When it comes to pitching, first impressions count.
Trying to distill the essential details of your social startup into a three to five minute presentation is no easy feat. You’ll need to communicate how your offering stands out and the real impact it can generate in both a succinct and memorable way.
Luckily, there are some key best practices that can increase your chances of crafting a pitch that resonates. It is impossible to share everything about your social startup in a few minutes, so the goal of a pitch is to activate the listener’s interest and get them knocking on your door to continue the conversation.
(If you are just getting started, see this article for the basics of a social venture pitch outline.)
Know your ‘investment story’
Every pitch needs to have an ‘investment story’. Cathy Clark of the Case Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business recommends having a consistent and compelling ‘investment story’ that will resonate with investors. Knowing your investment story “gives investors a frame to understand your strategic pathway for growth and impact - so they can see how to aid you on that pathway.”
You’ll be able to tell one of four types of investment stories depending on the type of solution you have, the stage of your company, and the type of investors you want to target.
Some types of investment stories will influence social impact more than profitability, while others will emphasize the potential rate of return over the social value proposition. Knowing the priorities of the audience will help determine the frame within which you tell your investment story.
In this webinar that Global Innovation Exchange ran in partnership with CASE Smart Impact Capital, they outline four primary investment stories which can be summarized:
High Growth Opportunity - exploiting an impact opportunity that will deliver market rate returns.
Innovation Play - using a novel approach that could disrupt an industry, including better impact.
Impact Delivery - delivering real impact through a scalable model
Addressing Underserved Need - sustaining a business that solves an important problem for an underserved population
Know Your Audience
Different types of stories will resonate with different types of investors, so knowing your audience is key to crafting a pitch presentation that connects.
As Phin Barnes of First Round Capital shared, “the whole goal as a founder is to move investors from a fear of failure to a fear of missing out.” However, to make that happen, you need to understand what motivates them.
The pitch for a large competition will be quite different than a closed investment meeting because the audience’s perspective is quite different.
You don’t want to alter your core message too drastically as you speak to different audiences but you may need to tailor your presentation so that you can address their specific questions. If you find yourself needing to drastically change your core story in order to please an audience, chances are you aren’t presenting to a group that is aligned with your needs.
Balance Vision and Details
Leading a social venture requires believing that the status quo can be improved; it's not an easy or simple path. This work requires communicating an audacious vision that will compel people, and a pitch needs to channel this same energy.
A moving pitch also backs up bold vision with a sound plan to demonstrate that you have thoughtfully considered the operational steps needed to execute.
Balance Stories and Figures
Humans are hardwired for stories, but many are also left-brained and analytical. Especially if you are seeking funding, sharing key financial figures is essential to show that you have a handle on your numbers and the unit economics. Demonstrate that you have a good understanding of how to scale your solution in a repeatable and sustainable way.
Similarly, figures can be moving when used to frame the problem or back up your assertions with statistics. For example, sharing that only 17% of recent grads say that career centers are ‘very helpful’ validates a much larger issue compared to having a quote from one student saying that he didn’t have access to resources.
Your pitch will leave an impression when stories are backed up by statistics.
Clearly Show How You Create Value
At the heart of your pitch needs to be an explanation of how you will create value. This includes a description of who you serve, what you offer them, and why it will be meaningful to them. You want the listener to be able to clearly picture what the product or service is and how it stands apart from alternatives in the marketplace.
If your solution is highly technical, make sure you describe it at a level that is easy for the average person to understand. You can use a ‘neighbor test’ to run your idea past a friend who’s unfamiliar with the space to see how well the message is received.
The best way to demonstrate that your customers care about the solution you offer is to demonstrate an unbiased track record of past results and impact. This can be a blend of individual success stories or testimonials, historical financial growth, or endorsements from leaders in the space. Play to your strengths and showcase the best proof you have that your business is gaining real traction.
Highlight Team Experience + Credibility
The execution of your idea will come down to the strength of your team. Your pitch should highlight their background, expertise and credentials relevant to the venture. Showing that you have a strong and well-rounded team who has prior experience reduces some of the operational risk that investors will be looking to minimize.
The audience will also be listening for a demonstration of the core team’s level commitment to and passion for the cause. Don’t be afraid to let your enthusiasm shine through.
It’s also helpful to include any mentors or programs affiliated with your company in the team portion of the pitch.
Think back to the pitches you’ve seen in the past; which ones stand out the most in your memory? Chances are you remember a dynamic presenter just as much as the corresponding idea itself.
If you let your personality shine through, the audience is more likely to connect with you as a person. They will listen more attentively during the presentation and better remember it in the future. Be prepared and polished, but don’t be afraid to be yourself. Integrate some humor or share related personal anecdotes if they fit naturally with your presentation and personal style
Another way to stand out is to integrate something tangible. If you sell food, bring samples for the investors or competition judges. If you have a product, show a prototype or quick and simple demo. For any offering you can prepare a one-pager that they audience can review after the pitch.
Finally, give extra thought to the opening and closing lines of your presentation and consider how you can make those key moments stand out in your own way.
Use Visuals to Support Your Message
The design of your slide deck can also meaningfully influence your audience. Take the time to invest (time or money) in a professional looking design that will support your overall message.
Remember that the words on the slides should reinforce key messages, not distract from them. You want to avoid the mistake of including too much text on your slides, which causes the audience to stop listening and start reading. (The caveat to this tip is if you are preparing a slide deck that will be sent to investors by email. In this case you can add more text to outline the full presentation.)
Use images, charts and graphs to creatively display information and keep the audience engaged. When describing numbers or abstract concepts, ask yourself how you can make the information more concrete by using clever visuals or analogies.
Be Clear and Concise
One of the most challenging elements of pitching is getting your message across in a short amount of time. In a three to five minute presentation there will be information that you don’t have time to explain in detail.
Run your pitch by several people who are not familiar with your work to see what questions they ask afterwards. If there are parts that are confusing, keep re-working them until you can share the idea in a clear and streamlined manner.
You can use analogies to get complex concepts across in less time or include testimonials and stories to convey qualitative impact and quickly demonstrate social proof to validate your progress.
Remember, the goal of a pitch is not to overwhelm the listener with information. Instead, it should provide enough context to provoke interest in continuing the conversation.
Pro tip: There will be some ideas that are non-essential but still feel important to share. One option is to strategically leave this information for the question and answer period; touch on the idea briefly in the main presentation and let the investors or judges you are presenting to follow up and ask you more about it.
Don’t Shy Away from Financials
Sharing financial information is key! In addition to your historical financial results, you need to demonstrate projected financials as well.
If you are asking for funding, be sure to include how the requested funds will be used and how those investments will serve to grow the revenue and impact of your company, and in what time frame.
Be ambitious with your projections, but make the connection back to current results in a logical and reasonable way. Investors know better than anyone that projections are not set in stone, but they certainly want to understand how you are thinking about the future in terms of assumptions and expectations.
End With a Clear Ask
There is one main element that distinguishes a pitch from any other type of presentation, and that is ending with a clear call to action.
The goal of a pitch is to enrol the audience or listener in supporting your cause. With a typical fundraising pitch, the call to action is a request for funding, but there are other potential asks.
You could ask your audience for introductions or to help spread news of your product or service within their network, or for certain expertise that could move the business forward.
A smooth way to transition into your ask is to frame it around next steps. Explain how the listener can be part of spreading your solution to those who need it and help achieve your vision for change.
When Acumen spoke with Morgan Simon, she pointed out that, “Investors want to be helpful,” but “make sure you have tangible asks about what you need. If you give them concrete bullet lists, people usually respond.” Phin Barnes, a partner at First Round Capital similarly shared a story of an entrepreneur who asked for an introduction to another founder. It was a clear ask that the investor delivered on.
Having a very specific ask not only makes your pitch more memorable but it’s also much easier for your listeners to follow through on a concrete request.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Standing up and pitching can be nerve-wracking, whether you’re standing in front of an auditorium of hundreds of people or a small group in a boardroom.
The good news is that the more you pitch, the easier it gets to do, and the pitch itself becomes smoother.
When you first practice, it’s often helpful to write out a script for your pitch. This doesn’t mean you will deliver it from rote memorization, but drafting your presentation will help you consider multiple ways to explain each concept and pick the language that is most effective and concise to get your message across.
Once you have your slide deck and key talking points mapped out, a polished pitch simply takes practice, practice, practice. Read through your notes out loud several times. Record yourself speaking and listen back to it.
After you have prepared the script and practiced on your own, gather friends or family to run through several ‘mock’ pitches. This gives you the opportunity to work through any sticking points that may need to be revised before the official presentation.
Finally, don’t let the excitement generated during your pitch go to waste afterwards. Make a plan to reach out and follow up with the investors you met with, or any contacts you made while taking part in a pitch event.
Best of luck on your pitches!