Most scientists I know are terrified of pitching. We’re so used to being labelled as bad communicators that retreating into academia and hiding behind nice figures and lengthy paper titles seems like the safest option. Scientists can shut up and work and, most of the time, it’s fine if they stay silent.
Entrepreneurs don’t have that privilege. If you decide to take the plunge and go from scientist (as in, scared-to-death-of-public-speaking Scientist) to entrepreneur (twenty-four-seven-pitching Founder) here are some tips to help you out, regarding what to do and what not to do when pitching science.
Many pitches are improvised on the spot, and you can tell immediately when this is the case. Entrepreneurs that are coming up with their speech right as they are speaking forget key data, have no clear storyline, and sometimes repeat themselves ad infinitium. Not only is it a pain to watch: once you are done with your improvised pitch, your first thought is generally along the lines of “oh no, I forgot X and Y and Z. Wait a minute, what did I even say?”
DO: Write a script
This may sound contradictory, since most people are completely against learning something word by word, because the moment you forget one short part you will panic and descend into desperation. But sitting down and writing a script, word for word, is the best advice I can give to any pitcher. Writing your pitch following a format of your liking will not only help you point out the content areas that might be lacking (is your benchmark analysis sound enough? Do you have support by a Key Opinion Leader (KOL) that goes unmentioned? Do you show data that supports your market size or opportunity claim?), but also help you make your language more concise and identify the key phrases that must be used during the pitch. These key ideas are the ones you will need to hold on and practice over and over: they are your pitch backbone, and when you are running on extremely short time, they double as your full pitch too.
DON’T: Alienate your audience
A pitch is not the place to use the most technical lexicon your discipline can offer, nor is it the time to try and be the smartest person in the room. Obscure or highly academic language doesn’t make you sound precise or highly educated in this context, it just makes you hard to understand. And generally, when you pitch, your pitch is one of the many your audience or receptor has heard that day – so the harder you make yourself to understand, the more likely is it your audience will tune you out.
DO: Make yourself understandable
I recommend that my mentees always start pitching with this thought in mind: your audience does not give a crap about what you do, and they can’t wait to leave. Imagine it’s 7pm on a Friday night and you’re the only thing between them and happy hour. Do you really think they have the energy to put in the extra work to understand your convoluted story or your technicisms? Of course not. So do the work for them: use the simplest words you can manage, and go straight to the point whenever possible. As much of a cliché as it is, the whole “explain this to your 5-year old brother” frame of mind really helps people simplify their explanations, but they sometimes feel they end up “dumbing down” their topic — which is why I prefer a different approach: imagine you’re with your best friend, half drunk, about to tell them your great idea. Legitimately swear and act drunk if you must. You’ll be surprised at how much simpler your explanation becomes.
DON’T: “Practice” by reading your pitch sitting down
A lot of people I see “practicing” their pitch do it like this: They sit in front of their computer and go over their presentation in complete silence. This is the equivalent of practicing football by watching matches on TV – sure, you kind of get an idea, but it’s so far away from the real thing that once you finally enter the field, it’s just going to be a mess. There is no replacement for actually stepping up into a stage and pitching your heart out… but you can emulate it in practice.
DO: Practice in a way that resembles a real pitch as closely as possible
Stand up with your feet shoulder width apart, get your hands out of your pockets (I recommend you put them in front of you bent at the elbow, and use them to stress important points), take a deep breath and start talking at the same volume you will use in your real pitch. Don’t skip sections because “you know this part”, stop whenever you make a mistake and start the whole thing over again. Ideally, you should do this in front of a mirror so that you can work on your body language and also stop staring at the presentation. Bonus point for practicing in front of people right away – just make sure they won’t hold back their punches, and get the harshest feedback you can as soon as possible. Future you will thank them.
DON’T: Assume the product should “sell itself”
There’s this idea that, if a product is good enough, it can just sit there and people will obviously buy it. Even if this worked for some products (basic necessities like gas or water, and even then there’s a tremendous branding effort behind them) this is most certainly not the case for science-based new technologies. What you are trying to sell is probably sophisticated: it’s either a new technology or something closely related, packaged in a way that people may have not yet seen, and with functionalities that so far you have only been able to explain to certain colleagues. For the general public, you are going to try and sell something weird, maybe unproven, that nobody really understands. It will most definitely not “sell itself”, and you saying it’s great doesn’t either, since nobody really has to take your word for it.
DO: Show your work and evidence
You need to let people know why your product is as good as you say – and you need to prove it too. For science startups, having this evidence in the form of customer reviews and success stories is generally quite tricky: you might still be in development and not even have a testable product yet. In this case, there are other kinds of evidence you can show: publications, your team’s experience, key opinion leaders of your niche that support you, and awards that the project has won, among others. Most importantly, if you are struggling to find what metric to give evidence on, ask yourself “what in my business is growing in the right direction that will convince an investor to invest?”
One of the worst things that can happen when you pitch is to resemble a used cars salesman. When you only care about closing a deal, you’re seeing your client (or investor, or whomever you are aiming to convince) only as a cheque, a receipt, a couple of dollars. And it shows. When you sell, in the old telemarketer sense of the word, you immediately become a pain in the butt. They may not hang up on you face to face, but trust me, they tuned you out the moment you pressed with “I have exactly what you need.”
In order to add value to your client, investor, potential partner, etcetera, you need to know what they need and where you can help. You need to pay attention to what they tell you, out loud or by their posture and the way they react to your offering. When you listen, you really do engage in adding value to their lives, and you become useful and interesting to them immediately.
DON’T: Give the same pitch in every context
Yes, you should have a script for your pitch, but no, you should not give the same exact pitch in every context. Giving the exact same pitch to different stakeholders means you are trying to do a “one size fits all” kind of thing: nobody will feel like the product fits them completely, and worst of all, if they are used to entrepreneurs pitching to them they might actually realize it’s a standardized presentation and that you failed to make the effort to customize your presentation for them. Also, you cannot use the same words with technical or non-technical audiences; even your tone of voice and body language must change whether you’re pitching first or last in a day-long pitching competition. Be aware of what’s happening around you and use it to your advantage. This all begins with understanding who’s listening to your pitch in the first place.
DO: Know your audience
Tailor your speech to your audience as much as possible. You wouldn’t explain your research to your colleagues the same way you would to your grandparents or your nephew, and you probably won’t give the same arguments to different stakeholders. The main content will stay the same, but you will need to highlight what’s interesting for that particular audience you will be speaking to. Is this an investor with a track record on sustainable tech? Is this the dean of a faculty famous for their prolific publications? Is this a company with bad previous experiences with a tech similar to yours? You may not know exactly who you will be speaking to, but it’s your homework to make every effort to understand who your audience is and what they are looking for: only then you can know how to add value to them through what you’re offering.
DON’T: Pitch without a clear goal in mind
Let’s see if this rings a bell. You go to a meeting with a potential partner, client or supporter. You pitch your project, they love it, and so they ask “Now what?” Not having a proper answer to this question is one of the quickest ways to invalidate all the hard work you did, since it will make your potential client, partner or investor feel like you just wasted their time by pitching for the sake of pitching. This should also be a personal red flag: If you are going to meetings upon meetings, pitching your heart out, and getting only “this is so interesting, come back later,” then you are missing a proper strategy.
DO: Set actionable metrics you want to achieve with that specific pitch
A pitch must always have a purpose. This purpose can be raising money, selling your alpha version, getting a signed support letter, winning a contest, closing a partnership. You don’t pitch “just because” to a potential stakeholder – save that for practice. If this is a sales pitch or a one-on-one pitch, we even recommend making the goal part of the pitch itself, adding a last part by the closure were you give your receptor the next step: setting up a meeting, signing an NDA, formalizing a partnership, you name it. Knowing your goal will keep your pitch context appropriate and direct your efforts towards the advance it needs to yield, and not just pats on the back for a good story.
DON’T: Have the worst time of your life
Unless you are a trained actor, if you’re suffering while you pitch, everyone will notice. It’s very hard not to cringe when the person on stage looks like they would rather lose a limb than be there. And worst of all, it’s incredibly distracting. You might be having a bad time, but there are ways to learn how to hide it until you get to the point where you don’t suffer anymore.
DO: Enjoy the experience as much as you can
If you are serious about being an entrepreneur, you will pitch every single day, in the most varied contexts and probably in less than ideal circumstances most of the time. So you might as well start getting used to it as soon as possible. The best thing you could do is take theater classes, but a close second is storytelling workshops and any other activity that helps you talk eloquently in front of people. Liking it will make you practice more naturally, and it will improve your pitching skills more than anything else anyone can teach you.1