On 17th March 2020, I was supposed to be delivering a workshop at the Northern Business Expo, entitled Pitching Skills to Win Funding. Along with every other large gathering in the UK, the event had to be postponed as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Thank you to everybody who contacted me to ask whether I can put some material online about pitching for funding.
Once life gets back to normal, the Expo will be rescheduled and I hope everyone who had tickets this time round will be able to come along to my workshop then. In the meantime, here are the main ideas I was/am going to discuss.
Before you prepare your pitch
My area of expertise is not finance or investment, it’s effective communication, and my workshop is not about the content of your pitch so much as the delivery. But unless you’ve carefully thought through your plan, even the most brilliant delivery is not going to win you funding.
Make sure you know exactly why you want this money, what you’re going to do with it and how soon an investment will pay off. Be honest with yourself: is your business plan really strong enough?
Make sure you’re applying to a suitable funding body for the type of business you are.
Make sure your proposition is immediately clear and understandable to an outsider. If it takes too much explanation, potential investors are unlikely either to make the mental effort to grasp it or to think it’ll be a success – if the public doesn’t ‘get’ it, it won’t sell.
Practical preparation for your pitch
Working out what to say
Once you’ve got a clear-eyed view of exactly what you’re asking for and why, and done your research into the particular funding organisation you’re going to be pitching to, it’s time to start preparing your presentation. As you’re working out what to say, keep referring back to the audience and asking yourself, what do they need to know?
As with all presentations, resist the impulse to begin by making the slides, or to write a script. Instead, start by gathering your material, making a note of each point you want to cover. Bear in mind the length of time you’re going to be speaking (probably about 20 minutes but find out what’s expected as part of your research) and be realistic about how much detail you can go into in that time.
Although you may not have time to go into great depth during the presentation, you need to have every detail at your fingertips, to call on if somebody asks. If there are facts and figures it would help the audience to be aware of but which risk bogging down your presentation, you can put them in a handout (see below).
Create your content organically, by saying it out loud. This way, you’ll know that when you come to deliver it, it will be easy to say.
Give your presentation a clear structure (I disagree about the use of slides but otherwise there’s very helpful advice through that link). Break up your material into bite-size chunks and, when you come to deliver it, pause between them to give the audience time to digest before you feed them more.
Less is more
Find the most concise, focused and effective way to express each point. The first time you say it, it may be a bit waffly or not exactly what you mean, or you may feel it would have more impact if you said the sentence the other way round, or used a different example. The whole joy (!) of having an opportunity to prepare what you’re going to say is that you can work these things out in advance, so that on the day you’re presenting the clearest and most engaging version of what your audience needs to know.
Slides, notes and handouts
If you want to stand out from the crowd, ditch the concept of the slide deck as a thing. Slides are meant to support and clarify, not tell the story by themselves. If you need a document that tells the story, by all means create one, but trying to use this as the basis for telling the story yourself is perhaps the biggest single reason so many people find presenting difficult and stressful.
Tell your story. If you come to a part that’s difficult to describe without some sort of visual aid, that’s when it’s useful to make a slide. A chart or a graph, a map, a photo: often an image speaks a thousand words – and that’s what slides are for.
When it comes to notes, I strongly advocate using them, but there’s no need to project them for everyone to see. You’re better off with a discreet set of notes on A6-size card. From the audience’s point of view, it’s easier simply to listen than to have to decide whether to do that or to read what’s on the screen. From your point of view, you’re in control and, apart from anything else, you can still do a smooth job if the technology lets you down.
Look at your notes only on the off-beat, between points. If you look at them while you’re speaking, this is the reason notes have got a bad reputation. Your notes are there to remind you what you’ve planned to say. How you’ve planned to say it will be at the front of your mind, if you’ve rehearsed enough (see below).
Make a handout for the audience to take away, in lieu of your slides. A nicely presented, purpose-written dossier with all the relevant information in it will make a more favourable impression than will a deck of slides that’s been created with conflicting aims in mind.
Practice makes… life much easier
While it’s essential to put a lot of work into preparing your pitch, it’s equally important to be so familiar with the content of your presentation that you can say it without having to think about finding the words. Phase One is to create the presentation and prepare answers to possible questions. Phase Two is to practise, rehearse and roleplay until you’re completely comfortable with what you’re saying and how you’re expressing it.
Make sure you allow enough time for Phase Two. On the day, if you’re struggling to find the right words, you won’t be able to do justice to yourself, your business or your ideas. I’m not suggesting you memorise anything as such. Just say what you’ve planned to say, out loud, over and over again, until you say it like that because you always say it like that. Then the words will be right there for you when you need them.
Psychological preparation for your pitch
The big thing to remember is: this is not about you. The same goes for all public speaking – it’s not about the speaker, it’s about the audience – but it’s even more true in a pitch or a job interview. These people are considering investing a substantial amount of money in you; it’s a huge decision for them and they’re wary of getting it wrong. Your task is to put yourself in their position and make the decision to fund your business as easy for them as possible.
During the meeting, if something goes wrong, it doesn’t matter! As long as you’re not thrown by it, nobody will mind. Take it as an opportunity to demonstrate how well you cope with challenges and you may even emerge with a better result than if the problem had never occurred.
In my talk How to Be Perfect… in your own way, I describe my theory that the perfect you is at the intersection between being happy as you are and constantly striving to improve. This is relevant here because getting into the ‘perfect’ zone will give you the right outlook for making a successful pitch.
Being happy as you are doesn’t mean being complacent or arrogant. It means having faith in yourself and your abilities. If you don’t believe you can make this business proposition work, you can’t expect anyone to fund it. If you do believe in it, you’ve got to let the audience see that. You do this through the way you talk, through body language and through eye contact (see below), but it’s all underpinned by knowing you can do what you’re suggesting you can.
Constantly striving to improve means you’re open to constructive criticism and advice. Being humble and aware that you don’t know everything is absolutely compatible with being a respected authority in your area of expertise.
The audience needs to perceive you as an expert in your field – anything less is wasting their time. On the other hand, you need to feel comfortable with the fact that these people know more about their job than you do (at least, one would hope they do). They’ve been investing in businesses for years and they know what to look for. If they offer you advice, it’s based on their experience and almost certainly useful to you.
The purpose of your pitch is to assure potential investors that if they entrust their money to you, it will be in safe hands. To achieve this, you need to make it clear (directly and indirectly) both that you’ve got the knowledge and skills to make your proposition work and that you’re a secure, grounded character who will listen to other people’s views and understands that accepting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
It’s all about putting yourself across with the right level of confidence: enough that the funding provider can see you would be a sound investment, but not too much, so that you appear complacent. You need to believe in yourself and your proposition from a position of inner strength, so you can get the audience excited about your idea and welcome suggestions without feeling defensive.
Delivering your pitch
These practical techniques of effective delivery will support you in every sort of public-speaking situation, whether you’re talking to five people or five hundred. They clearly work for formal presenting and they apply equally to times when you’re speaking in a less structured and controlled, more spontaneous way. I recommend you use them throughout the pitch meeting, not just during the presentation.
Don’t assume you know what anyone is thinking, particularly if it’s negative. Tune into your psychological preparation and talk to the funding people as if they were your friends (though in a more focused and structured way than you would talk in an unplanned chat).
Voice: Particularly when you’re presenting and holding the floor for more than about 15 seconds, but also throughout the meeting, speak more slowly than you normally might. Nerves tend to drive us to speak too quickly, so make an effort to slow down. Speak slowly and pause between your points.
This allows the audience to keep up with you and take in what you’re saying. It also allows you to see where you’re going, which will help you to stay calm.
Movement: I suggest you stand up to present. It gives you more authority and it also makes it clear that you’re presenting, which should mean you can lay out your case without the audience constantly interrupting.
Stand firm, so that you look and feel stable and in control. Resist the urge to pace up and down – that’s just distracting. Keep your feet still unless there’s a good reason to move.
With your hands and arms, gesture naturally, taking up as much space as you would on your most confident day.
Eye contact: This is how you connect with your audience and it’s essential you do it. Look at different individuals all the time you’re talking, staying with each one long enough to give them a brief message and then moving on at random.
If you don’t get the funding (this time)
It’s not the end of the world. You can always try someone else or find another way to make your plan a reality.
Ask the provider for feedback, to give you an indication of how you might approach the next one differently, if necessary. Don’t take the ‘rejection’ personally but reflect on what you can learn from the experience of ‘failure’.
Perhaps you need to rethink your pitch. Or perhaps it was just one of those things – you can’t win ‘em all. Either way, instead of feeling disheartened, seek out the next opportunity.