This year, I have been lucky enough to see startups pitching in five continents. Sometimes it happens in a room with hundreds of people; more often it is a couple of guys across a table. Some are full of confidence regardless of the quality of their business. No matter where I am, most startups prepare a pitch with the goal of getting that person to hear every word of the presentation. Many entrepreneurs fail to realize that no matter how awesome your product is and how incredibly rich and powerful you will be, potential investors and strategic partners must want to work with you before anything else will happen.
Think to your own interactions. If you like someone, you are more likely to want to learn more, spend more time with them and support their efforts. When the speaker doesn’t engage you, the fabulous features of their offering may be ignored because you have already tuned out, or the negative feelings you may have toward the presenter have transferred to the product.
In pitching to 1 to 1,000, the most common mistake many entrepreneurs make is in fielding questions and comments from judges or other designated “experts.” It is unfortunate when everyone is in awe of a great pitch and the speaker ruins all the excitement about his business by becoming defensive or rude in a response to a question. Triggers for undesirable reactions include but are not limited to: 1. “Dumb” questions; 2. Condescending questions; and 3. Rude or disrespectful comments.
It is extremely difficult to explain what your business is and what you have been doing in the many months/years you have devoted to it in five minutes. While you live and breathe your business, these people may not know the space, understand your unique twist or comprehend a key assumption that you take for granted. Often entrepreneurs fail to tailor their pitch to the audience to the extent they should, leading to major communication challenges that may result in unfortunate interactions after the pitch. You can come back from that easily, smiling while explaining how something works in an educational but respectful manner. That is a great opportunity for you to find ways to incorporate more language to tie together concepts that may not be obvious to your audience.
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The darker situation occurs when challenging or seemingly obvious questions are specifically posed to elicit a reaction. It may come veiled in a smile, or from the person you had most wanted to impress. It may start with a harsh criticism, that she has seen that 100 times or a statement like “that won’t work.” Or perhaps a simple question to explain how you arrived at your assumptions with an arrogant tone.
The key to overcoming unexpected questions and comments is practicing responses as much as you practice your pitch. Always ensure your tone is professional and you will earn respect and possibly a new advocate.
Let’s explore a few scenarios to get the best results in your pitch:
▪ Pitching to 20-10,000 people requires showmanship. Letting your passion for the product flow and staying high energy is key. If you aren’t excited about what you are doing, no one else will be. Questions will likely come from a pre-set group, so research who they are beforehand so you can offer answers that may incorporate their interests, backgrounds or expertise.
▪ Three to 20 people can be made to feel like an intimate group simply by introducing yourself and shaking hands around the room if feasible. Find ways to use humor or engage members of the audience briefly. With 20 or fewer people you can make eye contact with each person at least once.
▪ If you are speaking to one or two people, ask them about themselves. Be friendly! Your presentation should be more of a conversation that naturally flows from the introductions. While some of us hate “small talk,” it really makes a difference in creating the initial connection and sets a tone for a different level of rapport. Without it, investors often go straight to everything that is wrong and what won’t work. With it, I have witnessed many of those same investors give valuable guidance and supportive critiques. Even if they don’t like your idea, the real goal is for them to believe in you.
Susan Amat is the founder and CEO of Venture Hive, an entrepreneurship education company in Miami, Florida. Follow @SusanAmat on Twitter.