There are very few skills as an entrepreneur that are there for good once you acquire them. Starting up a company will have you struggling against fresh issues every day, requiring you to learn new skills over and over again. Luckily, pitching isn’t like that. Pitching can be mastered, so just read along to find out how.
“If you havin’ sales problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a pitch ain’t one” – Discarded draft, Jay-Z
General remarks on pitching
Pitching is the art of telling someone what your company does. If you are an entrepreneur and you are talking about your business, it doesn’t matter who you are talking to: you are pitching. The only exception to this rule is when you’re talking to your co-founders. They are the only people who should never be pitched, with whom you’re always discussing the actual issues faced by the company.
Because yes, it must be said: investors aren’t the only ones who you must pitch. As an entrepreneur, there are lots of “stakeholders” that you need to tell about your company: your investors, obviously, to get their money; but also your clients (to convince them to use your product), your employees (to align them with your mission), your prospective hires (to prevent them from working for the competition), journalists (so that they write something nice about you), and your friends, family, and significant others (to let them know that you are not crazy).
Because of the profusion of stakeholders, you have to always know what you are pitching for: have in mind a clear goal and objectives when you’re pitching someone and make sure that everything you say is a step toward your achieving that goal.
An investor? You want an interview, and after that their money.
A client? You want them to use your product and refer it to their friends.
An employee? You want them to feel happy and involved in the company. Simply having the objective in mind will tilt your pitch in the direction needed to achieve it. Never pitch just for the sake of it, or give a general pitch without any agenda.
“Pitch better have my money” – Discarded draft, Rihanna (Yes, I have a book of discarded rap drafts — deal with it.)
There are various pitch formats: the one-liner is a punchline that encapsulates everything your business does in a single sentence. The mighty elevator pitch is a 30–60 second summary of the same thing, allowing you to convey a bit more information. A one-on-one meeting with a prospective investor or client is very close to a sales pitch and is part of your sales process. Finally, there’s the pitch when you stand up in front of a crowd and present your company, the competition pitch. This is the one I will be mostly talking about in this article, but the advice is valid in all the other situations as well — with just a few small changes.
The fundamental thing to remember about pitches is that it is storytelling. Pitching is about telling a compelling story that engages your audience, sparks their interest and has them really listening to you. Capturing their attention isn’t the only perk of telling a story. It also helps them to remember what you said. If you attend pitching events, chances are that you’ve seen and heard a lot of pitches; yet very few companies have likely made their way into your long-term memory. Only those that tell an interesting, original story are likely to do that.
That’s your job when you’re pitching: tell a story. You know who else tells stories? Movie directors. Your job as a pitcher is basically like that of a movie director: you know what’s going on behind the scenes, you choose what you want to show the audience, you pick the right information in the right order and you make it all look smooth and interesting. This isn’t a way to tell lies about your company. It’s a way to make the truth look sexy.
Key elements of a competition pitch
I’m going to focus here on the different parts of a client pitch in a typical competition format. The structure I will give is recommended but can be adapted to your needs and the flow of your pitch.
First of all, what’s your objective? You’re pitching users at a contest, so chances are they’ve never heard of your company but they might be potential users/buyers. You want to grab their attention, make them understand what you do AND get them to use/buy your product and recommend it. Let’s see how you can pull it off.
Your opener is a sentence that summarizes what your company is doing. It follows very simple rules: a good opener is clear, specific to your company and understandable to all.
“Live. Experience. Feel” is a bad opener: are you selling me a trip? A restaurant? A sex toy?
To be clear, none of these examples should be followed — it’s right in the video title, it’s a parody, people.
“Our service lets you book and buy cheap train tickets in Europe”. That’s a good opener. Kudos to Trainline, by the way.
A few more tips: You’re not The Airbnb for X or The Uber for Y. You should have a simple sentence telling what your company does without referring to another company: Uber for X is An on-demand company for X. And you’re also not the best, the only, the unique or the first. If you believe you are, great. But your job in the pitch is to prove it, not just to say it.
In most cases, as an entrepreneur you’re not following a business idea, you’re fighting a problem. To do that, you launch a business, which will need clients willing to pay for what you’re providing. Paying clients only exist if you’re solving a problem for them.
So coming back to your pitch, the next thing you have to do is identify the problem. This will help everyone put themselves in the shoes of your users and understand the magnitude and realness of the problem you’re tackling. Make your audience feel the pain.
“I came to bring the pain, pitching the problem” – Discarded Draft vol. II, Method Man
By the way, if you’re targeting a niche market, it’s even more important to pitch the problem correctly: if 90% of the audience doesn’t understand the issue, you will lose them. But if you explain it clearly, not only will they listen to you with interest, they will also think about people in their social circle that may face the issue: bingo!
NB: Not every company solves problems; some try to seize opportunities. The iPhone was not solving any problem, it was just an amazing product. Again, adapt the pitch to your situation.
If you’ve already given your audience a great opener, and you’ve explained the problem well, they will now start to wonder about how your company is alleviating this problem. This is great, you’re engaging them.
That being the case, the next obvious step is to tell the public about the solution that your company is building to solve the problem. Most entrepreneurs fall into the trap of pitching the solution (what they built) before they pitch the problem (why they built it). You’re not going to do that.
The better you pitched the problem you’re tackling, the more important, obvious and valuable your solution will look. Tell the audience about the cool features you developed and give them a glimpse of the product/service.
The job won’t get done just by talking about the solution. Your public is very much like Saint Thomas: doubting and skeptical. They need to see what you’re telling them about. However, there are important things to be said about a demo.
Never, ever, ever do a live demo. Live demos are bound to f*ck up. Call it whatever you want, Murphy’s law, bad luck … just spare everyone an awkward moment, save yourself from babbling about how “it worked in the rehearsals”, and how we should “Wait a minute, you’ll be amazed”. Don’t do live demos.
What I like to see as a demo is really simple: it’s a UX visual of what you do. A simple screenshot or screen recording of your product is great. It shows exactly what you want it to, you control it, you know what’s going to happen, there are no surprises. You can pitch it the way you like and showcase all of the great features of your solution.
And if the product isn’t quite there, you can even fake it. You’re telling a story to your audience. Delivering on your promise is indeed a real problem that you’ll have to deal with. But you deal with it after you convince them. Fake it until you make it.
There’s a lot of excitement around this one. Founders love to tell everyone about the prestigious school they graduated from, or what amazing company they worked for before. And they definitely love to give you their title. The thing is, none of that matters to a potential client/user. As a client, there are two things you want to know about the team: “Why are THESE guys selling me this?” and “Why should I trust that they’ll deliver?” And the answers are found in two simple steps.
The first step is telling everyone how you met as a founding team and what got you into this project. Remember, you’re telling a story and you’re solving a problem. The problem has to affect someone on the team, directly or indirectly. It’s not just about appearing genuine, it’s about being driven by passion. If you’re not driven by passion, your clients will feel it and most likely won’t go for it.
The second step is gaining credibility through what you’ve achieved already (and this is particularly important if you’re a B2B company). Make sure this is something relevant to the client, not a mere timeline that nobody cares about: “We have successfully improved the ROI for X clients” is the kind of achievement you’re looking for.
This is when you definitely win your public over. The secret sauce is the thing that makes your company special and different / better than your competitors. It’s the answer to the question: “Why would I buy this solution from you rather than from your closest competitor?”
Be careful, a great secret sauce in a client pitch is not the same as a great secret sauce in an investor pitch. Why would a customer care if you have a patent on the product? Why would they care if your technology is proprietary?
A great secret sauce in the client pitch brings direct value to the client: my service is x% cheaper; it is y% more effective; it can be set up in 3 minutes.
You’ve put all the important elements together. The last thing that you need to do for a perfect pitch is called your audience into action. Never end your pitch with “So, that’s it guys, thank you”.
Make sure you state your expectations: “So this is Afrohair.com — if you need a great afro haircut, we’re happy to talk to you afterward; and if you know anyone else who might be too, feel free to share”. This is pretty much what you have to do with a landing page, but orally this time: convert the interested clients.
What not to talk about
With all these important elements, I almost forgot the things that you should not mention in a client pitch. Some things make a lot of sense when you’re talking to an investor, but just don’t when you’re talking to prospective customers. Whenever I see an entrepreneur mixing things up the two, it’s usually not a good sign.
Don’t mention your market. A customer doesn’t care if they’re part of a niche market or a multi-billion dollar industry. All that they want to know is that they’re facing an issue that other people/companies are facing and that you can solve it. It’s as simple as that.
If it’s okay to talk about your pricing (although it’s not mandatory), don’t talk about your business model. It’s a bit off-putting to hear someone blatantly describing, “Okay, here’s how I’m going to make money off of you.”
Do note that the competition is not included in this “don’t” section. You can talk about competitors, or you can ignore them. If you mention them, though, your goal is to make the client understand why your product/service is the superior value.
Presentation and attitude
Remember that pitching is an oral exercise. You should consider your pitch as a live performance, and there are lessons you can learn from actual live performers.
First, know your pitch by heart, inside and out. Spontaneity in your pitch is something that you have to fake in most cases. This is even truer if you’re not really comfortable speaking in public. The less comfortable you are, the better you should know your pitch. If you’re comfortable with public speaking, you can give yourself some leeway to improvise the actual words, but the structure should be crystal clear in your mind and you should know precisely where you’re going and how your train of thought will go forward.
Second, you should make it simple, clear, concise and coherent. There’s nothing that will distract your audience more than if you get technical or launch into a complicated explanation, jumping from point to point, or just not making sense. Make sure your pitch as a whole is flawless and flows perfectly.
Third, remain flexible and adapt. The reason to know your pitch by heart is not to recite it all like a parrot. It is so you can land on your feet if you jump in with an unscripted detail that feels natural in the moment. Roll with the audience: develop some bits, summarize some others, skip irrelevant information.
You want to make your performance look simple, but of course, it takes hard work to achieve this. Specifically, it takes practice. Practice your pitch over and over and over again. Rehearse in front of your mirror, rehearse in front of your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your parents, your friends. Get as much feedback as you can — what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense, what sounds good and what doesn’t. You’ll get to a point where you know your pitch so well that it will all sound simple and clear just from the amount of conviction that you have.
The last thing you want to take care of is your slides. You have probably been to a presentation or two where the speaker reads the bullet points on their slides out loud. If you’re going to do this, do not even bother with a pitch: just send me the f*cking slides by e-mail and save us both some time! Slides are not for you, they are a visual support for your audience. Remember, you know your pitch by heart.
So here are a few rules for slides: no more than 3 ideas per slide, and no more than 20 words per idea. Any more and people will read your slide instead of listening to you. Make sure the slides convey your culture and identity. If you’re doing a cyber security company, your slides have to scream strength and watchfulness. Conversely, if you’re selling children’s books, you want colorful, lively, bubbly slides that match your product. Slides are a visual representation of your company, and what they show during a pitch is as important — if not more — as what they say.
All of the above applies when you are pitching clients, but you get the general idea: set your objective, tell a story that’s compelling, give your audience what they want to hear in a convincing manner and achieve your objective. These are the basic rules of a good pitch, and none of it is rocket science. Make it an item in your entrepreneurial toolbox and a strength in your communications with different stakeholders.
“Pitches ain’t sh*t but bags of tricks” Discarded draft, Dr. Dre
Thank you to Younes Rharbaoui.