An impactful pitch can be a transformational addition to your toolkit as a founder. It’s intrinsic to nearly all activity, be it persuading an investor to fund your company, convincing a client to purchase your product, or attracting world-class employees to join your startup. Entrepreneurship is an exercise in persuasion writ large. You’re asking people to take a leap of faith nearly all the time, and a strong pitch is indispensable in doing this.
But what is a pitch? I see it as a visionary narrative constructed to inspire action and build allies.
Therefore, it’s important to get right. Below I try to deconstruct the elements of a pitch and provide some pointers
Before we jump in, note that a pitch can take many forms. Whilst you might have an image in your head of pitching at a startup event, a pitch is just as likely to be a one-to-one meeting with an investor, or a pitch to clients, investors, candidates or a mixed audience at an event. We won’t go into each of these one by one, instead I’ll aim to abstract tips that work across all. But each scenario has its own nuances, which are well worth exploring separately.
I’m also assuming that you know the basic structure of a pitch. If not, you can check out resources like the Digital Business Academy to help guide your pitch structure.
1. Push to an Action
Ideally, every effective pitch should have a clear ask, or it should push towards an action.
That action most likely will not be, if pitching to an audience of investors for example, ‘write me a cheque right here and now.’ If you have a 5-minute slot at an event, your pitch might be to push the right people into a longer coffee chat, set clear expectations and motivations to follow up on a first meeting, or target specific companies or people you want to meet within a larger audience.
Whatever you decide, make sure that your pitch starts with a clear aim and an ideal outcome. This helps you later down the line decide how to structure the narrative to achieve the result you want.
2. Do Your Research
If it looks like an important opportunity, don’t be that founder who wheels out a generic version of their pitch. Once you know who’s in the audience and the outcome you want to accomplish, you can work back from there and tailor accordingly for the best results. A great pitch evolves as the company evolves, and it moves with the audience. It is never ‘done.’
Half of the battle is knowing who is in the room, what they care about, and which buttons you can press to persuade.
Where possible, do your research in advance and always come prepared. For example, if it’s an investor, dig deep into their criteria and understand what they look for, their business model, search for their most recent investments and how recently they raised a fund, and check LinkedIn to better discover their individual backgrounds. If it’s an audience, unpack the guest list as much as you can. Done well, you get a real insight into their focus, their thinking and, by extension, what they care about.
This might sound trivial, but you wouldn’t believe how often this gets taken for granted, to the detriment of the pitch.
We’ve mentioned ‘persuasion’ several times. Too many pitches are akin to an ‘FYI, here’s what we do’ with the response being an awkward ‘so what?’ left to linger in the air like a bad smell. And if you pitch aimlessly too often, you might question whether that time could be better spent building a product. Where possible, influence an outcome.
One of the simplest, yet most helpful frameworks for persuasion is Aristotle’s ‘Ethos, Logos and Pathos.’ Keep these in mind as you craft your pitch.
Ethos refers to credibility. Why should we trust you as the speaker? This is partly covered by a slide that outlines the experience of your team, but it can be more subtle. The text you use, the busyness of the slides, how you frame the story, how focused you are, body language and more all give away small clues. Credibility is far, far more than that one team slide.
Logos – This refers to persuasion through data and logic, which is typically market size, your business model, competition and more. What’s your argument and what’s the evidence to back it up? Like a lawyer making their case, you’ll need to select the most impactful of these based on what will sway the audience.
Pathos – This means appealing to an emotion such that it inspires action, usually through storytelling, which we’ll cover. The best pitches resonate with some fundamental human emotion and leave the audience with a feeling. Often you forget the detail, but you remember that the founder the captivated you.
In an ocean of founders pitching ideas, you need to be focused and precise. Persuade the audience that your company is the one worth a follow-up.
Identify the levers you need to pull and weave them into your pitch.
4. Less is More
Another temptation is to treat a pitch like a business plan converted into slide form, whereby every pixel is filled with data or text. Don’t. You’ll just be throwing mud at the wall hoping some of your messages stick. Don’t tell me everything, just tell me what matters.
Instead, think about the 1-3 messages you want the audience to remember and double down.
My preference is always to play up strengths, rather than try to fill in weaknesses. Think about what makes your business unique and emphasise. Do you have an extraordinary team? Or is there a game-changing way to think about solving a problem? Perhaps you’re seeing hockey-stick growth? Whatever it is, make sure the audience sees it and remembers it.
Don’t try to pitch an email deck laden with text in a face-to-face context.
Keep it simple and try to avoid jargon. In the words of Orwell, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
If it’s getting complicated, a handy exercise might be to take a friend who knows nothing about your business and have them pitch it back to you. Don’t dumb it down, but make it clear.
5. Make Me Care
“‘Make me care’ is probably the greatest story commandment,” says Andrew Stanton, screenwriter at Pixar and co-writer of Finding Nemo and Toy Story, in his TED Talk
And making people care is precisely what you want to do. The startup ecosystem is an attention economy with time as the currency. Your audience is likely to be time-poor and, worse, you’re battling against other, hungry entrepreneurs vying for attention.
You need people to grasp what you do and why it matters efficiently, and you must leave a lasting impression to stand out from the noise and ram your message home.
We mentioned the ability to evoke ‘Pathos’ above as a powerful pitching technique, and one of the most effective, if misunderstood, tools to achieve this is to use storytelling.
This is a whole blog post in itself! Though, in a nutshell, we mean crafting a pitch that resonates, on a human level, with fundamental emotions that people feel in their bones. It’s about why you do what you do, which hopefully resonates with deeply held values that other people hold dear. It’s about weaving together all the points above into a narrative that makes people care and remember you long after the pitch is done. It’s about how you make people feel.
Again, tie this back to what the audience cares about. For example, if you understand that a powerful motivator for investors is ‘fear of missing out,’ you then want to be showing an unmissable trajectory, rather than a damp snapshot.
6. Practice Makes Perfect
No-one is expecting you to be Steve Jobs on day one. All the most impressive pitchers I have seen over the years share one thing in common: they practised again and again. They worked hard on their body language and their speaking style. They refined the pitch as their business evolved. The pitch was never ‘done.’
Your 100th pitch will look alien compared to the 1st. No matter how painful it is to begin with, keep practising and keep iterating.
7. Be Yourself
Many mentors will tell you, ‘this is how a pitch should be’ (I appreciate the irony here!). One could be excused for assuming you have to describe the market on slide 3, or your competition on slide 5.
Yet, there is no exact formula. Mix it up depending on what works best for the story, be authentic and stay creative. In the best pitches, the personality of the presenter comes through in spades.
Above all, be yourself. You, the founder, got the business to where it is today. So trust your intuition and go with what feels right.
You’ll find that these play against one another and, if you wrap all of them together, you have the building blocks of an impactful pitch that delivers the result you want.
And don’t forget, no matter what alchemy you used to craft a killer pitch, the number one most important thing always remains to build a product that users love. Do that and the rest will be far, far easier.
Bonus Round – Quick Fire Pointers
Ideas are cheap: Focus on the business as much as the problem/solution. It’s how you plan to deliver that
Come prepared: Don’t be that founder who can’t present because you don’t have the right Mac adaptor. And, if you have a 3-minute slot at a pitch event, make sure your pitch is 3-minutes.
Seek Feedback: Great mentors can be game changing. You’ll find many examples of great pitches online for inspiration, notably for startup competitions where many are filmed live. Check out Pitch@Palace for example.
Be visual: Beautiful design and imagery can really give your pitch a professional edge. If design isn’t your strong suit, sites like Canva and DesignBold are making this ever easier to do cheaply. Sell yourself as much as the product: As an early-stage company, your team is really your greatest asset. Don’t sell yourself short and don’t be scared to shout about your achievements and experience.
We’ve created a free pitch deck template to help you get started crafting your pitch, containing all the key elements compiled from the best pitch decks we’ve seen.