Small Business

Strategies to Make Your Pitch Perfect


Here's a four-part game plan young entrepreneurs can use to present themselves and their ideas with confidence

As a communications coach, I enjoy working with young entrepreneurs because they have energy, passion, and vision. But unless they have a famous parent, amazing connections, or have created a truly game-changing technology like Skype (EBAY), many face the challenge of pitching their ideas to skeptical listeners. Because of this, Tory Johnson, chief executive officer of recruitment services firm Women for Hire and workplace contributor to Good Morning America, recommends that young entrepreneurs perfect their public speaking skills.

"Even if you're pitching the best idea on earth, if you don't come across as confident and knowledgeable, you won't get heard. On the flip side, sometimes an idea that's not so hot—or one that's easy to poke holes in—will likely be considered because you connected personally with the people you were pitching. Don't underestimate the power and importance of these soft skills." I agree with Johnson. Here are four strategies for young entrepreneurs to use to pitch themselves and their ideas with confidence.

1. Follow your passion

Donald Trump has been promoting his new book, and I know millions of people enjoy reading his ideas or watching him speak in person. Trump's key message is not how to get rich in real estate. His key message is simply to "love what you do." It seems as though most of Trump's other principles of success are all based on this key concept. I saw Trump do a recent TV interview where he urged young entrepreneurs to "know their subject" cold. But he also explained that if you're passionate about your subject, you'll do what it takes to learn everything about it. You see, it all goes back to passion (BusinessWeek.com, 8/31/06). I can teach people how to present more effectively, but I can't teach passion. And without it, you will have a much tougher time winning people over to your ideas.

2. Craft a concise, memorable vision

A vision is different from a mission statement. A mission statement is a long, complicated paragraph often created by committee and destined to sit at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. A vision is a concise picture of a brighter future made possible by your product or service. Ideally, it should be 10 words or fewer. Yes, I have actually been told this by prominent venture capitalists. One investor told me that if an entrepreneur cannot describe his product in 10 words or fewer, he's not investing. Period.

Why? Because conciseness actually demonstrates a thorough understanding of a particular problem in need of a solution. Interesting, isn't it? For example, I was once told by an investor at Sequoia Capital that when the "Google (GOOG) guys" (Sergey Brin and Larry Page) first approached the firm, the two young Stanford students had no track record or experience running companies.

But Brin and Page had passion for digital information and a concise vision: Google would provide "access to the world's information in one click" (eight words). The investor said when his team heard this, they understood the vision immediately and were eager to hear more. That's the point of a powerful, concise vision. It may not get investors to open up their wallets, but they will start reaching for them.

3. Follow the 10/20/30 rule

If you're not accustomed to using presentation software like PowerPoint, start practicing now. Investors, partners, and potential customers want to have information presented visually and have a hard copy they can take with them. But keep in mind, presentations (BusinessWeek.com, 4/10/07) can be done well or very poorly. Former Apple (AAPL) evangelist turned venture capitalist, Guy Kawasaki, says he listens to hundreds of pitches, the majority of which "are so lousy that I'm losing my hearing." He's tired of useless jargon like "patent pending," "first mover advantage," and other empty terms. When I told Kawasaki that I was working on this column, he reminded me of his 10/20/30 rule.

The rule is simply: When giving a presentation, you should stick to 10 slides in 20 minutes with 30-point font. Following the rule forces you to refine your pitch. If you only have 10 slides, then you must edit the extraneous information. If you only give yourself 20 minutes to actually present your material, it forces you to stick to the most important information, and if you build slides with larger fonts, according to Kawasaki, "It will make your presentations better because it requires you to find the most salient points and to know how to explain them well." I have never seen a persuasive presentation that deviates greatly from this rule. It works.

4. Dress like a leader

Your listeners are making judgments within the first 90 seconds of meeting you. That doesn't give you much time to deliver content, does it? That means they are forming impressions based on your body language and what you are wearing. A military hero who was depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down once told me that great leaders always look a little better than anyone else in the room.

Not too long after that conversation, I spoke to a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan. He said, "You know what I remember about Reagan—it might sound funny, but he always looked more 'put together' than anyone in the room." It wasn't surprising to me. Don't just dress to look like your friends, dress (BusinessWeek.com, 1/19/06) but like the leader you want to become.

The creator of TV shows Survivor and The Apprentice, Mark Burnett, once said "all success begins with the ability to sell something, whether it's a shirt or an idea." Selling an idea is tough enough for most entrepreneurs. Young entrepreneurs often have the extra challenge of having little or no experience. A persuasive pitch can help you clear that hurdle and put you on a path to success.


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