Whether you are looking for funding, new clients, or ambitious partnerships to move your business forward, your success always depends on your ability to pitch. Whether you have a few minutes or a few sentences, you must be able to explain what you do, why you’re different, how your products and services create value – and why your audience should trust you.
Yes, it’s a tall order. But for most entrepreneurs, it should be Job One.
The secret of a great presentation is to answer your audience’s questions before they ask them. It’s impossible to anticipate every question, but they generally run along similar lines. Your listeners want to know who you are, really; whether you know what you’re talking about; and what makes you worth listening to.
At a recent pitch competition featuring seven cool tech firms, two guest judges – business experts with varied accomplishments – asked some of the most insightful questions I’ve heard. What each of these questions reveals, moreover, is that the entrepreneurs consistently left crucial points out of their presentations. Let’s review them together so that your next pitch tells the best story possible.
The Scene: The MaRS Innovation auditorium in Toronto. The event: The Canadian round of a 15-city “Open Innovation” competition run by Japan’s NTT Data, a US$16-billion-a-year software giant looking for creative partners and technologies. Besides two NTT Data executives, the judges were Luce Veilleux, a fintech entrepreneur who is now president of Toronto investment group ANAi Global, and Ramtin Attar, head of design and social impact for Autodesk Inc.
The presenters’ names have been withheld. They suffered enough.
The first presenter was the co-founder of a company that uses new technologies to help companies improve employee engagement. He said his two-year-old company is helping to “improve lives at work” in 65 countries.
But at the end of his five-minute presentation, the judges asked, “How did your company get into 65 countries?” He was forced to admit most of that business comes from a small number of clients with global offices. Most observers would assume that “65 countries” represented years of effort. Finding out the company just piggybacked on other firms’ platforms was definitely deflating. Moral: Stretching the truth is a poor way to win trust.
The same CEO didn’t do a great job of explaining how his firm created value. So a judge asked, “Do you have any success stories you can share?” Great question, said the CEO. But then he didn’t tell one. Moral: Always include customer value in your pitches. And practice telling client-success stories so you can crush it when asked.
One NTT judge asked whether the company was profitable. “Yes,” said the CEO. “I like to say we’re customer-funded.” The audience was impressed; profitable tech startups are rare as hen’s dentures. Moral: If your startup has real traction (profit), let people know.
The second speaker made a similar mistake, spending most of his time explaining his firm’s payment technology. It was a good story, but it prevented him from telling better ones. When Veilleux asked, “Are you making money?” — the answer was yes — the CEO was able to explain how his firm earns revenue while undercutting traditional bank fees. Moral: If you have a great margin story, tell it! Don’t count on people asking about it.
Many new technologies today are complicated and take time to explain. But they’re just the means to an end, as Veilleux reminded another presenter. After he described his company’s innovative business services, she asked, “When selling to customers, what benefits do you lead with?” That refocused attention on the key questions: How do you create value, and what makes you different? Moral: Tighten the technical pitch and focus on benefits.
Autodesk’s Attar showed his cross-examination skills when he asked another presenter: “What’s your competitive advantage over rivals?” That’s pretty much a warning that you didn’t do a great job explaining your company’s competitive position. Moral: Always look for ways to describe what makes you different, and what makes you better.
Another presenter – representing a company with an unusual name – pitched his business so well that Attar fell back on the innocuous question: “Where did your company name come from?” Sadly, the CEO revealed only that the name came from a partner’s wife. He fumbled the chance to tell a memorable story about the birth of his firm’s mission and culture. Moral: Develop a compelling origin story, and tell it whenever you’re asked.
And a warning to entrepreneurs who base their pitches on citing recent deals or opportunities. The judges showed a keen appetite for details on how those deals came about. At the NTT Data event, as so often happens, it turned out many such deals evolved from random connections rather than any plan. Admitting that an opportunity developed by chance rather than strategy tends to erode a listener’s faith in your company. Moral: Always tell the truth. But if you can’t credit all your wins to strategy, reiterate those customer benefits and the immediate passions they create. There’s a reason that clients, and even trial customers, come to you for help – so make those solutions the focus of your story.
Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship.