Learning how to pitch an idea effectively is an enormously useful skill that they never really teach you at university or at school. It's the kind of thing you learn from personal experience. There are many articles providing formulae for pitching or presenting your startup, but few about the principles behind those formulae.
Back when I was still at university, I spent a whole Easter holiday building a prototype for a chemical spot auction site. In this I made many mistakes (among others, I started by building an elaborate user management system rather than focusing on the key dynamics of the auction process), but the real killer came when we pitched it.
I was working with a guy who was just as inexperienced on the business side as I was on the programming side. His father happened to be a top-level executive at a big chemical company, and so through this huge foot in the door we got an entire hour booked to pitch this product to a panel of senior people at this blue-chip company. I remember sitting on my bed and naively thinking of how we would spend the billions of dollars a year we were undoubtedly going to make from this surefire deal.
Was this meeting a golden opportunity, or just a formality to please the boss? I don't know. But what I do know is how much we screwed up on whatever this was.
On the technical side, everything fell apart. This was the day the ILOVEYOU virus hit, and all the corporate networks were down. Our site was unreachable. I had not thought to have it running locally on the laptop so that I could demo it without internet access (Ã¼ber-rookie mistake). When the server finally became reachable again, the meeting was over, with only one sympathetic soul staying behind to have a look at it. I felt mortified. My entire purpose had been to build this prototype for the demo, and that had completely and utterly failed. Two months of work for nothing.
The real killer, though, was our pitch. To my partner's credit, I must say that he handled the whole thing himself, and certainly did it better than I would have - but it was still a disaster, and unlike me, he had no technical difficulties to blame. As I watched the pitch unfold and observed the audience, I felt my heart sink further.
We had an hour booked. Here's how my partner structured the pitch: for the first third of the presentation, about 10 minutes, he talked about how startups were changing the world (which was interesting timing, considering we were two months into the dot-bust); the second third focused on how B2B was a growth area and predicted to make many billions of dollars over the next few years; finally, the last third talked about the customer, and repeated things they knew about themselves, and finally maybe one or two slides were about the product we were pitching and what problem it would solve for them.
So, in short, out of about 30 minutes of presentation time, only 2 minutes answered questions that the audience actually cared about.
I can't remember exactly what sort of questions there were, but if I recall correctly, the "panel" took the excuse that the prototype wasn't working to leave before the hour was out. At the time, it seemed that they left because the prototype didn't work, but, in hindsight, I'm pretty sure they left because they hoped to still be able to do something productive with the little bit of time left in that wasted hour slot.
Fast forward 11 years later, and I still remember this story, I can still bring back to mind the feeling of sitting through that disastrous meeting, and the insights I got from it. I've now pitched hundreds of times, various different ideas. I've watched our Woobius interns fumble together a pitch with no preparation (they did better than I did back in 2000). I've pitched at competitions, during sales meetings, sales calls, networking meetups, and so on. I even spent two weeks cold-calling 20 people a day to pitch them my "voice on the web" startup (I hate cold-calling).
But the most important lesson about pitching, I learned in this very first pitch:
1. You have to tell people what they want to hear.
With this, I don't mean that you have to make up stuff. What I mean is, out of the vast infinity of facts at your disposal, you need to ruthlessly zoom into the small handful of key points that the people in front of you care about. Back in 2000, our audience didn't care for startups, B2B, or well-known factoids about their company. In the context of this meeting, they cared about two, maybe three things:
- Are these guys pitching something I should care about?
- Are they credible?
- (probably) Can I get out of here sooner without pissing off the boss?
The whole pitch should have been focused on answering these questions quickly, smoothly, effectively. This could probably have been done in 5 to 15 minutes, with most of the hour left for answering questions and building up our credibility further.
Since then, when pitching anything, I always first try to figure out what the "audience" cares about, what they want to hear. For example, your pitch to a customer and your pitch to a VC must be vastly different. The VC cares about whether you're building a startup worth investing in. The customer cares about whether you can solve their problems. Your friends care that you're doing what you like and not heading for disaster. Your parents care that you're not wasting your life chasing unicorns and rainbows. This brings us to the second most important lesson of pitching:
2. You have to know who your audience is and understand them before you can pitch them effectively.
Any pitch where you don't know who you're talking to is a shot in the dark. It might hit something, but who knows what that might be? So, before answering that oft-asked question, "So what do you do?", make sure you first try and figure out what the other person does.
Finally, there's a third critical aspect of pitching that we failed at, back in 2000, that I've become more aware of as the amount of sales work I do has increased.
A long time ago, Aristotle wrote about rhetoric that it was "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion". Pitches are a minor application of rhetoric. They do not exist in a vacuum. You don't pitch just for the pleasure of it. To be described as "good" in any way, a pitch must have a purpose, something you're trying to achieve, and a "good pitch" is one which achieves its purpose.
Let's say that, against all odds, the chemical company's executives had liked us and liked our product. What then? They would naturally have asked, "So what are you looking for?" And the reality is that, naive as we were, we hadn't even thought of that before going into the meeting.
So this is the third most important lesson of pitching:
3. In order to deliver a successful pitch, you have to know what you want to get out of it.
There are many things you can honestly want out of pitching: customers, funding, esteem, friendship, rapport, advice, insight, introductions, and so on. Depending on what you want, your pitch will need to change. You don't pitch for business in the same way that you pitch for advice or to build a relationship. Thinking about what you want ahead of pitching is not just helpful, it is essential in order to get anything out of it.
Ultimately, there is one great teacher of the art of pitching: practice. This is why entrepreneurs get very good at pitching: they do it all the time. But hopefully, these three principles can help make your practice more deliberate:
- Tell people what they want to hear.
- Know who you're pitching so you know what they want to hear.
- Know what you want out of your pitch.
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We all have beliefs that are holding us back. Sometimes we're aware of them, sometimes not.
One entrepreneur I know, who shall remain nameless, admitted (after quite a lot of wine) that he has a block around sending invoices. He was perhaps exaggerating when he said that before he could send an invoice he had to down a bottle of wine and get drunk so he could hit the send button, but even so, it was clear that he had a serious block around asking people to pay him.
As an entrepreneur, that's obviously a deadly flaw. In terms of "holding you back", struggling to ask people for money for work that you've done is like wearing blocks of cement as boots. It won't just slow you down, it will probably stop you dead in your tracks.
Myself, I have - or used to have - similar blocks. Generally, many geeks early in their entrepreneurial career tend to have a general dislike of things like marketing and sales, that, in my opinion, often are rooted not only in fear of an unknown activity, but also in beliefs about money. For example, I used to believe (subconsciously) that money was bad. I would spend money as quickly as (or more quickly than) I earned it. If your first thought when you're given Â£10,000 is how to spend it (rather than how it adds to your wealth), you probably have a similar belief that money is something to be gotten rid of, to push away - that's not a belief that's conducive to making money and becoming comfortably well off, because you have to have a saving, wealth-building mindset for that.
Another would-be entrepreneur I spoke to recently was afraid to quit his job. He hated the work passionately. His wife supported his decision to quit, and he was fairly confident that he'd find something else (he had previously been a successful freelance developer), and yet he couldn't bring himself to actually quit, because he couldn't quite make the leap to believe in himself, even though he knew he should. Despite the evidenceÂ and arguments being stacked in favour of quitting, he felt he couldn't.
Now, perhaps the beliefs holding you back are of a different nature, but even if the "money thing" or the "quitting thing" don't apply to you, don't disregard this article. Chances are there are other beliefs rooted deep inside you that are holding you back, even if they have nothing to do with money.
So, if you're aware of such a belief and want to "fix" it, what can you do to hack your brain?
Having gone through the process, here are the handful of techniques I've found that really help in a tangible way.
This feels really cheesy and weird when you start doing it, but it's probably the most effective in the list. Many of the beliefs that we might want to get rid of manifest themselves as "internal monologue" - they're things that your subconscious is telling your conscious throughout the day.
For example, some people have an internal monologue that constantly repeats "you're a failure" to them. By repeating it over and over again, the message becomes true. Some people precondition themselves to fail - they draw the failure to them by accepting this message over and over during the day.
Self-affirmations hack around this by overriding the negative message with a positive one. The way that it's worked for me is:
- Craft a brief, positive message (phrase it in positive terms) that overrides the internal message that's bothering you. For example, if "you're a failure" is the message that's bothering you, a positive override might be "I will succeed in many things that make a difference." It doesn't need to be exactly true, but it needs to be something you can stand by, that you can believe in, however briefly.
- Write this message on a post-it note or a piece of cardboard, and stick it on your mirror - the one that you dress yourself in front of every morning.
- Every morning (and as many times during the day as you can), stand in front of your mirror and, looking yourself straight in the eyes, repeat, loudly, with all the confidence you can muster in your voice, "I will succeed in many things that make a difference" (or whatever the affirmation is). Repeat it 10 times. Repeat it 50 times. However many times you can.
Three things will happen from this. First, you will feel very silly. That's ok, don't worry about it. It won't pass (you'll still feel silly the 20th time you do this), but it really doesn't matter. The second thing is, you'll feel a good buzz. I haven't quite figured out why that happens. I guess it's a sense that you're taking things into your own hands, taking action. That feels good.
Most importantly, over time (surprisingly quickly), the internal message in your head will change. As it changes, you will feel the need for the affirmations lessen. Obviously, if the message you're overriding is deeply ingrained, it will take longer, but for me, typically, I haven't needed to do this for more than a few weeks at most before the new message had sunk in.
This is an extremely effective method. You can also do variants of this, like recording a video or audio for yourself, or writing it out by hand fifty times, but in my experience, speaking to yourself while looking into your own eyes is brutally effective.
2. Brainwashing yourself
When you read stuff and you don't take notes, you're effectively just brainwashing yourself. Most people read whatever comes their way, or whatever they feel like, without much care in the selection, but you can choose what you brainwash yourself with.
If you know that you have, for example, a problem with pushing away money, then there are books that repeat the opposite message over and over again. If you spend a few weeks reading a bunch of those books, chances are you'll come out the other end with an altered outlook. In my experience, it doesn't stick as much as self-affirmation, so if you do this you'll probably want to find a steady source of relevant books so you can keep re-brainwashing yourself until it really sticks.
You don't have to stick to books. Videos, podcasts, blogs, or even meetups can achieve the same thing. The key is to keep exposing yourself to information that contradicts the belief you're trying to get rid of.
Of course, you can use this in conjunction with self-affirmation to enhance the effect.
3. Who you hang out with
Another strong influence on your internal message is, sadly, who you hang out with. People have certain expectations and perceptions of you, and it's very hard to shake them off if they are one of the sources of the negative messages you're struggling with.
Obviously, if your parents or your friends constantly tell you you're a failure, that's going to work just as well as positive self-affirmations in convincing you that you are indeed a failure. If they expect you to fail, and you spend a lot of time with them, you will probably fail.
This is a tricky one, since these sources of negative influence are often not deliberate. Your parents or friends probably don't want you to fail or be poor or whatever, and if confronted, they'll almost certainly agree to change their ways - but they won't. Changing habits is very, very hard, and if people have got into the habit of perceiving you in a certain way, the change of perception has to come from you.
Sadly, I think the only thing that can be done there is to spend less time with people who project their negative perceptions on you, at least until you've properly dealt with the negative message so that it's no longer holding you back. But even then, be aware that exposing yourself to that external, repeated message again could bring it back.
4. Digging to the root
Finally, one last technique which also helps, especially when combined with all the others, is to truly examine your beliefs, and figure out where they come from, how they grew in you over time, what role they've played in your life, etc.
Now, I'm fully aware that our memory of these sorts of things is often very hazy, and most likely the "explanation" or "history" that you come up with will be, in many ways, a fabrication. But despite that, this somehow still works.
For example, through this type of introspection, I realised that my lack of interest in accumulating money was something that had been with me since childhood, that had been encouraged by my parents, and that was one of the components of why I'm generally a "happy person". Through this insight, I also realised that one of the reasons why I found it hard to bring myself to care about money was that I associated caring about money, and accumulating it, with unhappiness. The belief there was not so much that "money is bad", but that "people who care about making money are unhappy, sharks, obsessive people who live empty lives".
Once I discovered this reasoning in my subconscious, I was able to target it directly with self-affirmations like "I want to make more money so that I can do more good" - which replace the link between money and unhappiness with one between money and capacity to do good.
These techniques may not work at all for you. Or you may think that they're hocus pocus. However, they worked for me and have helped me, and I've discussed them with enough people to come to the conclusion that many people don't know or haven't thought about these types of tools, and most people are not using them. Some of them (e.g. self-affirmations) are standard tools that therapists use to help people, so there's some validation for these things working in a wide range of cases.
The main thing holding you back from achieving what you want is often yourself. These tools give you a means to fix that. If they don't work for you, you won't have lost anything, except perhaps for the terrible experience of feeling mildly silly while talking to yourself in front of a mirror.
If they do work, then you can gain a lot - specifically, you can give yourself the ability to achieve what you want in life. That's pretty valuable, I reckon.
Good luck with it all!
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