7 Feb 2011

Zen in the Art of the Elevator Pitch

dcktn logo 2010This is a guest blog post from David Terrar who ran the successful pitch workshops at 2010’s Over The Air event. We thought that the information shared in the session was so useful, that we should share it here with you for a recap if you attended, or to learn from if you weren’t there. A big thanks to DCKTN for sponsoring this session and thank you to David and Penny who ran it.

A touch of Zen?
What has an elevator pitch got to do with Zen?  Well good presentation is all about learning to let go of your inhibitions and achieving absolute focus on the objective by keeping things simple, eliminating all the distracting detail along with the bad communication habits you might have.  So take the Zen approach to pitching.   Penny Jackson and I put together some communication exercises and questions for entrepreneurs, start ups and mobile developers to workshop the "pitch" topic at Over The Air 10 some 4 months ago.  We did the workshop version back on September 11 (see handout below).  Here's our blog version.

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presentations from David Terrar.

What is an elevator pitch?
Well, the Wikipedia definition says:

"An elevator pitch or elevator speech is an overview of a product, service, person, group or organization, or project and is often a part of a fundraising, marketing communications, brand, or public relations program.  The name "elevator pitch" reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver an elevator pitch in the time span of an elevator ride, or approximately thirty seconds to two minutes."

The idea is that you encapsulate what your product, app or project is all about.  If you get this right it will be the start of all of your messaging.  You'll probably have different versions for different audiences in different contexts:

  • A phrase or strap line

  • 2 Lines to encapsulate what you are all about

  • A 1 minute version, or maybe a 2-3 minute version for when you've got that virtual "elevator ride" with somebody important

  • A 20 minute version for the Venture Capitalists or investors who might help you fund your dream.

Why do it?
You want to get people interested and grab their attention.  You might be trying to  win business or you might be selling to potential investors to raise money to get the project off the ground.  You want to establish communication with someone/anyone who might help so you need to clarify what you are all about.  It is a great way of sense testing what you are doing  - can you get the message across and get people excited?  The pitch will help you get to as many people as possible.  You need to focus on what's important and Identify any weaknesses.  You should keep rehearsing and craft your message with continuous improvement.  If you discover you can't fully explain your product in 2 minutes, maybe it needs more work.  When you've got a good pitch, everyone in the organisation needs to be able to deliver it. 

Who is your audience?
It could be potential clients or existing clients.  It could be users who may or may not be clients, depending on the product.  It could be investors, the press, the boss, employees, potential partners, the bank manager or even friends and family (and maybe friends down the pub to explain what the hell it is that you do). Everyone, including people who aren’t interested.

What makes a bad pitch?
Back in 2006 at a technology event in San Francisco (without naming names) I saw the founder of a SaaS collaboration software company pitch his product to one of my friends who has been in the industry even longer than I have.  This friend is about as tech savvy as they come, having done most of the IT jobs, edited a major technology magazine, developed and marketed his own software product and been an industry analyst for a few years.  After 25 minutes of explanation he still had no clue as to what this product was for.  The cardinal sin in pitching is not knowing the subject, but it's even worse if you are so close to the topic that all you can do is dive in to the detail so that you can't see the wood for the trees - that's what was happening with that CEO/founder in San Francisco.   You might present a confusing message, go on for too long, or present something that is irrelevant.  You might present too quietly, or underwhelm them with your lack of excitement.  You might use unrealistic superlatives and switch the audience off - if yours is the best, you better explain why with evidence to back it up.  You might demonstrate a lack of understanding of the market, or have a financial plan that you can't explain properly.   You need to avoid any or all of these mistakes.  

What makes a good pitch?
You need to focus the pitch on the benefits of your product, app or project first, last, always - you've got an objective to achieve and nothing else matters!  But before you even open your mouth, every good pitch needs preparation.  Ask questions in advance and tailor your message to the audience.  A good pitch will have a story, or take you on a journey.  It will be simple and credible and compelling.  It should grab the attention right from the start.  It needs to be clear and concise.  It should avoid the technical details, they'll come later if they are actually needed at all.  The audience needs to know what it does, and probably don't care how.  The pitch should capture what is unique about your proposition, but above all you need to communicate your passion.  Passion and enthusiasm will trump any things that go wrong or questions you don't answer as well as you would like.  You need to build confidence and "hook them" so they want more.  That means that your pitch should lead towards a call to action, or specific next steps.

A good pitch is a dialogue, and not just a broadcast.  That means you've got to listen as well as present.  Make sure that you invite questions and deal with them along the way.  Remember, people buy people more than things.  Buying decisions are rarely logical, but usually based on emotion.  Don't be afraid to think differently, or even to be controversial.  But the key thing is you need to see it their way - put yourself in the shoes of your audience.

Why does everybody start with PowerPoint?
This is more about the long version, than the 2 minute pitch.  In the time before PowerPoint, people used to think about what visual aids they might use to bring their pitch to life.  These days in the business world we've been trained to start with PowerPoint.  Too many people put together their material in slide form as part of the creation process, and they lean on those slides to give them structure.   Recently I was at a Cloud Computing Roadmap conference and it felt like some of the  presenters were competing for some special "unintelligible presentation" award for putting the most words and diagrams on to a single page.    Too many slides are bullet point prompts to remind the presenter of what to say next, more like a handout than what they really should be - a visual message to make that particular point for the audience.  Don't get us wrong - you should use PowerPoint or Keynote slides where appropriate and in context, but not always.  If you do use PowerPoint, keep slides to a minimum, make them uncluttered and use more pictures than text.  We see too many "corporate" style slides with too many words, too many bullets, and in a font size that make them impossible to read from anywhere in the room.  Your voice and your passion might be all you need, but you should also consider using a flip chart stand, or a whiteboard, or some props.  These days, making a video is so easy and cost effective, that might be the route to take.  

How should your pitch start?
You need to highlight how the product, app or project benefits the client right up front.  You might start with your compelling proposition, or you might use a story or a character.  You could use a quote, or a question, or a startling statistic.  To startle is a good concept here, because you have to grab their attention and pull them in to your story as quickly as you can.  If we go back to the mistake made by that founder who wasn't getting his message across back in 2006, you need to provide a crystal clear definition of the problem you are solving. 

Do you have a tag line?
If it's possible, you should encapsulate the project, app or product in a single phrase or sentence.  If you can distil the idea down to it's essence, it always helps.  The effort is worth it, because a mantra is much better than a mission statement in explaining what you do.  Make sure you test it with people so they "get it" - they being the target audience and we mean all of those different constituencies we mentioned earlier.

How do you tell the story?
Like any story it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  You have to get them interested, explain the core message, and have a call to action.  You need to explain the cast of characters involved, make sure it's engaging and let your passion shine through.  Good presenters have presence, charisma and good social skills, but these are all skills anybody can learn to do better.  You might use quotations, but avoid jargon and technical detail.  Use attention grabbing facts and make the story an evolution.  We've said it before, but it's so important - put yourself in their shoes

Depending on the context, and your audience you will need to assemble the right team, and make sure you have the answers to anticipated questions already prepared.  Listen and respond, make it a dialogue and try to leave them wanting more.

What about delivery?
This is where good presentation skills come in handy.  You need your passion and enthusiasm - it's a cliché  but they'll be more impressed with the height of your enthusiasm than the depth of your knowledge.  You need clarity and to have tailored the pitch to this particular audience.  Get the visual aids right, if you need them.  Make eye contact with everybody you’re pitching to.  Try to entertain, and be confident - If you are enjoying it, they'll enjoy it.  When you do get the conversation going you need to take care that it is a dialogue, and not debate.  When something goes wrong, don't apologize, just recover and carry on - a lot of the time they probably won't even notice. 

When you're presenting, do you get a dry mouth, stage fright, or worry about losing your train of thought?  The best way to counter that is to rehearse and  rehearse and rehearse, especially down the pub, or with friends & family.  As well as getting comfortable with the words, you'll test the pitch properly, and testing is essential.  One other thing that helps improve anyone's presentation style is to get someone to video you, and then watch yourself with all the mannerisms and bad habits you didn't know you had so you can see the kind  mistakes you make.  It's painful, but it will help you improve.  And our last point here is a difficult one.  With all of this rehearsing and refining we're asking you to do, you need to try and make the pitch sound spontaneous too!

What do you need to cover?
This depends on the context and the audience.  You have to cover the core message - the problem you are solving, and the benefits you can give them.  What is the opportunity?  What is the return?  You need to highlight why you are unique.  When you are pitching to potential investors, spend more time on the quality of the team than your business plan and the financial numbers.  Investors back people more than the plan, because business planning is where their expertise  comes in.  Cover the market, your business model, and the competition.  When it comes to the plan, look at what Guy Kawasaki says in The Art of the Start - "Weave a MAT" of Milestones, Assumptions and Tasks.  Spell out what you need.  Be honest, and don't try and hide anything.  Cover the risks and the issues and explain next steps.  And don't forget to prepare what to do or say next if they say yes!

So in Summary

  • Tell a story

  • Start from the audience’s point of view

  • Think benefits and needs

  • Test your message thoroughly

  • Use energy and enthusiasm

  • Be clear and concise

  • Avoid too much detail

  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

  • Follow the 9 C’s of a great pitch

The 9 C's of a great Pitch
We started to use a lot of C words in some of the explanation above.  Chris O'Leary pulled together a great prompt for what you need to focus on in his "Elevator Pitch Essentials".  A good pitch needs to be

– Clear
– Concise             
– Compelling
– Credible
– Conceptual
– Concrete
– Consistent
– Customized
– Conversational

Take a look at the last few pages of the Pitch Handout for a list of recommended books, some references, and our contact details if you want to know more.  Penny and I would love to hear from you.

This post was first published on David Terrar’s blog here.