A great pitch has the potential to spark life-changing introductions and valuable connections that are often more useful than money to an early-stage venture.
The power of presenting an idea in person rather than online can’t be underestimated. Websites, Facebook pages or pitch decks are not (yet) able to effectively showcase an entrepreneur’s passion and enthusiasm towards an idea. And that’s important, because stakeholders are more likely to buy in to entrepreneurs’ personality and skills than the venture idea itself.
As well, pitch events in the life of an incubator – I’m working this summer on social entrepreneurship accelerator, Live the Dream - are an opportunity to celebrate the journey that participants embarked on. We often forget how much courage it takes when someone decides to give up everything else to work on making this world a better place.
Surveys show that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death, and that’s usually true for our accelerator participants as well. Even the confident ones struggle a bit with that little voice in their heads.
That’s compounded by the risks they’re taking in revealing their venture to a bigger audience. Fledgling social entrepreneurs are striving to make a change in the world while often questioning themselves about whether they can truly live up to expectations, or deliver added value. That’s scary.
The other challenge is usually the time limit. When we first start to talk about pitching, our entrepreneurs can’t imagine that they’ll be able to fit everything they want to say into four minutes – but that’s all they’ve got, and sometimes you get less.
Image: Patience Ngara pitches (photo by Erica Austin)
The keys to success
Practice is the key to success in pitching, and at Live the Dream I’ve taken a really systematic approach to that. Talking about your venture in various formats - such as check-ins, stand-ups (Agile) or presentations - is a daily routine. We also threw a Halfway Show and Tell event six weeks into the programme, so participants could give the community an update on their venture and practice public speaking in front of a larger audience. Participants are also encouraged to pitch their ideas with mentors, stakeholders, friends, and even strangers. During these meetings they are forming and refining their thoughts, both by receiving feedback and by saying their ideas out loud. I suggest they try to remember and reuse the quotes and sentences that land best. Ultimately a pitch should be as clear and straightforward as you would explain your concept to your friends at a bar.
There will always be some nerves, but the power of community support that the local entrepreneurial ecosystem provides goes a long way too. At last year’s Final Showcase, one of our entrepreneurs was freaking out on stage to the extent that we weren’t sure if she’d stay up there. Someone from the audience realised the scary vibe of the growing silence and shouted, “You go girl, you can do this!” That gave the audience a massive boost to project their support and trust to her, and helped her overcome her deepest fear and deliver an outstanding and passionate pitch.
Image: Louis Go gets feedback from an audience member after his pitch (photo by Erica Austin)
During the 9-week program we spend quite a lot of time making sure that the participants are tackling problems with a mindset of growth or improvement. As facilitators, our job is to praise the process participants are going through, rather than the result. 9 out of 10 successful businesses pivot from their original business model. This means that 9 out of 10 successful businesses experience some sort of failure that they manage to turn to their advantage. By bringing in the growing mindset approach, we teach our participants that failure is just an opportunity to divert towards a different solution.
During the first pitch practice, entrepreneurs usually go over the set time limit. That’s because we tend to say the same message in a pitch multiple times without realising it. It takes time to find a concise message that truly delivers what one wants to say. Practicing and feedback provide the opportunity for our entrepreneurs to refine their pitch over and over again and get rid of sentences that are not necessary. Once our entrepreneurs are able to put on the critical hat, they usually come to a general understanding about what should or should not be included.
If you don’t think you’re a “pitching” person and that’s holding you back from starting out in enterprise, you should become an entrepreneur anyway!
Image: Giving feedback on ventures after the pitches (photo by Erica Austin)
Being an entrepreneur means no more than being a generalist who is always ready to learn new skills to solve a problem using the mechanism of business. One day you need to be a market researcher, another day you’re designing a website, and some days you need to be a public speaker. That said, our job is to help our entrepreneurs to stop thinking about pitching as a chore and start looking at it as a necessary challenge that will eventually help realize their dreams.
The pitch changes as your venture does
In Live the Dream, we work with participants for 9 intense weeks, and their ventures will (hopefully!) take heaps of twists and turns along the way. So we’re teaching pitching skills and coaching their ventures through rapid prototyping, at the same time! That’s always one of my favourite parts, as pivoting on their ventures really teaches entrepreneurs how to be agile with regards to their pitches. Iteration, pivoting and agile approach is something we introduce them to on day one. But there is a massive difference in between us telling them or them experiencing it on their own skin. Receiving feedback from the audience at the Halfway Show and Tell event helps them to understand that anything that they design (a product, a business model or a pitch) should reflect what their potential customers want or need – and their ventures will change as a result.
Doing practice pitches where feedback is invited is usually the participants’ first real-life moment of realising the audience might want something other than their assumptions. It can be stressful for them; and we do cultivate that a little bit on purpose! By receiving both positive and negative feedback, our entrepreneurs - once they move on from the denial phase - tend to realise and accept the format and content to best pitch their idea to an audience. It turns a point of frustration into a great challenge.
Image: Keefe Robinson-Gore pitches (photo by Erica Austin)
Tamas’ top six tips for great pitches
- Tailor your ask. I would say that most of the time an “ask” at the end of a pitch is useful. However your ask (in fact your entire pitch structure and content) depends on who your audience is. You should only be asking for things that you actually need right now. If you have a great idea that solves a valid problem but you’re missing a team member then ask for connections rather than money. If you have a team with a working prototype and you need cash to proceed, then ask for investment or for connections to investors.
- Show your next steps. I tell our participants to show their audience what their next steps will be in building their ventures. That will allow them to understand the rationale behind your ask and jump on board easier.
- Know how to battle your own nerves. Think about what you usually do when you’re nervous and use those techniques. Taking deep breaths, making jokes and juggling with balls usually help me to calm myself down and stay focused. I often do a couple of victory stretches in the toilet too, that usually puts me into a confident state of mind.
- Get personal. Start with a personal story and keep linking that story back to various parts of your pitch. People are more interested in stories than in abstract facts. And they can certainly identify better with the problem if they can discover it through your personal experiences.
- Don’t be sorry. Never start a pitch with apologising for not being ready or prepared to pitch. No matter how confident you might be later on, the audience will find it hard to build trust in what you’re saying.
- Be strict with yourself on time. Practice, refine, test, practice, refine, test and practice again. Record yourself and listen to your pitch. Identify sentences that you can get rid of without causing any changes in your message.
- Plan your structure. There is no ideal structure but there are ideal elements to a pitch. Always know to whom you’re pitching and plan the structure and content accordingly. Never miss: your story, the problem you’re working on, your learnings and experiments around your solution, and how you’re going to make money.