A classic startup error is not making pitching skills a priority
There’s no magic bullet to becoming good at presenting pitches. It’s a learned skill that becomes polished with practice
Maureen Taylor: “Nobody truly listens to anyone, so highlight your key message at the outset and deliver it with as much impact as possible”
Slick pitching can be the difference between early-stage success and failure, and startups that don’t get that are shooting themselves in the foot. There’s no magic bullet to becoming good at presenting pitches. It’s a learned skill that becomes polished with practice.
Pitching is a way of life for most fledgling businesses, and many founders with apparently effortless presentation skills have in fact put a great deal of effort into perfecting them. Jacob Claflin, co-founder of fintech startup Cambrist, estimates that he has made well over 200 pitches in the last two years. Around 20 of them have been in a formal setting and made to critical audiences such as potential investors. The rest have been more low key, but still significant as those listening were all decision-makers of one kind or other.
Cambrist is on a mission to change how international consumer payments are made, and its senior team has been through formal pitch training.
“We take the view that good pitching is not something most people do naturally even if you’ve been used to making presentations in other settings,” Claflin says. “I think it’s because most young businesses are focused on the minutiae and when you’ve lived every moment of setting up you can lose the bigger picture.
“It becomes more difficult and a continuous effort to define your business in a focused way that makes it easily comprehensible to outsiders. You might be an expert in your field, but that can instil a false sense of confidence and doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good pitcher or automatically adept at communicating your company’s proposition.
“Most of the big opportunities that have come our way came through pitching and we don’t see that changing any time soon. Investing time in learning how to do it well has been entirely worthwhile, and I’d advise people to take every chance offered to pitch and in every type of environment,” says Claflin, whose young company is now working with one of fintech’s longest established players Fexco.
Claflin’s view that practice makes perfect is echoed by Maureen Taylor, chief executive of SNP whose company trains leaders to inspire audiences to action through clear content and memorable delivery.
“When you’re building a business it can be really hard to articulate the problem and the solution in just one sentence each,” she says. “There may be many, many bullet points beneath what you’re saying, but you need the audience to walk away not knowing everything about your business, but knowing and remembering the headlines – the problem and your solution.”
Taylor says the single most important thing when trying to get a message across to an audience is to be very clear about what your business is or does.
“This sounds simple but it’s not, and it’s why getting outside help is not a bad thing. I spend a lot of time with clients getting their ‘story’ which means learning about the problem, their solution, what does their marketplace look like, who’s their competition, what’s the business plan, and, finally, who is on their team?
“From this we put together a core message, which is then adapted to suit different audiences from venture capital people to a bunch of college kids you want to recruit. You spend a lot less time creating new presentations if you have a core one that can be adapted. A presentation to investors will be a lot crisper and more business-focused than a recruitment presentation, where it will be more about communicating the company’s culture.”
Making a successful pitch is all about understanding your audience and providing it with pithy information that is relevant to it. This information needs to be presented clearly, and you need to make its delivery as memorable as possible, says Taylor.
“Nobody truly listens to anyone, so highlight your key message at the outset and deliver it with as much impact as possible. That’s where presentation skills and practice come in. The second time you say something will be better than the first and so on. You need to get used to hearing yourself talking out loud, and you need to become comfortable with an audience so ask someone whose opinion you trust to listen to you.”
If you are likely to be asked questions it’s important to have thought about the most likely ones in advance and rehearsed suitable answers. There is still the possibility that someone will lob a curved ball, but the more often you deal with questions from the floor the better you will become at handling awkward moments.
Audiences react on two levels: to what you’re saying and to you as a person, so open, welcoming body language – no crossed arms – and a warm smile that puts them at ease will go a long way.
Tom Flanagan is director of enterprise and commercialisation at UCD, where one of his responsibilities is the college’s NOVA incubator for startups. Before joining UCD Flanagan worked with DIT where he created the Hothouse knowledge transfer, industry partnership and incubation centre which has helped over 400 entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Flanagan has sat through hundreds of pitches at all levels, and he too is an advocate of practice make perfect.
“How someone delivers their pitch can be as important as what they say, and their mannerisms, gestures and voice all need to be worked on. It’s time well spent as startups will typically find themselves pitching in one way or another almost every day.
“It can be beneficial to find an angle or a phrase that will ‘stick’ with an audience. An example would be to say we’re the Airbnb of whatever sector you’re in and here’s the problem and here’s our unique solution all within a few sentences.
“We also want to know who you are, what are the pain points for your potential customer that would make them buy, what competitive and sustainable advantages have you over others in your sector, and what’s the size of the opportunity.
“A good pitch should be infectious and make an audience enthusiastic. We should be able to feel the urgency around what you’re doing, and to know that you have the right team supporting you.”
Flanagan says pitchers also need to be aware of their gestures and how they speak.
“There’s nothing worse than listening to a monotone. You need to be authentic and to practise your delivery out loud a lot. Above all be clear. The last thing you want is an audience that ends up confused about your offering and doesn’t know what’s unique about your approach by the end of the pitch.”