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Five things to avoid when pitching a startup to investors

22 July 2019

The article at a glance

Simon Hall, coach and mentor at the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre and former BBC News correspondent, advises startups on pitfalls to avoid. …

Simon Hall, coach and mentor at the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre and former BBC News correspondent, advises startups on pitfalls to avoid.

Young businesswoman giving presentation on future plans to her colleagues at office
  1. Don’t overlook your opening
    Do you want to avoid the five biggest errors in giving a pitch? If so… See what I did there? I cunningly tempted you into reading on. Why? Because modern attention spans could shame a goldfish, and that means it’s essential to grab the attention of your audience quickly. If you don’t intrigue in the opening seconds, they’ll be on their phones looking at their emails, messages or social media. So, what’s the secret to a strong opening? The answer is making yourself our hero, riding to our rescue against a familiar foe.

    These are impressive examples from presentations I’ve seen in my work at the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School:

    – ‘This treatment can offer people with Multiple Sclerosis what insulin means to diabetics.’
    – ‘Everyone likes a snack. But here’s the problem. Tasty snacks aren’t healthy, healthy snacks aren’t tasty. Our snack is both healthy and tasty.’
    – ‘Do you need to dress smartly, but don’t have time to shop? We’ve got the answer.

    In other (brief) words: Get straight to the point, impress your audience from the outset, and leave them with no option but to listen.
  2. Don’t muddle your message
    Keep your slides simple. Go for striking images, and sparsity of words, because if your audience is reading the slides they’re not listening to you. Bullets tend to work best, and three is the magic number. The human eye and ear love the pattern of threes:

    Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
    – The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
    – Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight.

    If you can find a memorable way of summarising your key message, like those above, so much the better. As for what to say, you know your business inside out, and naturally you want to tell us everything about it. But a pitch doesn’t sell. It just starts a conversation.

    So less is more. Keep it short and simple. Intrigue us into wanting to meet up later and find out more. That’s when the business gets done.
  3. Don’t trap yourself for time
    If you’ve got five minutes for a pitch, don’t try to fill every second. Allow yourself 10 per cent leeway. So if you’re pitching for five minutes, rehearse about four and a half minutes.

    Why? Because something will inevitably happen. You’ll stumble. Perhaps a door will slam, or someone will cough, forcing you to pause. When that happens, you won’t get flustered because you’ll know you have space to cope. Giving yourself leeway helps you to perform with confidence.
  4. Don’t hide your heroism
    You’ll probably be nervous, which makes it tempting to hide behind the lectern or computer. Don’t. Come on out, stand square in the middle of the floor, and dominate the space. Show absolutely no fear. That’s important, because we buy into you as much as your business. Your posture should be strong, proud, and radiating authority. Dress smartly as well: that gives you confidence, and also shows you’re taking this opportunity seriously.

    And don’t be afraid to pause, particularly after an important point. A second for your words to sink it can really magnify their impact.
  5. Don’t blunder in blindly
    Get familiar with the room well before it’s time for your presentation. Arrive early. Work out where you’re going to stand, and see how far you’ll have to project your voice. Visualisation is also good psychology for a big moment. Tennis ace Andy Murray would stand on court at Wimbledon and imagine himself hitting winning shots. Try doing similar. Imagine how well this presentation is going to go, the smiles and nods of you audience. It’ll give you confidence. And don’t forget to make sure the technology works: get your presentation loaded up and make sure it runs without a hitch. Finally, rehearse, rehearse, and then rehearse some more. As the great golfer Gary Player said, when asked how he always seemed to get lucky at that critical win-or-lose moment of a tournament: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”