Being able to pitch your startup is one of the most important things an entrepreneur will do. It is a matter of distilling your company into a condensed, marketable message. It is an evaluation of what is actually important and what is better saved for further discussion.
It might be one of the most important things, but it is also one of the most poorly executed too. Most people forget to tell a story, and almost everyone forgets to keep it simple. Like them or loathe them, there is a better way...
If you’ve ever watched a pitch from Apple you know that showmanship rules supreme. People hailed Steve Jobs as a presentation visionary, understanding the psychology of his crowd. Then Tim Cook took the helm and showed that it was no fluke, this can be replicated.
Blending an effortless style with passion are the hallmarks of an awe-inspiring demonstration. It seems to come natural to the Apple leaders but only with intense concentration is it made possible. Under the hood are hours of revisions, countless practice, and razor-sharp focus on simplicity.
1) Keep it dumb.
Apple’s design mantra is simplicity. It stems from the philosophy of zen, the works of Dieter Rams, and the obsessions of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive (Chief Design Officer at Apple and Jobs’ right hand man). Not only does it lead to globally revered product offerings, it builds a great foundation for a presentation.
Too often you see slides stuffed with text paired with diagrams – arrows pointing all over the place. This is not effective for the audience. Why? Because deciphering a complex set of buzzwords while paying attention to the passionate monologue of the entrepreneur isn’t going to happen. If your words are simple, they become memorable, repeatable, and often shareable.
An Apple slide will have no more than 20 words on it. More often than not, it will contain between one and ten words. This is extreme minimalism but it has the effect of making sure the listener scans the slide quickly and fixates on the speaker. If your pitch is entralling enough, you won’t need fancy diagrams to describe anything, your story will suffice.
When it comes to numbers, a graph or chart can be a cause of confusion too. What is the x-axis? What is that y-axis? What is the blue line? It is common to try to massage numbers so that a graph shows a hockey stick growth of users, sales or revenue. It’s unnecessary and might work against you.
Apple will place one single figure on the slide and let it sit there in all of its impressive glory. The important thing to remember here is that 5,000,000 pageviews will sound great to some, but unless your number has some context, the meaning can be lost quickly. Follow up the big reveal of the number with well-researched context. Put that piece of the story into perspective and guide the audience to the ‘aha’ moment.
Part of making something as simple as possible requires an understanding of the format. The use of less words on a slide is a great start, but what if fewer words make less sense? The idea is to focus in on one theme per slide, which can then be expounded on following screens. Instead of cramming a complex idea into one, single slide, why not try three, or four?
Sure, the Silicon Valley pitch norm bargains for a maximum of ten slides (product, team, growth metrics, etc), but you will be pitching to people that have seen that formula so many times that a high-quality alternative can be appreciated.
There is a principle to help in times that a few words on a slide just won’t cut it: the rule of three. It is a writing principle that has been tried and tested by Apple, by advertising executives, by literary geniuses. It is a more satisfying way to digest information by creating a rhythm of thought and visual coherency.
3) Build a story
This is where you must get the most creative about your pitch. Some of the most engaging presentations kick straight off with a personal anecdote that leads to the real reason the company exists, which can be an incredibly powerful way to help the audience connect and visualize.
Apple have started to kick off major events with beautifully shot videos that explain the growth of their company in places far, far from Cupertino. The crowds outside the new flagship stores in Shanghai, the beautiful constructions scattered around Europe. You are left with a plot line for the rest of the presentation that Apple are only getting started on their road to global success.
The most commonly used storyline that startups use to entice investors is the moment of frustration that lead to an untapped potential in the market. What made you acutely aware that a problem needed solving? Then what made you realize that that solution would be paid for by other people? Then what made the team assembled around you believe in it so strongly?
It works if the narrative is interesting, but it is the lowest common denominator in startup story pitches. Some startups are blessed with a humanitarian impact and that can be the most powerful narrative of all – as long as there is a viable business model. Other startups have a plain product but a great idea and this is where a fictional character story can work:
“Sarah is 28, she’s a professional and she likes to shop online. She is glued to her phone 70% of the day. Our product is perfect for her because it combines a mobile app with shopping.”
Now, this is not the most enticing example but it shows you how it can be done at the barebones. Work out the elements that are most essential to your value proposition and weave them into a story that keeps people hanging on by a thread.
The final piece is humor. Humor can be a tool to help people remember you – it’s infectious and leaves people with a good feeling. Here’s an example of how Steve Jobs used a humorous story to his advantage when his presentation started to bomb:
4) Time it right
This is a no-brainer: no-one will fully concentrate on something for more than 10 minutes without their mind wandering off. It might be because they simply switched off, or they’re anticipating their next meeting, but you will have only a short window to impress.
Apple’s events can last two hours, which is an incredibly long time to keep an audience captivated. They do it with slick 10-minute presentations and then they pass it onto someone else on their team that take the conversation in a new and refreshing direction – business to engineering, sustainability to design.
A great way for an entrepreneur can achieve this on a smaller scale is cutting your ten minute pitch into short chapters of two or three minutes and tagging in your co-founder or teammate. It gives the investor time to understand the different personalities in the company and it makes for a better show.
Bear in mind, though, that this can be a recipe for disaster. If poorly rehearsed, the “switch over” to your co-founder can cause confusion between the presenters and make the startup look amateurish and incapable of communication. That is why the final point is the most important of all...
5) Prepare. Prepare. Then prepare some more.
This can hardly be stressed enough when it comes to nailing a pitch. You’ll never really know the numbers of hours the Apple team pour into the perfection of their show – you can only imagine that the number is startling. If your life’s work is going to be the success of the company you are raising money for, that level of dedication is necessary.
Your first, second, and third attempts are compiling your speech, slides, and story just aren’t going to cut it. You’ll revisit the drawing board constantly but do not mistake that as failure – it is the success of knowing you are getting nearer to pitch perfect.
Once you are happy with your product and you have tried it on a few fresh ears and eyes, it is time to practice it at any given opportunity you get. In the shower, on your commute, to your child, to your spouse, to your high school buddy. Do it, do it again, then do it fifty more times.
One of the most rewarding parts of rehearsal is building in the tiny nuances that make eyes open and mouths drop. The pauses, the exaggerated words, the body language. Once you have it all locked down to memory and it is second nature, the confidence you exhibit in your investor meeting will make it blatantly obvious that you are certain that your company is a winner.
Go out there and put on a show!