The Pitch

We’ve all seen the TV shows… Nervous start-ups go up against a panel of investors, giving their elevator-pitch followed- almost instantaneously- by a round of severe grilling.  The lucky few survive, with more cash, less equity and hopefully a brighter future.

The phenomenon of ‘the pitch’ however, once exclusively the prevail of start-up land, is now part of business life.  Clients that I advise, ranging from early-stage companies, to research scientists looking to raise huge funds and even CEOs in corporations all find that those short, sharp ‘opportunities’ to present their idea, position or project manifest regularly in their roles.  The art of being a great pitcher therefore is an important success factor!

Why Pitching Matters

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with many of the world’s most prominent investors.  When I’ve asked them about what drew them into a particular investment, the answer is unanimous – the people.   When I reflect back on business I’ve invested in, and the hundreds of investor pitches I’ve seen?… the answer is the same – and often (as many have) I’ve invested in the ‘weaker’ idea because of the people, and dismissed the ‘better’ idea for the same reason.

The pitch can take many formats.  It could be an interview for a new job, a presentation to an investor or your board, a sales-opportunity with a new client, or even a meeting with a policy-maker to change laws in your sector.  In all of these cases, understanding what makes a great pitch, and utilising those techniques can help you get the outcome you want.

Be Focussed, Precise and Concise

Before we delve into the how, it’s important to note that pitches- by their very nature- are short.  You need to be focussed, precise and concise.  FOCUS on the outcome you want and include PRECISELY the information relevant to that, being CONCISE to discard anything irrelevant.

Your specific outcome may vary; but the general principle is that a ‘pitch’ is a chance for you to get someone’s attention for some kind of follow-up, whether that’s a meeting, a second interview or even- dare I say it- a second date…. !

The Secrets of the Perfect Pitch

Every situation is different, as is every individual, but the most impactful pitches do have some shared characteristics:

Get over your fear:

I’ve rarely met anyone who genuinely doesn’t get nervous or anxious about public speaking, and that’s not a bad thing.  Those nerves and those anxieties can keep you on top of your game.  Fear however, is a killer.   Getting over the fear factor is critical- and it’s important to realise that the ‘sensation’ of fear is often just an extension of your anxiety rather than being a reason to be scared.   Over time, and with practice, the anxiety can become a huge positive factor in your approach.  My top tip? Mindfulness – by far and away, mindfulness techniques have been the most successful tools I’ve seen in helping my clients (and myself!)  deal with anxiety in these situations.

Understand your strengths:

This may sound like an obvious statement, but we’re all different.  We can all watch elevator pitches online and feel we’re not as confident, good-looking, experienced or prepared as the individuals presenting- but that’s just our inner demon talking.  Every single one of us has a strength we can play to, it may be that you’re a very warm person, a ferociously details oriented person, a very animated and mobile person, or that you have a particular disposition that people just get.  Ask your partner, your friends and those closest to you about what they think are your best personality characteristics.  These are the ones you need to focus on when you’re pitching.

You are NOT a machine:

There’s a reason that presentations are often called ‘death by PowerPoint,’ and many of the most masterful presentations don’t even need slides… More than anything, you need to realise that first and foremost, you’re a storyteller – and in any pitch, you have to engage the emotions and interest of your audience.  When I’ve been coaching people on this, a great method is to do a small thinking exercise.  Imagine you’re sat with a friend, you’ve achieved a successful outcome for whatever that situation is – it may be getting the investor, getting the job – and imagine your friend asked you, “so tell me, how did you do it?” – whatever you say next is pretty good as the basis for a pitch!

Watch yourself (and others):

Body language is a critical part of how people judge us.  Research shows us that within the first few seconds of meeting someone, the primitive parts of their brain subconsciously decide whether or not they trust and value us.  Body language is critical to this – and one of the most effective ways to address this is to record yourself pitching, watch it back, and keep improving iteratively.    A top tip is to go online and watch prominent politicians, actors, actresses, lecturers and even preachers – these guys have presentation down to an art, and you can learn a lot from watching their style, pace and body language.

Practice, Practice and even more practice!

No great speaker has become so overnight – practice is crucial, even if it’s just with your partner or friends.  Practice your delivery and make sure you get honest feedback to improve from.  This can be painful at times; nobody likes to be criticised- but it’s important!

Understand your audience:

This may seem like obvious advice, but you would be amazed at how many times speakers don’t take their audience into account.  If you’re going for a new job, there’s a big difference meeting the head of HR in your prospective employer’s business, versus the owner of that business…. If you’re raising finance, there’s a big difference meeting a crowd of general investors, versus a crowd of very specific investors in your sector.   A bit of common-sense (or research on Linkedin!) can help you make sure you understand what will make your audience tick.

The Hardest Secret of All

Every year, I judge at a prestigious business competition in Houston where hundreds of the most talented student businesses in the world compete with each other to win millions of dollars of prize money.  Some of these teams have ideas and concepts which could- without a doubt- change the world, and all of them have to deliver short (1 minute) elevator pitches to panels of investors- many of whom have made billions in their respective sectors.

The most successful teams are the ones who present with authenticity and passion.  You could have the next cancer cure, but unless your audience believes in you, they won’t invest in you.

As the great baseball star Earl Weaver once said, “Nobody likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.