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

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS INNOVATION - Olive Keogh

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.

Clear con­tent

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

‘‘ No­body truly lis­tens to any­one, so highlight your key mes­sage at the out­set and de­liver it with as much im­pact as pos­si­ble

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.”

Maureen Tay­lor is chief ex­ec­u­tive of SNP whose com­pany trains lead­ers to in­spire au­di­ences to ac­tion through clear con­tent and mem­o­rable de­liv­ery.

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