Sociologist James Hughes said, "The art of communication is the language of leadership." Nowhere is this more crucial than for individuals pitching an idea whose success often depends less on what is said, than on how it is said. Every pitch is essentially an audition for leadership. Do you deliver your pitch in a way that instills confidence in you and your team? Are you able to communicate your idea, or your vision, with clarity? If you can't answer "yes" to these two questions, then your pitch may not be successful.
Pitching is not just for entrepreneurs seeking investor funding. We all have to pitch in one way or another, whether pitching a change initiative to your team or a proposal to the board. We all need to influence someone to adopt our ideas and give us the go-ahead. Pitching is the most nerve-wracking part of the idea creation process, and few excel at it, but it doesn't need to be so difficult. Follow these 12 pointers for the perfect pitch.
Get to the point fast.
It's a known fact that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Whether it's the length of books, blogs or broadcasts, everything is shrinking. Don't waste time with preambles. Give them an overview of your compelling proposition quickly, and succinctly, and you're more likely to capture and hold your listener's attention at the crucial start of your pitch. You can use the Elevator Pitch Builder from Harvard Business School, which gives you one minute to explain yourself, your business and your goals.
Don't use too many slides.
Just about every venture capital expert will tell you to minimize the number of slides you use. Recently, Leonhard Widrich and Joel Gascoigne, founders of Buffer, used 13 slides to land $500,000 in three months. In "How To Create An Enchanting Pitch," Guy Kawasaki, who was one of Buffer's advisors, provides a ready-made slide deck that you can download. This 10-slide deck will prevent you from going astray by adding too many slides. Mint.com also offers a useful slide deck template. For inspiration, you can also view a gallery of some of the best startup pitch decks at Pitchenvy.
Establish the need.
One of the questions that goes through your listeners' minds when they set out to listen to you is, "What problem are you trying to solve?" Convince them that there is a need. Give them a definite, concise statement of the problem, with an example or two illustrating the need. Show them the ramifications; i.e., how it affects people. Then follow up with your solution to address the need.
Use a message map.
This idea comes from author Carmine Gallo. As he puts it, "If you can’t tell me what you do in 15 seconds, I’m not buying, I’m not investing and I’m not interested." The message map is a tool to help pitch a complex idea, simply and quickly. It helps you explain your idea visually—on one page—in 15 seconds. This involves creating a Twitter-friendly headline, followed by three key benefits to support the headline. It ends with a reinforcement of the three benefits through stories, statistics and examples.
Use a multilevel structure to your pitch.
In How To Pitch An Idea, Scott Berkun recommends creating three levels of depth in preparing your pitch: 5 seconds, 30 seconds and 5 minutes. The 5-second version is a concise, single sentence explanation of your idea. In the 30-second version, you explain how you plan to achieve your idea by providing just enough interesting detail to help the audience get a clearer understanding of what you are proposing. Once you are successful in scaling your idea down to 5 and 30 seconds, you can then broaden it to 5 minutes. Brevity is the key to the initial success of a pitch.
State who your competition is.
This is a crucial step. What is your competitive advantage? Show them how what you are pitching is better than what your competitors are offering—or at least, how it is different. Also show any potential entrants in that space. What is your shield against those?
Include a sound bite.
A sound bite is a short, catchy phrase. Most people don't remember data, but they will remember a sound bite. A sound bite is the Velcro that makes the message stick. We all remember Steve Jobs' famous sound bite, "The world's thinnest notebook" when he first introduced the MacBook Air. It pays to spend time to come up with just the right sound bite to catch your listeners' attention. If you need help in this area, consider Marcia Yudkin's ebook, The Sound Bite Workbook: How to Generate Snappy Tag Lines, Scintillating Interview Quotes, Captivating Book or Article Titles, and Irresistible Marketing or Publicity Handles. This is a practical book for sound bite mastery. The book includes 17 brainstorming ideas that will help you create verbal gems.
Introduce the team.
Your listeners want to have the confidence that you have a solid team to back you up. Some recommend adding the team slide toward the beginning, like this one from BrandBoard, while others prefer including this at the end, like Cadee's pitch. It doesn't really matter, as long as it's there. Guard against derailing yourself by speaking at great length about every minutiae of the team's accomplishments. Keep it relevant and high level, and include photos.
Take "yes" for an answer.
As any seasoned salesperson will tell us, know when to stop selling your idea. Learn to read the signs that tell you your idea has hit home. The more you continue to talk beyond that point, the more you're likely to say something that can reverse the positive direction.
Know your next step.
Practice your follow-up steps as diligently as you practiced the pitch. People often enter the pitching situation with misgivings about their chances of success. A positive response catches them off guard and they sometimes react like a deer caught in the headlights. Come prepared for the next steps. What happens if you get a positive response? What do you want your audience to do? Preparation will help you move forward with confidence.
Learn from others.
One way to hone your pitching skills is to simply watch how others do it. There are plenty of opportunities to do this online. Here are four examples from individuals with diverse styles. The first is Gilles Domartini, CEO of Cleeng and winner of the B2B StartUp award. The second is Waseem Daher, COO and co-founder of Ksplice, winner of the MIT $100K Executive Summary Contest. (For a shot in the arm, as you prepare for your pitch, watch the entire MIT pitching contest event.) The third example is Kasper Hulthin, CEO of Hoist, winner of the MIT Global Startup Workshop. Finally, the fourth example is Candace Suzanne Klein, CEO of SoMoLand, winner at Startup 2012.
There's a fine line between showing intense passion for your idea, product or service, and showing nervous fear of losing out. While a little anxiety is understandable, letting it take hold of you will work against you. It can make you adopt an attitude of begging, which never serves us well. Remember, the ultimate power is the power to walk away. If you truly believe your idea has merit, go in as an equal. This is not advocating arrogance. It's simply asking you to be aware of emotional leakage that may derail you. Again, watch pitch shows like ABC's "Shark Tank" and "Dragon's Den," a Canadian TV program. Both show aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their business concepts and products to a panel of business moguls who have the cash to make it happen. It's easy to see who pitches with confidence and who doesn't.
Read more articles on small-business finance.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations, and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
Photos from top: iStockphoto, Thinkstock