When You Pitch, Focus on Your Essence

Last week, I spoke at InBIA’s International Business Incubation Conference in Minneapolis. InBIA brings together a curated group of incubators a few times a year, and they had me talk about the difference between accelerators and incubators, as well as how the two can work together. And for my 20-minute talk, I brought a 110-slide deck.

Yes, 110 slides.

In my short amount of time on stage, I wanted everyone to understand all of the differences between incubators and accelerators and all of the ways they can work together. My intentions were good; I just wanted everyone to know as much as possible by the time I finished. But, like most any complex industry or challenge we’re trying to solve, it takes years to truly fully understand it. Someone isn’t going to hear me speak for 20 minutes and walk away an industry expert.

What I should have done, instead, is focus on the essence of what I wanted to convey. Primarily, a few areas where accelerators and incubators differ, but—most importantly—where they can work together much more closely.

We All Do It, All the Time

This happens constantly and we’re all complicit.

On my way into work one morning last week, I saw this ad. Not exactly straightforward, right?

I heard an EdTech startup pitching to GAN Ventures do this recently, too. When I first asked what they do in the world, they spoke for several minutes. When I repeated the question after they finished, they gave me a two-sentence answer that was everything I needed to know to “get it.”

And, I see it on websites constantly. How often do you visit a company’s website and it takes you 15 clicks to actually understand what services they provide? The answer is all the time.

The Fallout From a Lack of Focus

People Don’t Get It
Having a 110-slide deck meant I’d only have 11 seconds per slide, which meant I’d have to fly through everything. It left no time for anyone in the audience to actually digest what I said. So, unsurprisingly, when I asked everyone for feedback once I’d finished, one person confessed, “That was a lot of data that was great to see, but I need to take another look at it all when I go home.” Too much information, especially on a topic someone isn’t familiar with, is simply too much for most people to take in, so slow and deliberate will always be better than fast and furious.

We Waste People’s Time 
When I asked that EdTech company what they do and they talked at me for several minutes, I started to get frustrated because none of it was making any sense to me. I listened intensely, trying to understand their company, but they didn’t make it easy for me. So, I felt like my time was being wasted. Not because I’m important but because we only had 15 minutes for this initial conversation, and we had just spent a third of it caught in unproductive conversation.

We’re Not Helpful
As much as I had great intentions going into my talk at InBIA, the result of my oversharing completely negated what I wanted to do, which was to be helpful. If I’m honest, the audience probably felt more like my goal was to wow them with all of my “amazing” data and information. Not exactly how I want to be heard.

How to Get to the Essence

It Takes Prep Work
You can’t expect just to show up and give a pitch that’s simple and coherent. When I used to work at Techstars, we would spend an incredible amount of time in the first few weeks of a program helping startups understand precisely what their 30-second pitch should be. The reason? When you pitch investors and potential clients, you have 30 seconds to hook someone by sharing the foundation of what you do. In those 30 seconds, they want an easy-to-understand statement that conveys what you’re about. But, coming up with that 30-second pitch doesn’t just happen. You have to write it out. Then edit it 100 times before you get down to the essence of what you do. You have to run it by a ton of people. You have to get feedback. Then you have to edit it 100 more times. And, even when you feel like you’re nailing it, several years in, you’re probably still editing and refining it.

You Can Start with “Why,” But Still Keep It Simple
I find that part of the trick in “starting with why,” Simon Sinek’s brilliant suggestion and what the EdTech company appeared to be going for, is that you have to know when to employ it—when and how to inspire—and when to give the most basic answer because it’s all someone needs at that moment. And, even when sharing your “why,” it should still only be no more than a handful of words. Everything still needs to be boiled down to its basic essence.

It Helps to Use the “Parent Test”
I’ve started asking EVERY company I talk with that’s interested in investment from GAN Ventures one question when we have our initial conversation. It’s this: “When you describe what you do to one of your parents, what do you say?” That question has saved both the company that’s pitching and my valuable time on the phone, allowing us to get to the heart of what they’re about. I would try this out if you haven’t done it yet for your company or product.

Watch and Ask for Feedback
Once you’ve created your pitch, it doesn’t actually mean that it’s finished. Startups especially seem to have a tendency to come up with their pitch and then never question it again. Instead, I would argue that your pitch is a living document. You should update your deck nearly every time you finish giving a pitch because you should be asking for feedback every time you present it. Every presentation gives you valuable data on how you’re being received. My favorite data to get from an audience—large or small—after I pitch? Ask them how they would describe what you do. If it’s off from how I feel like I’ve described it, I know I need to get back to the essence of what we’re actually about. And, watch people’s body language as you speak. Do they get more excited when you talk or look more confused? If it’s the latter, you may need to spend more time focusing on your essence.