I’ve been in Silicon Valley my whole life, and I have founded and run three software companies. Today I teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University and I mentor startup CEO’s at the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
In my career as an entrepreneur I’ve given a lot of pitches, and in my role now I see a lot of pitches — thousands, probably. Along the way I’ve developed some opinions about what works, and what doesn’t.
I honestly think that public speaking skills are really important for everyone to have, and they are essential for entrepreneurs to have. Every entrepreneur needs to be able to deliver a crisp, clear, and compelling narrative about what they are working on, and why it matters.
Most people think of entrepreneur pitches as being about about fundraising, but successful entrepreneurs are pitching all the time for all kinds of reasons. Startup CEO’s are pitching customers, partners, potential employees, conference attendees. That’s the life of an entrepreneur. Successful ones are great at it.
I thought we’d break today’s discussion down into three segments: (1) General tips about public speaking; (2) Some specific tips about pitch decks for entrepreneurs, and (3) This being the time of COVID, some thoughts about how to optimize presentations over Zoom.
1. General public speaking tips
Here are some tips to think about, with regard to any speaking opportunity:
- Practice, but don’t memorize. You don’t want to sound like you are reciting something you’ve memorized. You want to sound authentic, not robotic. Have notes to refer to if necessary.
- Don’t try to fill every moment with talking. If you’ve ever been around someone who can’t stop talking, this is what that feels like to an audience. If you have been allotted 3-minutes for your pitch, don’t think that the goal is to see how many words you can fit into 3 minutes. Slow down, pace yourself, and learn the power of the pause.
- Props can be awesome. In our last accelerator cohort, we had a former semi-pro football player who had founded a new startup developing sports technology. He began his pitch by holding up his helmet. It made his pitch memorable and made him seem credible.
- Know your audience — and the outcome you want. It’s so important to know who you are talking to so that you don’t embarrass yourself. If it’s a larger group, make sure you ask the organizer about the background of the people in the audience. If it’s a small group of individuals, look them up on LinkedIn. Also, ask yourself “What do I want the outcome to be? What do I want the audience to remember?” If you take the time to learn about your audience in advance, and are clear on what your desired outcome is, you will find your presentation to be 100x more effective.
- KYSSS — Keep your slides simple, stupid.
Nobody wants to look at complicated slides. And when you are speaking, you want people focused on you and the great story you are telling, not squinting and trying to figure out your slides. Keep your slides simple, with images and short text snippets that reinforce the points you are speaking about.
- Engage the audience. We started this webinar today by asking you all what sort of beverage you had in front of you. It was a simple way to get you a little more engaged than a typical one-way webinar lecture. Think about ways you can engage your audience. Perhaps you have an idea for a way to donate to charity when you turn off a lightswitch. You might begin your pitch by saying, “How many lightswitches do you have in your home?” (Also an opportunity for a pause.) Then you can give them an answer relevant to your pitch — “Enough to generate $300 per year for charity.” Engage your audience and you will find they are more receptive to your presentation.
2. Discussion of fundraising pitch decks.
New entrepreneurs are always asking me about pitch decks. They want to know the secret things to put into a pitch deck that will make venture capitalists throw money at you. I honestly think that anyone that tells you they know the secret to a successful pitch deck is full of shit. Investors don’t invest in slides — they invest in people. But having said that, here are some thoughts from my many years of pitching to VC’s, and now receiving pitches from entrepreneurs.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned as an entrepreneur happened when I took my carefully-prepared pitch deck into a meeting with venture capitalist Rich Melmon, opened up my laptop, got ready to show him my awesome slides, and he said “Close that damn thing up. I don’t want to see your stupid slides. What I want to know is whether you can tell me using words — and words alone — why your startup is so interesting that I would want to invest”. I did, and he invested, but he never saw those beautiful slides I had worked so hard on.
So my first piece of advice, with regard to pitch decks, is to first make sure that you have a crisp, clear, and compelling story to tell. Once you have that, creating a few slides to provide visuals to support the story should be easy. Creating the compelling story (and making it short) is the hard part. The slides aren’t going to sell the deal.
The things that go into your story might include:
• Why are you exactly the right entrepreneur for this venture?
• What problem are you solving?
• What’s your secret sauce that makes your offering unique?
• How will your venture make money?
• What does the current competitive landscape look like?
• How big is the opportunity?
• How are you going to efficiently acquire customers?
• What are your initial capital needs, and what milestone will that initial capital get you to?
This is not a definitive list, of course. Every venture is different. But you should be able to, in about 3 minutes, tell an interesting story that incorporates most of these key points and leaves the recipient intrigued and wanting to hear more.
And remember that is exactly the desired outcome: leaving the recipient wanting to hear more. Work on articulating what you are working on in a way that will make investors, customers and partners want to hear more. Once you have that, making some slides to go along with it will be easy.
3. Discussion of Zoom pitch tips.
As we sit here, in the summer of 2020, COVID has forced almost all pitches and presentations online, which adds an additional layer to think about as you prepare a presentation — how do you optimize it for Zoom? Here are a few thoughts:
- Take a look at yourself on Zoom. Fire up your webcam and really examine what other people are seeing. Are you looking DOWN at the camera, or across at it? Are you looking toward your viewers (your camera), or down at their faces? We all know that eye contact is important, but on Zoom this means staring into your camera, not the people on your screen. That can feel uncomfortable. Do it anyway.
- Lighting matters. Is there a window behind you, making you look like a shadow figure in a witness protection program? That’s not so good. Turn around so that the light is coming at you, not behind you.
- Keep your background simple and shallow. You don’t want people looking at the pile of dirty laundry next to you, or trying to read the titles of the books on your shelves. People’s natural tendency is to assess new surroundings, even over Zoom — don’t give them things to look at that will distract them from your awesome presentation. Virtual backgrounds are fine, but keep them simple and static.
- It’s all about the audio quality. You could have beautiful slides and a compelling pitch but if the audio is crappy none of that will matter. Don’t use the built-in mic on your laptop — go invest in a decent external microphone. Don’t thump the table, don’t drag your coffee cup across your desk, don’t play with your fidget spinner. All of those sounds will get picked-up by your microphone and broadcast to the world. Keep your audio feed crisp and clean, and your Zoom presentation will be remembered as a winner.
Those are some of our thoughts on preparing and delivering great pitches and presentations.
Some other resources that may be helpful:
• What Sequoia Capital says they are looking for in a pitch deck.
• Sequoia Pitch Deck Template.
• The Original Uber Pitch Deck
• Excellent Post and Deck from Front’s CEO
• Coinbase Pitch Deck
• Y-Combinator Pitch Deck Template
• My rant on why you should stop working on your pitch deck.