Standing up and presenting to an audience can be one of the most stressful things we do in our working lives, especially if the future of our business rests on the strength of that presentation - so when you're pitching for investment with only a 10 minute time slot it just adds to the pressure. However like learning a musical instrument or a new language, it can be mastered with the right guidance and by constant practice. For entrepreneurs, it's crucial that they learn how to pitch themselves, their ideas, and their company just right, when looking to secure investment, or new clients.
There is no reason why a formal pitch or presentation should be approached differently from any other form of communication. Whether you are conveying your new business strategy to potential investors or discussing your service offering with a new customer or client, the basics of getting the message across are the same, although the media you use to do it will vary.
I don't regard myself as an expert at pitching and presenting but I have had many years experience of speaking at events and have attended more presentations than I care to remember, and have seen many, many people pitch their ideas to investors when looking for funding. Sitting in the audience, you see very quickly how good presenters thrill the audience and poor presenters have them snoring in their seats.
So what makes a good pitch?
The first and most basic rule is rehearsal. You may think you are completely conversant with your numbers and every element of your business but under fire your presentation can fall apart or over run. Try and find a mentor who can help you through the practising process before you go in front of real investors. Although it's worth that anyone can be a potential investor so your one minute elevator itch should always be polished.
The truly great presentations have a few things in common. First the presenter is able to tell a truly engaging story. We are used to engaging with stories from our earliest childhood and respond well to people who can tell a really good story. This story forms the backbone of the content of your presentation. And just like the stories you read, your presentation must have elements of drama (the problem), a hero/heroine (your solution), a cast of thousands (your customers?) and a happy ending (revenues, profits, world domination!).
The second important thing is how you tell that story and thirdly, what supporting materials you use to tell your story.
The biggest problem entrepreneurs have is being able to distil their venture idea into a coherent story. Many focus the pitch on their brilliant idea and spend almost all their time describing what their product does and forget about all the other important things like customers, competitors, financials and execution.
Another common trait is entrepreneurs burying the key information about their venture under a mountain of facts - research data, audience uptake estimates, world populations and the like. How many presentations have you sat through which left you with more questions than answers?
This leads me on to the matter of the supporting materials you use to tell a story. I have sat through too many 'death by PowerPoint' presentations - where slide after slide of data is put up on the big screen, and by the end of it, your audience had lost the will to live, unsurprisingly.
The point is, don't feel you have to use slides if you think you can tell a great story verbally, supported by hand outs with key data, or samples of your products, or other props, to illustrate your key points. If you do use slides, remember - less is more.
Think very carefully about what you are going to put on your slides
• Demonstrate proof of concept - what you have achieved to date (sales, contracts, key hires)
• Be realistic about your market
• Detail process and cost of customer acquisition
• Use a matrix to demonstrate your competition
• Outline your team and what they bring to the business
• Funding needs - how much, why, what will it be used for, intended outcomes
• Your exit strategy
Don't get sucked into producing one with four empty boxes depicting your customer segments, for example. You can easily talk about these. The rule of thumb is only use a slide if it supports what you are saying, clarifies complex information with pictures or graphs, and highlights the key details that you want your listeners to remember - and that is the key word - 'listeners' - your audience are there to listen to what you have to say, not read all your slides. Because of they are reading your slides, the likelihood is, they are not listening to what you are telling them.
The critical element of any pitch or presentation is the delivery - how you tell your story. This is the point of failure for many pitches. Great delivery can overcome mediocre slides but no number of brilliant slides can save a disastrous delivery style. Remember that you are selling yourself as much as you are your new venture. Your audience need to feel confident that you can and will deliver and that they can trust you with their money.
The key mistakes people make are:
- Not taking the time to build a rapport with the audience. Asking them a relevant question can be a good way of breaking the ice
- Using the slides as an emotional crutch and losing the plot if one of the slides is misplaced. Also, reading the slides word for word. You should know 'your story' by heart and your audience can read. Embellish the material don't just repeat.
- Not maintaining eye contact with the audience and keeping your eyes either on your slides or on your notes. If you must use notes, glance at them from time to time but keep your eyes firmly fixed on your audience
- Going way too fast. Presentations are not a means of data transfer from your head to the audiences' head via your slides. Slow down, pace yourself and breathe properly. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the audience if they have understood what you just said. That way, they have an option to stop you and ask for clarification
- Shuffling, mumbling and rocking backwards and forwards on your heels. Many people do this and it's very distracting so try and stand still with your feet firmly planted. If you're addressing a large audience, move from one end of the podium to the other but do it slowly and deliberately.
Do however have a well thought through executive summary and full business plan to hand.
Lastly make sure you listen carefully to investor questions and also be open to suggestions. It's easy to feel very defensive about your business but often a fresh pair of eyes can add that killer dimension that could give you success.
Perfecting your pitch won't come straight away or overnight. You need to practice it, first on your own and then in front of an audience willing to be critical. Take their comments on board and practise some more. You may even consider filming yourself, and watch it back - you can easily spot your own mistakes!
When you come to the big day, try to engage with your audience and enjoy the experience. It's not like facing Jeremy Paxman and nobody is trying to catch you out. If you know your stuff, and know what you want from your audience, you can have them eating out of your hand, and ready to do business.