Eleven Notes for the Perfect Pitch

 M. Jackson Wilkinson is a Founder of Kinsights, a smarter community-powered guide to parenthood. Jackson and Kinsights were part of the first Rock Health class (then as WeSprout), and has since been a Rock Health mentor, helping dozens of young companies improve their pitches.

As part of the School of Rock Health, I gave a class on pitching and presenting. Humans are natural-born communicators, and we get tons of practice at it, but pitching is a very different beast: often centered on monologues in front of judgmental audiences with high stakes. So for many entrepreneurs, new or experienced, it can be an uncomfortable and unfamiliar situation, making it tough to be your best.

What’s worse, you can have the best idea, the best solution to a huge problem, and if you’re not able to clearly, memorably, and convincingly communicate that, you’ll have a big challenge getting anywhere.

Over the course of the ninety minutes, we covered a lot of ground – way too much for a single blog post – but here are eleven big things to think about as you prepare your pitch.

Be Yourself

When you think of great pitchmen, you likely think of Billy Mays (rest in peace), who was loud and pushy. Maybe you think of a used car salesman, smiling as they tell you what you want to hear, happy to let you drive off the lot with a lemon. Fortunately, investors and potential partners don’t want you to be either of these guys. They want you to be who you’re best at impersonating: yourself. Any time or energy you spend trying to be someone you’re not is simply a waste, better spent on your messaging, your visuals, or even just your product.

Be Clear

Often, you don’t have very long to make your case. Sometimes, you’ll have but a couple minutes to show someone that you can solve a problem worth solving. It’s tough to pack weeks or months of effort into such a small package, so it’s best not to waste your words. Make sure that everything you say speaks to your vision, so that if nothing else, they’ll understand that much.

Be Prepared

In fact, the shorter the pitch, the more time you’ll need to put into it if you want to nail it. When you have thirty minutes, you can get off track for a minute or two and still have more than enough time to recover. Get off track for a minute during a five-minute presentation, and you’ve blown 20% of your time. Make sure you’ve run your presentation dozens of times, and you’re prepared to move on if the disaster happens – projector doesn’t work, slides don’t load, time is cut in half. A graceful recovery from a disaster can end up being your shining moment, but you can’t recover if you crash and burn.

Show Off Your Assets

Every company has its strengths and weaknesses, so make sure you focus on the former. Have amazing design? Spend more time on screenshots. Have a top-notch team? Focus on how you’re uniquely capable of executing. Cutting-edge tech? Talk about your existing (or potential) patent portfolio. Your pitch is your chance to curate the elements that show you off the best, so don’t squander it by talking about the things that aren’t in your wheelhouse.

Shape Your Message

The most effective pitches have a distinct arc to their messaging.  Steve Mandel talks about his SCIPAB structure for making a convincing argument:

* Situation: What is the status quo?
* Complication: What gets in the way? What is the problem we face?
* Implication: What needs to happen? What will happen if we do nothing to solve it?
* Plan: What’s your solution? How are you going to execute it?
* Action: What do you need the audience (ie. investors) to do?
* Benefit: What’s in it for them?

At its simplest, each of these can be one sentence. *That’s your elevator pitch.* But when you have more time, this also provides the structure for the bulk of your presentation. Again, you’re establishing that you have a problem worth solving, showing how you can solve it, and then opening the door for your audience to get involved. When in doubt, come back to this core structure.

Be Vivid

A solid message is the start, but it can be a big help to create an intellectual and emotional connection with your audience. This is where adding vivid, colorful supporting elements to your presentation can be very important:

* Images: Go for an emotional response, an image your audience can relate to.
* Stories: You’re great at telling your own stories, and they can bring you personal credibility.
* Quotations: Use sources that can earn the respect of your audience, whether it’s Mark Twain for a smart audience or a meme for a 4chan crowd.
* Statistics: These can bring credibility or surprise, as long as you’re not obvious. Use them only when they actually pack a punch.

Keep Your Slides Simple

Unlike everything your instincts are telling you, the less you have on each slide, the better. The simple rule: have a solid reason for every element you’ve placed on every slide. Only when you can’t remove anything else is your deck simple enough. Everything else is just a distraction from you, your message, and your goals. So that means:

* Get rid of the cheesy slide theme you chose in PowerPoint. Find a nice soft background color to do the work for you.
* If you use an image, make it full-screen, perhaps with a simple text overlay if you need it. It will do the job far better than a smaller, cropped image.
* Oh, and if you’re using an image, never stretch it larger. It will look trashy.
* Lose the fancy transitions. Again, they’re just a distraction. Very few transitions need anything more than a simple dissolve.
* Keep fonts to a minimum. Almost all of my presentations stick to one bold font and one sophisticated font, and those two provide all the contrast you’ll need.
* Be subtle. When you have fewer things on each slide, your audience will better recognize nuance.
* Get rid of most of the words. Rely on your speaking to relay most of the information, using slides only to emphasize the most important points.

Finally, don’t be afraid to have many simple slides – it will work out far better than fewer cluttered slides.

Your Presentation is not a Handout

The things that make for a great hand-out – a comprehensive overview, details, and a format easily read while sitting at your desk – are exactly the types of things that make presentation slides terrible. It might take a bit more time, but do take the opportunity to make one deck for your presentation, and a separate one to leave behind or send via email.

In fact, a well-done presentation deck may very well be incomprehensible for someone who hasn’t seen the verbal presentation in action. For Kinsights, our presentation deck is between 30-50 fast-moving slides, depending on how much time we have. Our hand-out deck is nine more densely-packed slides that cover all the same bases.

You may make them both in Keynote (or, I suppose, PowerPoint), but they’re different tools, so use the right tool for the right job.

Use the Right Chart

Charts and graphs can be a great way to put statistics into perspective, to more convincingly tell the story behind the numbers. But you can lose all your impact (or even your credibility) if you don’t choose the right kind of chart. Showing a comparison over time? Use a line chart to demonstrate the trend. Showing the portion of a whole? Pie charts are a simple way to go. If you’re not sure, use this chart to help you think through it.

Don’t Sweat a Little Silence

Most of us get a little squeamish when silence enters a conversation. But slowing down, taking deep breaths, and letting a thought linger for a few extra moments can be a great way to let important points sink in. As Mark Twain wrote (see what I did there?): “the right word can be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a timely pause.”

Remember What Your Mama Taught You

They’re the things we heard for the first decade of our lives, whether it was from parents, teachers, or, most frighteningly of all, nuns. Posture, eye contact, pacing, projecting your voice. Most of us slack off on one or more of these, but there’s no better time to nail them than during a pitch – you’ll look confident, collected, and in control.

* Rest your arms at your side, not across your chest or in your pockets.
* Make eye contact with your audience if possible, but only for a phrase or two at a time.
* Keep your weight balanced, feet a few inches apart, and knees unlocked. Shoulders back, head up.
* Face your audience, not the projector screen.
* Pacing back and forth looks nervous, but moving around in the available space looks like you’re in control of your surroundings.
* Natural and spontaneous gestures are great, but make sure they start from the shoulders.
* Unless you’re mongering fear in your pitch, smile. Be sincere and appropriate.
* Poker faces are for negotiations, not for presentations.

Nothing about pitching is easy. Even for those who are good at it, it can be exhausting and stressful. But if you have a clear and consistent message, you articulate it in a thoughtful way, and you provide a few emotional hooks to get your audience in your corner, you can come out on the other side unscathed. As with all things, practice makes progress, so learn from your mistakes and you’ll be more comfortable before you know it.