You only have one chance and you have to get it right
If you’re searching for a definition of a pitch, maybe this is it.
Add a time limit of just a few minutes and you’ve narrowed it down even more.
There are many circumstances when a fast, clear and persuasive presentation is all that stands between you and glory.
Career opportunity of a lifetime, prospect of a major sale, meeting with a potential investor or opinion leader.
You name it, the stress level is about the same.
In particular, pitching your business idea to seasoned investors, you’ll crash and burn if you don’t have the best of communication skills and understanding of what it takes to persuade and convince.
Crashing and burning won’t be very pleasant.
And an investment pitch is no ordinary presentation.
I mean, just think about this for a start.
Imagine that you have a suitcase under your chair containing $1 million in cash.
Consider for a moment what you could do with that money. You probably have a few ideas.
Then imagine a complete stranger walks into the room and asks you to give them the money instead.
What would they have to do to convince you to let them take your money and use it for their business?
Of course the discussion will take time, you’re just at the start of a long process, but they would certainly have to start off the right way wouldn’t they?
This is the kind of situation we’re talking about. It isn’t a small challenge. (Although, all you really need is a continued discussion. When you see it that way, it gets a bit easier).
Only relatively recently have neuroscientists begun to understand how we really communicate and internet marketing has allowed infinite testing of how large numbers of strangers actually react to your message and visuals.
To see how Call To Action buttons on internet sites can teach us how to create persuasive presentations or if you’d like to know what your audience have in common with lizards, read on.
Here’s the first thing you can do to prepare for what’s ahead.
Why not spend time thinking about what another person would have to do to convince you to part with your own money. You could list some ideas right away.
Watch the people around you and the presenters you listen to. When do you feel trust and when do you feel the opposite? Can you see exactly what they’re doing?
Which people around you inspire a lot of trust and confidence?
One thing you may notice is that the people you feel the most trust for tend to be people you have a relationship with. Family or good friends or colleagues you’ve known for a long time.
One of the answers to the question “who do we trust?” is “people that we have built a relationship with.”
This is one of the keys to giving a great presentation. Build trust by being open (relaxed, open gestures, show the palms of your hands), maintaining good eye contact, knowing your presentation inside out. Just for starters…
This is the way to build a relationship.
Just like shaking hands when you meet someone new. This ancient gesture shows we’re not carrying a weapon in our right hand (we could of course be left handed… I guess they didn’t think about that).
Take an investment pitch for example. What’s it really all about?
Without fail when I work with someone on their investment pitch their focus is on the contents. How can we make all this information (i.e. the whole 20 page business plan) as short as possible? How can we get it all into 5 or 10 minutes? What should we talk about first, finances or market or competition?
People are desperately trying to give someone all the facts they need to decide to invest. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it?
There’s only one thing to be said at this stage:
YOU’RE STARTING AT THE WRONG END!
An investment pitch is not about speaking the facts of your business plan.
It’s not about getting the order right or making better slides. First you have to get some real attention, and then develop trust and credibility.
It’s about pushing the right buttons and creating enough security, surprise and novelty (=value) in the minds of the listeners that they actually pay attention and absorb what you’re saying.
It’s about starting a new (business) relationship – always a tricky thing.
Your goal is simply to get a new meeting and continued discussion. You’re aiming to hook them with the feeling that there is value in what you’re saying and you’re a really pleasant and competent person that they want to talk to some more.
Why is it so difficult?
At the point when you present your company, your CV, your product or service you’ve already lived and breathed the details for years.
You’ve been constantly using the advanced reasoning functions of your brain (the neo-cortex). After all, put a mass of PowerPoint slides in front of someone and tell them to fill them with useful information and only pure reasoning will get them anywhere.
And it’s a big BUT
Your audience isn’t much moved by the fruits of the reasoning center of your brain. You’re talking from the most evolved mental level, about profit margin, return on investment and exits of various kinds, while they’re hearing it all for more or less the first time. They’re using the evolutionarily oldest part of their brains to filter the information.
You’ve left them standing, back at the start, still waiting for basic signals and information.
Here’s part of the reason why.
In the very earliest stage of evolution we possessed a brain that could handle basic survival.
That’s just what we needed, and all that we needed.
We still have that part of our brain. It’s the first port of call for incoming information – the gatekeeper that checks for impending threats
Movement can signal approaching danger. If something moves in the bush you don’t stand around wondering what it was. You get the hell out of there, tout suite. You pay attention to it.
Change is a manifestation of movement.
Something new happens and it immediately gets our full attention.
We see it clearly above the usual background. Put up a new powerpoint slide which is strikingly different and all eyes go to it.
Do something that’s different and everyone notices it.
Even later came the neo-cortex, the brain structures involved in advanced cognition, such as planning, abstract modeling and analysis. The part you’ve been using to plan your pitch.
Our original brain function is sometimes called the reptilian brain, as reptiles still have it.
The reptilian brain doesn’t have a great deal of reasoning capacity.
Reasoning in general takes enormous energy. It leaves us vulnerable. So incoming complex information is a threat to the reptilian brain.
It sees complexity as a danger and quickly decides to not bother.
So it takes a real jolt to the system that says, “this is valuable stuff” before the neo-cortex kicks in and gets to work. Before that, however, even the mid-brain has to get a look in. It’s absorbing social signals, deciding whether we fit in and assessing social rankings.
Think of your brain as having a burly, lumbering caveman guarding the entrance
In other words, if you’re going to get someone to take in the details of what you want to say, you first have to get past the caveman and give him some simple, new and exciting stuff to get him going.
The same goes for the mid brain that is concerned with social status and interactions, belonging and social behavior. It’s no surprise that one of the most quoted experts on persuasion, Robert Cialdini, includes social proof and liking in his six factors that persuade.
So, the bottom line is: NEW gets our attention every time. If nothing says DANGER or TOO COMPLICATED then it becomes EXCITING. We can learn something valuable and we’re fully on board and receptive. But it has to always start off ridiculously SIMPLE.
Consider how “new” the average contents and structure of an investment pitch is to a seasoned investor and you begin to grasp the magnitude of the problem.
Simple evidence that requires minimal processing is what’s needed.
Black and white. Positive and pleasing. Big differences, lots of contrast. Immediate and new.
If the receiving reptile brain becomes bored, confused or worried then your pitch will crash and burn.
It’s the polar opposite of the contents of many pitches.
This is one of the most important principles to remember when constructing your pitch and at the same time one of the most difficult.
So keep it simple. BUT. You’re not served at all by the idea that any idiot could have come up with this.
What you need to simplify is the COMMUNICATION
You will probably never simplify your material enough. But, remember, we’re NOT talking about dumbing down. We’re talking about making the facts accessible, relevant and fascinating.
The caveman is always awake
In a great Slideshare presentation and article Joanna Wiebe writes about the reptilian brain (which she calls the lizard brain) and how it influences the effectiveness of Call to Action buttons on web sites. You know, the Read More, Buy Now!, Subscribe! big clickable buttons.
You can increase sign-ups by 34% with 99% confidence by taking away the uncertainty and “fear” of a button when you don’t know exactly what lies behind it.
By adding copy like: “No credit card needed”, “Three steps left before a final decision”, “Change your mind anytime”, or by adding customer testimonials next to the button, people can be made to feel more at ease and willing to try things out.
It’s a great example of what we’re up against in a presentation.
This is not really part of our conscious thought but it’s always there, the suspicion of the unknown and of complicated situations and lots of facts.
Read more about web copywriting and online marketing, it’s a real eye opener to the art of persuasion in it’s most basic form. Tremendously useful for pitches.
And then we have the next problem: you know too much!
We humans have a little problem with empathy. When we know something, we have a REALLY hard time remembering what it’s like to not know it.
As soon as we get some knowledge inside our heads we become kind of cursed.
It’s called The Curse of Knowledge
You can read all about it here.
It might inspire one or two eureka moments and lead to some real improvement in your communication.
You need a great start. Remember, NEW
Think about the classic way that people open investment pitches, then do something different. Seize the initiative and keep them hooked.
Start in the middle of the action, leave things hanging for a while as you introduce yourself and the product and then gradually unroll the rest of the story keeping the best to last. This is not easy to do and takes preparation and some narrative skill, but try to work towards it.
Find a perspective that will surprise and add extra emotion or human interest.
Talk about what it means, rather than what it is.
There are lots of tips and ideas in the article “What is the best way to start a presentation?”
Here are some of the things that you can look for:
- metaphors and similes that will help you explain your subject, if it’s complicated
- stories from your company or product development
- rhetorical questions that awake interest and get people focused on your subject
- mysteries you could create and then solve with your presentation
Serious preparation is just the start
Sound obvious maybe, but first of all YOU need to be the one who owns the scene and sets the perspective. You need to be ready for any kind of interruption or change of play.
Can you give the presentation in less than half the time? What about half of that? What about without a projector and slides? What are you going to say when you get random questions out of order?
List all the things that could happen and write down what you can do about them. Prepare a version of your presentation that works without slides (and without notes).
If you have to verbalize or explain your authority, power or position, you have none.
If you spend too much time explaining your many qualifications, you’re lost.
A classic problem is people arriving late to your meeting (or even not arriving at all!), or saying they don’t want to hear what you’re talking about but some other detail that you may not have at hand.
So be ready to counteract and be proactive rather than reactive.
If the most important person is late to the meeting be prepared to reschedule. Say that you primarily want to know whether you can do business with them and you only do business with people that can schedule a meeting and keep to time. You can maybe find a polite way to say this!
This is also a good argument for ignoring questions on details of financials or market analysis etc. Just give the bottom line and say that they can run through all the details later if you are going to do business together.
If the numbers sound right then you’ll take the next step, with all the due diligence they can stand. What you need for now is just a confirmation that they’re on board. It’ll be harder for them to withdraw later if they have already made an initial small commitment.
Do you dare to cut the meeting short yourself?
After delivering all the details and ensuring they are well and truly hooked, say that you must rush to the next meeting and they should call you if they’re interested. It takes judgment and you must have grasped full control and left them fascinated and wanting to know more. This is a very good test of whether you were right!
First set the parameters. Then hook them.
Start by saying exactly how long you’ll be talking and, preferably, that you won’t be hanging round very long afterwards. Stick to that time!
Hook them with great start.
You don’t have to grab attention as many suggest. No wild stuff needed. Just something novel, tantalizing and captivating. See the section on good starts for some ideas.
Explain what planet you’re on as fast as possible by making the introduction to your background and your product as concise and clear as possible. Build it into a cohesive story that flows smoothly.
This can often mean that you incorporate your background and experience into the story of where the product came from and where it’s going.
Find things that will stick
Jot down an inventory of the ideas you have for making your subject accessible, relevant and fascinating.
- What do you have in your material that is surprising?
- Can you present the details of your product/subject using an intelligent metaphor that maybe raises a few smiles?
- If you need to describe measurements, make a comparison that is unexpected, crazy and funny.
- Which strong images can you use with highly relevant but unexpected subjects? (I once watched a pitch for protective clothing that primarily protects kneecaps and which used an image of a priest kneeling as one example of the many areas of use.)
- Which details of your background and experience are the most telling and high-status? Never mind the rest.
Keep the message simple but also crystal clear
To help you, in 1999 Geoff Moore developed the Idea Introduction Pattern.
For (target customers)…..
Who are dissatisfied with (current products on market)…..
My idea/product/service is (the type or category of the idea/product)…..
That provides (key solution)…..
My idea/product/service is (key features)…..
Another way to say this is:
Here’s what I’ve got
Here’s who it’s for
Here’s what it competes with
Here’s what it is
Here’s what it will do for you
Here’s where you can get it
Allow your credentials to subtly emerge as part of your presentation
The quickest way to describe a landscape is by starting with the major landmarks, the things that really stick out. This frames everything else.
If you see two mountains you know there’s a valley between, you don’t have to go over every inch. Plus, the more you say, the less people will take in and remember.
There are a few things that say enough about who you are and which are relevant to the product you’re describing. Say just these.
People can always ask you for more afterwards. There’ll be plenty of time over dinners after all, if your pitch succeeds.
I have a PhD from XX University and, amongst other positions, was CXX for YYY for 7 years. Perhaps my most significant achievement was XXX
If you’re talented and accomplished, show it by giving a superb presentation. Don’t say it.
Demonstrate authority as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to you.
This means of course that your presentation has to be extremely well practiced and delivered, while appearing to be natural and spontaneous.
Very few people actually give themselves time to practice enough! It’s amazingly surprising, considering the stakes.
So right now reserve yourself several hours of undisturbed time to just practice. Book some colleagues or friends as a surrogate audience. Write it all in your calendar and DON’T change that time to something else.
Create movement and urgency
How exactly did your innovation or idea emerge from the past into the present and how will it become part of the future?
The story of how your idea emerged is always interesting, but make it work for you and be more than just a nice story. Create movement to get the listeners excited and help them feel a sense of urgency.
Do all this with the aim of making it clear that the time for action is NOW. You’ve been working up to the ideal moment, it’s the perfect storm and you’re right in the middle of the action!
Create a sense of urgency – not that you’ve been fiddling with this for a decade and could happily carry on; that tomorrow would be just as good as today.
Tell a story, the simple, way
You’ve maybe heard a lot about storytelling and there’s a lot of good advice out there but it’s often made unnecessarily complicated.
What it’s really all about is explaining what your product or service actually means to real people.
The simplest form of storytelling is a real life example involving named persons.
If you give an example in the past or present of how your product or service affects a real person, then you have a story.
Struggling to get all the financials into a short investment pitch?
More important than the details of your budget is to demonstrate that you can budget.
Do what you can to demonstrate your skill here and the details will become just details that the audience will happily leave to a later stage of due diligence.
Any fool can project revenues but skill at handling a budget is rare and critical.
It has to do with trust and confidence, again. It’s almost more important how you handle presenting the financial details, than exactly what those details are.
Of course it all has to add up. But you could have maximum control and an ideal situation and still be judged incompetent or shaky.
Lots of extra slides with all kinds of financial breakdowns are to be recommended. Hopefully you won’t need them for the first presentation, but they’ll most likely come in useful later.
Just concentrate on getting yourself a “later”!
Some things that are often missed
When describing the competitive landscape it’s relatively easy to list and compare competing companies and products, but what about customer behavior?
And how easy would it actually be for the customer to change both to your product and away from it? Is there a threshold in any direction?
How easy would it be for a brand new competitor to enter the market?
Best of all is being able to identify a so-called unfair advantage. Something that no-one else can reproduce.
If you have on your team the only person in the world with a certain skill, that’s great, but don’t forget to factor in what happens if they leave.
A bigger sales force would be good
If you’re pitching for business then, whether they take the deal or not, it’s always useful to have extra sales persons out there.
Always try to leave a positive impression of course, but be sure to leave them with a phrase or slogan they will never forget.
Or do something extra special.
To have someone tell all their contacts about that genius metaphor you used to explain a difficult subject is better than nothing, after all.
Easy to say! But maybe you have something in your earlier inventory that could be jazzed up. Maybe an image could be used, these are remembered better than words after all.
Time to get the creative juices flowing.
Keeping people’s attention – critical things
If you’re not very good at it, it’s time to change that! You can’t afford to miss this essential factor for making contact. Check this out for some practical advice.
As we’ve already talked about, our brains are stimulated by surprise, and all the better if it’s a positive surprise that doesn’t threaten our reptile brains.
A demo with surprising outcome
Use of bright colors and beautiful things
Moving objects, novel shapes and designs
Clever metaphors with humorous angles
Clever perspectives and comparisons, e.g. of size or magnitude
Plus a background variation in presentation style (slides/whiteboard/flip chart/no props), vocal variation, movement in the room etc.
Keep people curious and you will keep their attention
As soon as a mystery is solved they quickly move to thinking that they now know everything and it becomes seriously boring to listen any more.
If there is nothing at stake people can lose attention rapidly and switch off the second you fail to keep their attention any longer.
So expectation of reward or loss and the tension that accompanies it is also an ingredient of the kind of attention you need.
Yes, you’re right. It’s not easy!
Or you could make a breakthrough because someone liked you for some inexplicable reason.
We’re talking human interaction and gut feelings, and more so than most people care to acknowledge.
Remember this though
If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.
Stay focused on the big picture, use passion, contrast and novelty, visual messages to facilitate fast uptake and just enough proof and verification to stay credible.
And smile! That’s what really does it.