I recently interviewed five, successful entrepreneur-investors to get their feedback on how to pitch investors. (See episodes 14-18 of the “Fun with Failure” podcast.) As a pitch coach myself, I wanted to hear their advice regarding how start-ups should prepare for a pitch. Below are some of the ideas we discussed and some of my own recommendations.

Tip #1: Practice, practice, practice.

It seems so obvious, right? It almost seems trite. But, that piece of advice cannot be overstated! All five of them said it, and all five were adamant about it. Here’s what Garth Moulton said:

  • “Practice! Practice the words. You need to know what the strong parts of your presentation are — and how long they take to say… You should prepare for the time period you have to pitch in, down to the minute.” (Co-Founder of Jigsaw which sold to SalesForce for almost $140 million)

The timing issue came up over and over again during the interviews. You have to be able to give your pitch in the amount of time you’ve been given. That’s it. It seems obvious, but pitchers frequently go over their allotted time. Ultimately, it’s unprofessional. If you can’t follow basic instructions and deliver your pitch in the time you were given, it indicates poor judgement, poor planning, and poor execution to the investors. What else can’t you do on time? Meet a deadline? Deliver a product? 

The goal of a short pitch is to intrigue investors enough to raise questions in their minds that warrant an additional meeting with you to explore. The goal is not to raise questions about whether or not you can follow basic instructions! So practice, practice, practice, to ensure you cover the most important info and deliver it within the allotted time.

So, what does that mean? It means you need to write out every word of the pitch and practice those words over and over again until you know them inside and out. Practice with a timer. Will you be standing during the pitch? Then practice standing while you say it. Try to create and mimic the conditions of the pitch (within reason, of course) and practice until you feel confident you can deliver it within those conditions. 

Tip #2:  Use different pitches for different occasions.

This came up several times during our interviews, because investors see it all the time. People often create one pitch deck and use it for everything. That’s a huge mistake. 

Here are three questions to keep in mind when creating your pitch.
  1. Who is the audience? The audience determines what information is in the pitch. The information will be different if you’re pitching investors or customers, and someone in your industry or outside of it.
  2. How will I deliver it? Will you deliver it in person? Or via email? The delivery method determines the density of the information on your slides. If you’re emailing the pitch deck, it should have more info in it that if you were presenting it in person. If you’re presenting it in person, your slides should be relatively sparse. Why? Because your audience can’t process crowded slides, listen to you, and comprehend everything — all at the same time. If you’re delivering it in person, their attention should be on you as the speaker.
  3. How long do I have? This relates to “in person presentations.” If you’re giving a five-minute, in-person presentation, design for that. If you have ten minutes, design for that. But don’t try to cram your existing ten-minute pitch into a five-minute pitch. It doesn’t work. Your audience will feel rushed. You won’t give them time to process the information. And, that’s what they’ll remember about you. You know that great quote? “People won’t remember what you say; but they’ll remember how you made them feel?” It’s true.

Give each pitch opportunity the attention it deserves. Design for it and practice for it.

Tip #3: K.I.S.S. Your Message

The message matters. Assume your audience will only remember 10% of what you say. So, what are the most important things you want them to remember? Can you explain them in one sentence each? Can you state your main ideas clearly enough that the audience could explain them to someone else later that day? When you’re writing the content, aim to K.I.S.S. your message. Keep it Simple, Stupid. Don’t overthink it. Aim for clarity and simplicity. Use informal language. Break down the big ideas. And, avoid jargon. According to Greg Brown, the Administrator of the Charlotte Angel Fund, “Practice with people who don’t know your business or don’t know you. You have to be able to convey your story to people who don’t know your industry.” This helps! You’re probably too close to the idea. The “pain point” you’re solving for in your business is so obvious to you, you take for granted that other people will understand it. So, get an outsider’s perspective. It forces you to get crystal clear on the concept and explain it in a simple way.

It’s okay if your ideas are complicated and complex; but the way you explain them should make it effortless for your audience to understand and remember. The goal isn’t to “sound smart.” The goal is to communicate as effectively and efficiently as possible. This means your audience should think, feel, or do exactly what you want them to after the pitch is over.

Once you’ve written out the entire verbal pitch based on your allotted time, then you can start working on the deck. However, don’t just copy and paste the written content into your slides.

Tip #4: Design the pitch deck.

Don’t just build the deck; design it.  According to Keith Luedeman, (Founder of goomortgage.com), “If you haven’t spent the time to have a professionally put together deck… it speaks to poor preparation.” Good design is intentional. It’s thoughtful. You need to consider how to visually communicate each particular idea to the audience in the optimal way. Are you trying to convey key milestones in your company? Consider a timeline graph, because it visually depicts progress over time. Are you trying to compare your product to a competitor? Put them side-by-side in a simple chart instead of stacking the bullet points vertically. And if you’re giving the pitch in person, design it for the person in the back of the room – not the front. In other words, keep the text, images, and graphs big enough for everyone to see. It sounds obvious, but the investors I spoke to were adamant about it! Don’t give your emailed deck in person, and don’t include content that’s impossible to read.

Keep in mind that we’re living in the “attention economy. The modern economy increasingly revolves around the human attention span and how products capture that attention.” Your pitch deck is a product that needs to capture your audience’s attention. Everyone in the audience has a smart phone screaming for their attention. And, marketing is slicker than ever. Your audience is used to seeing well-designed content. Everywhere. So, the design of your pitch deck should, at the very least, look intentional. You don’t have to break the bank on the design but, according to Rob Cummings (the Co-Founder of DealCloud), “to pay someone to develop the look and feel of your pitch deck is money well spent.” 

Tip 5: Stories Are Great, Except When They’re Not

As a pitch coach, I often tell my clients “every superhero has an origin story. You should, too.” Why? Because the human brain is hard-wired to understand stories. It’s how information has been passed down from generation to generation. It’s why we spend years of our lives watching the same TV show. A good story will hook the audience and make your pitch memorable.

Don’t believe me? I was working with a CEO recently who is seeking an additional $2 million from investors. I recommended we weave his origin story into his pitch, because it directly relates to the company. But he was reluctant. He didn’t see the value in it. Then, he went to a large investor symposium. When he came back a week later, I asked, “What do you remember from the event? What one pitch stood out to you?” He proceeded to tell me about a woman who created an effective numbing gel to put on patients’ skin before they receive an injection. Her young son had been sick most of his life and needed multiple injections per week. Each one was incredibly painful and, as a result, he developed an acute fear of doctors. This broke the woman’s heart because she was a doctor herself and she thought, “I need to fix this.” And she did. So… after my client finished telling me this, I said, “I asked you to tell me one thing you remembered about the conference. You just told me a story. You remembered everything about it — and you remember the product. So now can we work on your origin story?” We started that day. But the best part is that other people have since told me his origin story, without ever knowing he was my client! Why? Because stories stick. Stories are easy to remember, and they elicit empathy in the people who hear them.

However, there is a time and place for storytelling in a pitch. According to Dr. Shante Williams (Co-Founder of Black Pearl Global Investments), “you can use a story in the pitch, but not in the Q&A. Shorter answers make you more effective with judges. The more questions you can get through in a pitch competition, the better you end up doing.” In order words, if a judge or an investor asks you, “How many customers do you have?” Don’t answer by saying, “Once upon a time…” and launch into a long-winded story. Just answer the question. If an investor is looking for a quantitative answer, tell them a number. Not a story.

Tip #6: Clarify “The Ask”

If you’re pitching investors, that means you want something from them. Be specific. State it in the pitch. Exactly how much money do you need? How will you deploy it? Again, be specific. Don’t just say “We’ll use it on marketing.” That’s too vague! Break it down and explain how much money you’ll use for each marketing channel per quarter – and why. Explain how will it directly impact your business. Investors want to know how their money will be used to grow revenue over time. Tell them.

Tip 7: Be Authentic & Show Your Passion 

The pitch is an opportunity show investors who you are and what you care about. They’re trying to figure out: who you (and your team) are, if your idea is any good, if the market supports it, and if they want to work with you. If you want them to care about what you’re doing, you have to convince them that you do. Show your enthusiasm and let them get to know you.

If you need help developing, designing, or delivering your pitch – I can help. Visit The Pitch Prof for more details.