abbreviated argument in order to make a stakeholder easier to convince is not a step on that right path. As Edward Tufte wrote:

The pushy PowerPoint style imposes itself on the audience and, at times, seeks to set up a dominance relationship between speaker and audience...A better metaphor for presentations is good teaching. Teachers seek to explain something with credibility, which is what many presentations are trying to do. The core ideas of teaching - explanation, reasoning, finding things out, questioning, content, evidence, credible authority not patronizing authoritarianism - are contrary to the hierarchical market-pitch approach. 

Slide pitches encourage a presenter to elide the deductive reasoning of his company's work, and let the post hoc ergo propter hoc nature of the presentation seduce his audience. As Tufte says, "PowerPoint actively facilitates the making of lightweight presentations," and I would argue that startups should avoid lightweight presentations - especially when dealing with early stage investors.

Prose, on the other hand, is accessible, thorough and can be highly evocative. It's also platform independent, and doesn't require the author to be present to provide context to slides which have been abbreviated in order to achieve a consistent tempo. Prose can be used to convey complex, nuanced arguments, and it does so in such a way as to communicate argumentative style and personal character.

Prose also has the benefit of requiring verbatim proofreading, forcing its author to literally read back an argument to himself. This process can be extremely helpful to a project in which all of the details haven't been ironed out, as weak points are often glaringly obvious when they're verbalized explicitly. Slide decks, on the other hand, allow authors to gloss over difficult points in the text, with the intent that they will be filled in verbally during the pitch. Careful audiences will pick up on these argumentative gaps, especially when reviewing notes after the presentation, and the result doesn't reflect well on the author's formidability or command of the subject matter.

Of course, all authors need to find their own paths towards personal argumentative style and brand image. But the benefit of complete sentences, whether in the form of blog posts, executive summaries, or soliloquies, should not be undervalued. Prose is a powerful tool, and there is a wealth of historical examples of well composed prose arguments which - long after their authors are gone - remain convincing and powerful (see Chomsky's early syntax work, Boolos on incompleteness, Plato (take your pick), or any nearby piece of scientific literature). It's possible that the same will someday be the case with the slide deck. But I suspect instead that it's a transitional technology, and that presentations relying on PowerPoint-like technologies will be largely forgotten. Written prose, on the other hand, will be with us in some form or another for a long time, and I'm not in a position to argue with the future on that point. I encourage young teams - and anyone wanting to convey their ideas to others - to do the same.

For anyone looking for a particularly acute parody of a slide deck, see Peter Norvig's Gettysburg Address. Note, though, that any medium has examples of poor execution - and please send along examples of especially good slide decks, if you've got them :) 

Special thanks to Hope Reese and Nick Fletcher Park for editing.