We’ve all seen those embarrassingly bad singers, the ones who’ve never heard of the concept of “perfect pitch.” They’re off-key for 80% of their performance, and they have a tendency to shriek as they hit high notes. We cringe as they launch into their awful rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” hoping someone will end their misery…and ours.
Unfortunately, people with bad pitch are rarely ever told of their ailment. This applies to karaoke night just as much as it applies to student pitch competitions. Rarely do the students at pitch competitions receive any form of feedback – they simply know they’ve failed to move on to the next round. Let me be the kind soul to break it down for you: we’re just not that into your pitch.
How can you perfect your pitch?
1. Know your audience
This is the time to ditch your social media speak. Slang is great when it helps you get your point across, but this is not one of those times. You’ll typically be pitching to people across a generational divide; your judges may not understand you unless you are very transparent in your language. (Don’t throw lots of technical terminology, either – focus on the concept.) Furthermore, it’s essential that you come across as someone with the maturity to handle a business. Great communication skills enhance your sales pitch; they also convey responsibility and trust.
2. Structure your pitch for maximum impact
Find out how long you’ll have to pitch your idea, and practice to ensure you’re within your time limit. If you’re cut off for running over, your audience will be frustrated – not just because they didn’t get to hear your whole concept, but also because your inability to plan has just become apparent.
Don’t save your best sales points for the end of your pitch. You must capture your audience within the first 15 seconds of your presentation in order to maintain their engagement throughout the rest. Many others will be presenting alongside you, so plant your “hook” early – the better your first impression is, the longer the afterglow of your presentation will linger.
3. Come Confident and Prepared
If you are allowed to have props. Bring them. You can talk all you want about the mechanism you have created to fix leaks in dorm room sinks, but if you actually have the tool with you it’s huge! One of the students in Entrepreneurship Alliance at the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business at the University of Missouri, Jessica Cui, was able to utilize access to a prototyping machine to create a prototype for her adjustable height shoe that allowed her to prevail at the Seed Grant competition. If you are struggling with your confidence then practice your pitch over and over again and then build confidence in other aspects of your life that can transfer to your public speaking confidence. Our students built confidence before their pitch competition by climbing a 60 foot tower and doing a zip line. This taught them the confidence that enabled them to walk into the pitch competitions with zeal.
4. Pitch yourself
You’re an entrepreneur, so it’s unlikely that you plan to spend forever on this one idea. That’s good – you’ll grow stale in the marketplace without growth. This is why you need to pitch yourself, not the idea. The idea will change and evolve, but you’ll be the constant. Your investors are considering putting their money into you. Gain their confidence by convincing them you’re a long-term investment rather than a one-trick pony.
5. Know your competition
Savvy investors will ask questions; they’ll want to know why this service or product is needed, and why you’ll be better at it than your competitors. These people didn’t earn their money on accident! So do your research: find out what need or niche you’re filling in the marketplace, and find out how your competitors are addressing the same need. Your competitive advantage should be clearly explained to your potential investors, or they’ll wonder why you’re putting everything on the line for this idea in the first place. Your understanding of the psychological side of business will also give them confidence in your ability to take the concept to the next level as your business grows.
6. Ask for what you want
Your audience may think you’re dynamic and energetic, but that won’t get you very far if they can’t give you what you want. Rather than expecting them to put their ESP skills to work, spell out your end goal. Do you want to move on to the next level of the competition? Do you want a meeting with additional investors? Do you want money? Like a great job interview, you need to close with enthusiasm and a clear sense of what you want. They don’t want to be left thinking that you “might” want the job.
A great example of pitch practice made perfect can be seen in the University of Missouri’s Entrepreneurship Alliance. In one semester at Mizzou, EA students had the opportunity to attend a pitch retreat in St. Louis, co-sponsor “Start-Up Weekend” in Columbia, Mo., and duke it out in Fort Worth at the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization pitch competition. The group then sponsored the university’s Collaboration, Leadership, and Innovation for Missouri Business (CLIMB) Seed Grant Competition; this event allowed young entrepreneurs to compete for $18,000 in seed money. Each experience alone would have allowed these novices to develop their skills, but bundled together, these students have progressed further in one semester than most start-ups do in 3 years. This program is a successful example of a pitch-focused curriculum that benefits beginners far more than theoretical discussion ever could. Practice truly is everything.
You have the self-awareness to know when your pitch is off. Great pitch is developed with practice; it’s a skill you can develop, so don’t lose heart if your first few attempts are shaky. Entrepreneurial success is all about persistence. The next time you karaoke, your song should be “Don’t Stop Believin’” – but for the love of all that’s holy, please don’t try to hit those high notes. You and I may have to talk about your pitch again.
Dr. Greg Bier is a Professor of Management at the University of Missouri. He leads the newly formed Entrepreneurship Alliance at the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business at the University of Missouri