One of the core aspects of my work when I was a virtual CMO was to help people communicate. I worked with people in all phases of business — entrepreneurs, execs in ongoing businesses, and startups with every kind of “ask”. Before you have a shot at landing your “ask”, you need to perfect your pitch. Here are some lessons learned from the hundreds of pitches I developed for and with customers.
First of all, your pitch needs to answer the Five W’s (and one H) in 90 seconds or less. The reason it’s called an “elevator pitch” is because you should be able to tell your story while you have someone trapped for at least a few floors — when that door opens, you want them to stick around, not bolt off. Your job is to answer these five questions:
Who you are?
What experience and skills do you bring? Who are you working with? Your track record matters –your prior success will provide context for your plan and boost confidence for investors. If you are just starting out, explain the motivation behind your drive and life experiences to date.
What you are doing?
Explain your idea/business in a succinct phrase that includes the market segment and buyer you address and the technology or other elements you use to make it happen. Wrap these both around the message of what business problem you solve — this is the core of your pitch. I have worked with many startups who stumble at this point: they have an idea, they think it is great, but have no idea how big their market is or how badly their invention is needed. Mitchell Harper wrote a brilliant post guiding startups through this very issue, saying that validating an idea is the most important step you can take before you launch your business. He goes even further to say that unless you are solving a top-tier problem, don’t even bother to launch.
People spend money to fix problems: if you can’t explain how your product or service will solve a demonstrated business need, then you’re going to have a hard time. You won’t be able to raise capital, engage the press, or close deals. I have seen many executives stumble at this part in developing their pitch — if (when) this happens to you, recognize it for what it is: an opportunity to do more research and/or pivot. Make sure you know who your target audience is, can demonstrate and quantify their specific need, and show how your idea will address it.
Know your target audience, demonstrate and quantify its specific need, and show how your idea will address it.
If you feel solid about the market you’re serving, then it’s time to explain the broad overview of what you’re doing. Don’t use buzzwords, and don’t assume the audience understands anything! If your idea is technical or complex, focus on examples and comparisons that help people contextualize the idea. For example, HMS works with a company that develops very powerful financial modeling software — when talking with people who are outside of the market, we often refer to it as “Excel on steroids.”
When will this happen?
Do you have a prototype or beta? Are you in production but pre-revenue? Have you just hit a revenue milestone? Are you an established business? Give people an idea of where you are on the trajectory.
Geography may or may not be important to your pitch: if being local, or working in the US vs. international is key to your concept, make sure to incorporate it in your pitch.
How do you plan to bring this to life?
Telling a reporter, customer, or investor about how you plan to make this happen is an opportunity to build trust. Refer back to your business experience, to your unique approach, or other element of your business plan that can inspire the confidence that you’ll need to earn in order to get buy-in.
Draft, Edit and Practice and Perfect
With your w’s and h complete, edit your pitch down to 90-seconds. Now test it with people who will give you honest feedback. That means finding someone who’s not afraid to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Encourage them to push back on anything that is unclear so that you can address it and perfect it. Ask them to repeat your pitch back to you in their own words — you will be surprised how often what you mean to say is not being heard. Once you perfect it, practice, practice, practice. It should be muscle memory.
The final piece of your pitch is the “ask” — what do you want from the person sitting across the table or next to you at that networking event? That is an art in itself and a standalone topic for next time.
Crafting a pitch that gets results is a crucial task, and one where a communications person can be a real help.