Imagine you would like to share your idea with a super busy person, who refuses to accept a meeting with you. What can you do? Just wait for that person to take an elevator and jump right behind. Now you have an entire elevator trip from which your listener cannot escape. That is the initial setting of an elevator pitch. You have to say something short that will convince the other person to give you the meeting you want to further discuss the details of your idea. This means you have about 1 minute to say what you want.
Of course, elevator pitches do not always happen inside elevators. In the startup world, it is common to give this kind of presentation when introducing your company. In scientific conferences, when you are presenting your poster, you have to convince a passer-by to actually stay longer and listen to your explanation. What a lot of people do not realize is that elevator pitches are nothing more than a presentation. Therefore you have to put to work all the skills of an excellent presenter. Elevator pitches also happen in unstructured environments. For example, when someone asks, "what do you do?" during the Christmas office party of your partner.
I have reviewed the work done by several incubators and, to be honest, when it comes to presenting, pitching, etc. they are incredibly unsatisfactory. Scientists receive training on how to present their findings. It is surprising that in almost any other setting, presenting is undervalued. That is why I want to share my approach when it comes to pitching. The method works for anyone, but some examples are specific for scientists exploring the world of startups and capital.
Know your Audience
The most severe difficulty of elevator pitches is that you don't have time to make an introduction to your problem. Therefore it is crucial to know to whom you are pitching. This is step zero of any preparation. This will allow you to find common ground. Without it, there is no conversation possible, regardless of whether it is a pitch or not.
Speaking the same language is the broadest common ground possible. It is also the sine qua non requirement. If you are pitching your scientific poster at a conference, you can bet on the topic of the meeting as the common ground. If you are pitching to an audience in an incubator, the common ground is that the audience knows what building a startup means.
Of course, knowing your audience doesn't mean you have to target it all. When the group of people is very diverse, finding common ground may ultimately dilute what you can say, and thus the message gets lost. Therefore, you need to know your audience first. Then you can identify whom you are addressing within the larger group. If you are in a school, for example, you will have both students of diverse ages and adults. Their life experiences are very diverse, the language they use is very different. Then, you will have to define who you are addressing in that audience. Perhaps you can target both, maybe you want to grab the attention of only a part.
Know what outcome you expect
You need to determine beforehand what outcome you are expecting from the pitch, or what is your definition of success if you want to put it in other terms. If you are pitching your poster during a conference, perhaps you want to find possible collaborators to move forward. Maybe you are trying to find your next academic position. If you are pitching to Venture Capitalists (VC), you can be looking for money. You could also be testing the waters to see if they think your idea is good. Knowing what you expect also relates to narrowing down your target audience.
If you know you want to secure funding, you just care about being understood by the people with decision making. Imagine you are in a setting like the Y-Combinator pitching finals. You are in a big auditorium, and you have to pitch your idea. Do you care whether the hall gets your pitch, or do you care about the panel of VC's? The answer to this question can radically change the way to structure your pitch.
If you grabbed the VC's attention, they'd contact you again to discuss the details. If you caught the attention of the audience at large, they probably would follow you on Twitter or similar. In any case, you have to reflect on what outcome you are expecting. Of course, no one will make you an offer on the spot. But thanks to the pitch, you may manage to trigger a conversation later on. If you are pitching to a general audience, perhaps you could trigger curiosity from others, imagine what could be achieved if...
Trigger a conversation
Probably you've noticed from the previous section that the outcome of a good elevator pitch is always triggering a further conversation. Elevator pitches are short and, by definition, incomplete. If the result is a new conversation, then you have nailed it. However, if you don't trigger a discussion, it doesn't mean you failed. It is hard to know beforehand whether the people listening to you will relate to the problem you are solving, or if they can take any action by themselves. But, perhaps, the people who listened to you are intermediaries and can refer you to someone with enough decision-making capacity.
You have to be self-aware to understand the outcome of your pitch. Perhaps you are solving a problem that is not relevant for that specific group of VCs, and that is fine. Sometimes it is hard to know the particular details of your audience. However, in my experience, if you researched your audience well enough, you will always trigger a conversation with someone. If you have a well-developed pitch, in a group of 10 people, at least one will always come to talk to you. That math never fails. Remember that not all the talking will happen immediately; some will come later via e-mail or your social network channels. Perhaps you are pitching to a large group of people (even online), and triggering a conversation means following you on social media or signing up for a newsletter.
Pitching not only to Investors
Once you know who is going to listen to you and what you want to achieve, it is time to structure your pitch. The problem with online (or real-life) advice is that it never takes into account the context. I have seen messaged like avoid industry jargon. This implies you are pitching to someone without industry knowledge, but it may not be the case. It is typical for someone "with experience" to criticize that you used an acronym they don't know, but not if you use acronyms they do understand. It is acceptable to use ROI (return on investment), but not DIY (do it yourself) because you know, VC's have money, not time to do things themselves.
Jokes aside, never follow broad advice. Each pitch is unique, each context is unique, and the combination of context x pitch is uniquely squared. Therefore, being mindful and critic of whatever advice you get is key to success. If you are pitching to people who know what DIY is, then it is fine to use it. It can even generate a feeling of belonging to that group of people. Many examples of good pitches are based on consumer products, which relate to millions (or billions) of people on the planet. "Finding the information you want online is impossible. We make searching on the internet, simple and fast." Does that sound relatable to you? What about "When was the last time you backed up your documents? Synchronize and backup your files across devices automatically."
Forget the Problem-Solution-Team-Value
The problem of using Google or Dropbox as pitch examples is that they don't relate to what the majority of people do. Sure, as the audience of a pitch, you do understand. Still, as the pitch-giver, you will probably be coming from a very different position. A general advise is to structure your pitch such as Problem -> Solution -> Team -> Value. This is optimized only for some venture capitalists. They have their mind wrapped around this structure so deeply that they automatically extract the information they want and act in consequence. That is also one of the reasons why they impose that structure upon everyone else, regardless of the context.
It is important to explore different alternatives for pitches and see how they can be adapted according to the context in which they are given.
Pitching to an Investor
Let's start with the situation of a pitch to a possible investor. Imagine you have a company, and you are seeking money (all data is fake):
Trees in London generate 10 tons of leaves per year, and most of them end in the sewage, costing the city 10 million in maintenance. TreeCollector cleans the streets of the city and uses the leaves to make compost for organic farms. We are experts in waste management and sustainable development, with more than 5 years of experience. We are looking for 5 million investment for developing the first industrial-scale tree collecting truck.
Let's evaluate what we did. First, the pitch is less than 80 words long. This gives around 30 seconds if you say it out loud. We start by introducing the problem our company solves. We also present a number to give an idea of the size of the problem, which may not be known. We introduce the company through its name, TreeCollector, because it may be that some people heard of it in the past. We state what the company does and something unique: we make compost for organic farms. This is what distinguishes us from any other waste company. We then introduce the team, even if in a broad sense. We prove we are not improvised, and that we have been in business for a while. Finally, we clearly say what we want. If you don't have 5 million for us, then don't waste yours nor our time. Setting a clear expectation makes the process more efficient.
Pitching to a broad audience
Imagine now that the same company is not pitching to a VC, but to an audience of citizens. Probably what you would like to achieve is to make your brand more recognizable. Next time the city decides to sign a contract, citizens will know your name, and the political cost will be lower. In that case, we can be sure we don't need to mention the investment required. If we assume people care about sustainability, we could stress the compost component. And talking about money may not be the best since it doesn't give a real perspective. Most people won't have a clue about how much the city spends in waste management per year.
> How much did it hurt the last time you fell on the street because of wet leaves? At TreeCollector, we strive to make the city of London cleaner and more sustainable. With the collected leaves, we make compost for local farms. TreeCollector not only helps you walk safer on the streets during rainy autumn days, but it also makes a better world, one leave at a time. If you want to learn more, visit us at @treecollector.
Now, you see that the same problem is introduced in a completely different way. Is that really the problem we are solving? We actually don't care about falls hurting or not. We can't even be sure people actually fall because of leaves on the street. However, I can picture someone falling, probably my audience as well. That is our common ground, empathy for the fellow citizens of London. Perhaps you are thinking about elderly people, for whom a fall can mean big medical problems.
We use the world sustainable because we are making compost. We finish with a soft joke, with a catchy sentence, "one leave at a time." We mentioned the brand name three times. This is what we really wanted, people to remember us. And then we let people know how to know more about us. We didn't mention the team in this case because it doesn't feel relevant for the context.
Pitching to experts
The third scenario will be what happens if you are pitching this solution to a panel of experts on waste management. Probably everyone knows about the problem of making compost out of leaves. Perhaps they are also aware of the difficulties of scaling the process to the industrial scale. It is essential to know what you would like to achieve after the pitch. Let's say we would like to find a collaborator to help us understand the role of bacteria in our composting process:
> Using a unique mix of carbonated water and sulfuric acid, we developed a technique to make compost out of elm tree leaves. To keep the reactor working, we need to achieve a specific balance between carbon dioxide and nitrogen. We have observed that cyanobacteria thrive under these conditions and are crucial for the decomposition of leaves. We are now working on understanding the role of bacteria in the entire process.
This pitch has an entirely different structure. We don't even introduce the problem. There are many more exciting things to say. A non-expert wouldn't know whether making compost out of leaves is possible or not. On the other hand, we don't care about volumes, nor people falling on the streets. We start right away with our solution. We are also specific: The technique works only with some trees. We also show that since we generate carbon dioxide, we are not as sustainable as we were pitching earlier. Finally, our objective: we need someone to help us understand something. We made it in such a way that we don't expose our lack of knowledge to everyone, but just to people in the very narrow field of cyanobacteria.
Structure of a Good Pitch
The common ground
The three examples above show you that pitching can take different forms. Sometimes it can even be more different than what I've shown you. If you know your audience and you know what you want to achieve with the pitch, you already have a good idea about how to start and end.
Every presentation always starts with the common ground with your audience. In this way, you don't lose them as soon as you open your mouth. The common ground also helps you trigger the curiosity. If you want to trigger the interest of an investor, probably talking about money, volume, etc. enables you to develop a good foundation. Talking about the problem you solve puts them and you on the same framework. VC's are trained to understand the world through the problem/solution cycle, on which I will reflect on a different article.
If you are pitching to the general public, the common ground will be very different. Finding it takes a lot of reflection, primarily if what you are pitching does not address a problem that affects them directly. It is customary for scientists to pitch their research to a general audience. Understanding where is the common ground between the avant-garde work you do and someone who, at best, reads the newspaper requires that you stop and think deeply.
The common ground, however, is not exclusive to pitches. In almost anything you present, you would like to start by the common ground. Pay attention to how I have started this article: you want to share your idea with a busy person. Probably this happened to you more than once, in different settings. This is my common ground. If you have never experienced the situation, possibly the rest of the article wouldn't be for you anyways. Scientific articles always start with an introduction. However, the introduction assumes a particular common ground with the reader, they do not target a general audience.
The Call to Action
Call to action, or CTA is a term used a lot on websites. It is the button that reads "Sign Up" in bright colors after a paragraph with sentences like "All the TV content of the world at your fingertips." It states what the person on the other side is expected to do in case of interest. In the three pitches above, we made clear what the call to action was. In the first example, we used the need for investment. For the general audience, we used the "want to know more about us," which is very vague but can work out fine in a lot of cases. Finally, for the third example, we used the "we need help" approach. We implied there is something we don't know yet, and if you have an answer contact us.
The call to action is closely related to the expectations after the pitch. If we seek for an investment, we make it clear. If we are looking for a partner, or to increase our followers on Twitter, etc. You have to be mindful about crafting a call to action that is discreet enough that feels natural. You won't say something in the lines of, "Please follow us on Twitter, we need more followers." To a panel of experts, you wouldn't tell, "we need your help, please." Avoiding asking for favors is rooted in how power relations work. If you say at loud we need help, it puts you in a position of weakness. The other is saving you, and therefore they can impose on you.
You must be prepared for your call to action. If you pitch to a VC, for example, be sure to have business cards with you. If the person is busy, they won't bother in finding you back. If you share a website or social profile, be sure it is up and running, especially contact e-mails, test them. In scientific meetings, business cards (more appropriate would be to call them scientific cards) are slightly less popular but no less useful. Remembering who you talked to during a large conference requires a lot of skill.
Once you know how you open and how you close your pitch, you have to define what you put in between. In this section, you should focus on how, based on the common ground you established at the beginning, you will convince the listener to follow through your CTA. This section is incredibly flexible, and therefore you have to use your best judgment.
Standard VC advice says that in the bulk of your pitch, you should mention three things: your solution, the team, and the value you deliver. This structure can be useful because it maximizes the impact you generate on someone who cares about money. If you are in the early stages of a project, the team has much more weight than the idea, because it is the only indicator of success. And the value you can deliver is how they make an offset in their minds regarding the risk they would be assuming.
However, this is not the only possibility, as we have seen in the examples. If you want to address a general audience or a panel of experts, the steps you need to follow must be adapted. What is essential is to think about your talk as a funnel, in which, in every sentence, you narrow down on something special. You will lose people on the way, but if your delivery is correct, every single person will remember something.
If you already have a track record, perhaps you don't need to introduce the team even if pitching to investors. But you sure have to make clear how they are offsetting the risk. It may be that you already have revenue, meaning that, in the worst-case scenario, they break even. Or it may be that you have a strong IP position that can be liquidated to generate some cash flow. Each one should find their own way.
Preparing for a pitch should be taken seriously. The secret to a superb performance is, first, to think. You need to think about the audience, what message you want to send across, and how to do it. Once you made those decisions, you need to develop what you are going to say, and practice. Practicing is what makes a perfect pitch. It is your opportunity to polish the words that are harder to pronounce or the concepts that are harder to transmit.
If you have any questions or would like to get feedback on your pitch, you can always follow me on Twitter: @aquicarattino.