The art of the business pitch: do's and don'ts for an effective delivery

dilbert_power_point The quintessential business pitch: the difference between the life and death of your startup could come down to this single element. At a more basic level - effectively communicating the value of your business to an investor with a limited amount of time and visual-aids is more critical than you may think. Of course, there are a thousand ways to kill a startup; today, I'm going to focus on this one.

First, to qualify myself a little: to date, I have delivered well-over 25 business pitches to drastically different venues/audiences over the past 4 years, and each of them has been different. I have been (and still am) in a constant state of pitch-perfection - continually biting the bullet and tossing-away slides that were the work-product of what probably amounts to months of my time. It is only by going through this (painful) process that I've collected a number of do's, don't and general tips and tricks for an effective pitch:

Stop focusing on the tools and start focusing on the content. Yes, yes, Powerpoint is the bane of our existence, so everybody needs to go waste time climbing the learning-curve to make fancy visual roller-coaster rides that will make your audience dizzy (cough, cough, Prezi...cough). Remember: nobody's investing in your visual aid, they're investing in your company - stay focused on making the content count!

Powerpoint isn't so bad anyways. If used properly, Powerpoint is great. Not every investor wants to download some fancy viewer to look at your pitch. Just about everybody has Powerpoint, and absolutely everybody can read a PDF. If you want to be smart about it, make a presentation that can easily be read/understood in PDF format, and you'll be ready for anything!

Speaking of Powerpoint....let's talk about animations. Just don't do it.  If you absolutely need two visuals under the same heading, here's the trick: just copy the slide and make a second one with the same heading (nobody will notice if you had an animation or just went to the next slide, AND this is totally PDF-able)! This way, when you're running your presentation off some machine that decided to auto-update during your presentation, you don't have to experience the embarrassing moment of pushing the clicker like you're playing Super Smash Bros. to get the animation to appear (and then the next moment when everything decides to work and you skip 10 slides ahead...I've been there, it's nasty). Just say "NO" to animations!

Let's talk quantity. You've probably heard of Guy Kawasaki's 10-Slide Rule. Fundamentally, I love Guy and his advice - it's great. But if you need more than 10 slides, don't freak-out. In fact, I don't count slides anymore. I use whatever amount I need to portray the supporting visuals necessary without ending-up with 10pt font on my slides. Guy agrees small fonts are a no-no, but what he doesn't really say is that in order to keep your fonts big, you may have to split slides into 2 like I mentioned above.

Now, quality. This is a big one. A mentor of mine once told me that your audience can either listen to you, or read your slides, not both. So make sure they are complementary, not redundant (I'm assuming you already know to NEVER, EVER read your that shouldn't even be a consideration). Also be sure to consider both visual and word-thinkers (so have a mix of supporting visuals and language on your slides). I've seen a trend towards slides with big pictures or single-words; I get it, it's sexy, but you're losing part of your audience unless you use both (sexy pictures + sexy words - duh!).

Practice makes perfect. I have a pitch coming-up April 14th. I started practicing March 1st. For the first few weeks, I'll do every-other day. This gives my brain time to process new information, come-up with new ways to say things, and add slides as-needed. You want this process to be analogous to boiling-out the impurities in your pitch. When you start, it will be messy, way too wordy, too long, and indirect. Over time, and with (a lot of) practice, you'll start to see the impurities yourself. You'll determine the perfect way to say "X", or decide "Y" isn't really important. You'll rearrange slides in such a way to make the pitch flow and build a good story. You can't get to that perfect boiled-down/pure pitch without repetition. If you're looking for a number, my general rule (and many others agree) is 20 x makes near-perfect.

Don't memorize! Don't back yourself into a corner by memorizing. If you slip-up during the pitch, you'll be lost and look like a bozo. You can also end-up sounding like an incompetent robot that doesn't know his/her material well-enough to speak without a script (ouch! I know, right?). It also makes it much more difficult to make those last-minute changes the night before the pitch (because your Marketing-guy just gave you a new slide that "has" to be in the pitch).

So I should just wing-it? NO! I always tell people to envision a scale where 0 is "winging-it" and 10 is "memorize it" - you want to be at a 15. By that I mean, go beyond memorization into comprehension. You want to understand what your audience is actually hearing when you show that slide or deliver that sentence, and you want to make sure they're understanding what you want them to.

To write or not to write? I do NOT write-out my pitch first. To me, it's wasted-time. Things never sound the same when spoken out-loud as they do when you write them down. So I practice out-loud from the very beginning, and figure out what sounds good. You should NEVER be reading your pitch anyways, so since your audience is going to listen to your words, you might as well start there.

How about practicing in-front of my parents/friend/etc? I know, I know, many people give advice to "practice in front of your mom or grandma, and if she gets it, anybody will". While this can be marginally valuable at helping expose areas of your pitch that don't make sense, I'd caution against it. Nobody understands your business better than you. Your goal is to communicate that as effectively as possible to your audience. When you start taking advice on how to structure your pitch from an "outsider" that doesn't understand you business the way you do, you run the risk of convoluting your message even more, and making things worse.

Bottom Line: watch other people pitch online, read articles on how to deliver a good pitch, but at the end of the day, it's your baby, and only you can craft it perfectly - so practice, practice, practice! Happy pitching!





The merits of working for a startup, and why you should do it (now)


Just in case any of you are "on the fence" about working for startup (or small company), I figured I'd share my thoughts on the merits of doing-so. First, let me say that everyone has a unique set of circumstances in their life that may either allow or prevent them from working for a startup or small company (Let's abbreviate this as SoSCs from now-on). That's a decision only you are knowledgeable enough to make. But I can say this much - if you're on the fence, here are some good reasons to consider it, as gathered from my own workplace observations and experiences. 1. Risk. I know what you're thinking: "isn't risk a bad thing? Don't I want to minimize risk as much as possible in my life?". Well, to some extent maybe. But with all things, there is a balance to be had. Have you ever engaged in a chat with a grandparent, family member, or observed through TV shows/movies that one of the "regrets" people seem to have is they "didn't take enough risk" when they were young and able? It's usually up-there with things like "I didn't save enough money" or, "I wish I had eaten healthier". I find this interesting, because we often talk about the time-value of investing with your money, but then where is the discussion on the time-value of investing with the quality of your life? I'm convinced there are many non-financial investments to make, and accepting a little career-risk early in your life is one of them. (After all, nobody's going to read your resume at your funeral).

2. Results. You've heard it before - especially with all the talk about us Millenials being motivated more by challenging, significant work than money and bonuses at our jobs. In a SoSC, it's all about the Third Law - every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Simple terms: when I do something good or bad in my startup or even at the small company I work for, I see the result almost immediately. Everything I do is (1) observed by those around me and (2) affects those around me. It's very logical when you think about it. A small group of people working together = recognition (for the good and bad). A prime example of the opposite is government/big corporation work. During the time I spent at NASA, I would talk to engineers that often waited over ten years to see their hard work finally come to fruition - or even worse, waited ten years to see that their hard work turned into nothing because the project got cancelled. These circumstances run rampant in big business and government work - so if you're a little impatient, here's one great reason to try a SoSC.

3. Challenge. If you work for a SoSC, you will likely find yourself engaged in work that you never went to school for. You'll be learning all the time (mostly because you have to). In a SoSC, the organization is rarely compartmentalized (e.g. HR, Accounting, Procurement, etc just doesn't exist). Often times you're the one doing the engineering, ordering the parts, meeting with the customer, balancing the budget, etc, and there is a lot to be learned from that process. If anything, this will give you a better appreciation and understanding of the people around you when and if you do work for a large organization some day. Not to mention it keeps you motivated, busy, and ultra-marketable in your next job-search.

4. Accountability. When you work in a small group, you instantly become accountable for your actions. In part, because it's hard to hide from your 3 co-founders/roommates in that tiny office you now share, but also because you're probably the only guy (or gal) assigned to the job. There's really no way to 'slip through the cracks' in a SoSC, which is very motivating for a young, enthusiastic Millennial looking the change the world. And you have to think that your next employer might take note of this as well. If they see that you've worked (successfully) at a SoSC, they will likely make the connection that you were a devoted, accountable, hard-worker.

5. Motivation. In a SoSC, your work = impact. Not to hate-on the government or large corporations, but I've seen plenty of people get stuck in a vicious cycle of: lack of results (fruit of your labor) + no accountability = no motivation (which in turn leads to no work-product...not good for the company either. Leads to that nasty thing called 'overhead'. Yuck). Now don't think this is all fun and games. In an SoSC, sometimes your motivation is: "if I don't do my job I won't get paid", or "if we don't write this report the VCs will pull our funding". But because of this, I have seen people come together and do absolutely amazing work under pressure. Which leads to my final point...

6. Team. My favorite part of college was working with other students on extracurricular robotics projects. Why? Because these were the students that were doing this work for fun. They genuinely loved what they were doing - these are absolutely the best people to work around. When I had an opportunity to continue working in this type of environment both with my startup and now with the consulting firm, I was thrilled. The comradery that is formed when you work with a small group of people that share in your purpose, accountability, (stress), and motivation is outstanding (and just a lot of fun). At some times, I feel as-if I'm not even working at a job, but rather like I'm back at school working on fun projects with my friends. So, despite the additional stresses that come with a SoSC, I believe they can be completely off-set by the nature of the work environment. After all, when you're going through a rough time, don't you usually run to your closest friends and family for comfort? Now what if your co-workers were like family? You get the point...

I think if you have a choice on how you spend over 99,100 hours (11 years) of your life, it's worth your time to calculate your risk-tolerance, take a few years, and work for a SoSC.