The Two Worst Pitching Mistakes

The Two Worst Pitching Mistakes


As a frequent business plan contest judge, angel investor and sponsor of local efforts to encourage start-ups, I’ve seen a lot of pitches. Every start-up and most ongoing businesses should be able to deliver a decent pitch – a few minutes and a few slides – at a moment’s notice.

There’s a lot of good advice available on how to do a pitch. However, there is a dearth of information about how not to pitch. Aside from the obvious warnings about boring bullet points, there are two fatal errors I’m seeing pretty frequently these days.

Fnding the perfect pitch

Here are some things to consider to avoid making the two worst pitching mistakes:

1. It’s not about you

Understand the pitch as a medium. You do it for the viewing pleasure of the audience, not for yourself. It’s about what they want, not what you want. You have to be inside their heads, not your own. Call it empathy. Call it walking in their shoes or seeing things through their eyes.

When you pitch investors, for example, see it from their side. They’re trying to guess the odds that a cheque they write tomorrow will generate lots of money in the near future. They want to know that you understand that. You should talk about your management team because experience reduces risk. Talk about exit strategies because investors make nothing without the exit. Talk about market size, defensibility and scalability because that generates more money on exit. Way too many pitches just summarise the business, proudly, without focusing on what investors look for.

Apply the same principle to pitching for a strategic partner, a customer, a bank or a business plan contest. Figure out what the audience wants to know. Customise for the listener. Focus. Answer the right questions, the ones your audience wants answered, not the ones you want asked.

2. Never pitch without a plan

Pitch and plan are like movie and script: You don’t do one without the other. The pitch summarises the plan in a different medium. It’s an output of the plan, optimised for the medium and the audience.

Plan before  pitch

One of the biggest crocks in the business buzz lately is the idea that people do a business pitch instead of a plan. This seems obvious to me, if it weren’t for the flow of ‘pitch, don’t plan’ suggestions from people who ought to know better. In most cases, they’re misunderstanding what a plan is, confusing it with a different output – the plan document.

The plan is what’s going to happen, not the pitch or the document. It’s a collection of related concepts and numbers, including strategy, milestones, target market, business model and offering, sales forecast, expense budgets, cash flow, tasks, responsibilities and metrics.

Don’t kid yourself: You can’t describe your business without knowing how much money you need, what you’re going to spend it on and why. You have to define a target market and explain your rationale. You have to estimate sales and the cost of sales. You have to develop a strategic focus. You have to know the milestones you need to hit and the important metrics behind them. And all of that, whether you have it printed out as a document or not, is the plan.

Ironically, where pitching without a plan hurts the most is when your pitch is successful, because at that point, two things happen:

  • When the pitch works, most (not all, perhaps, but most) investors then want to see the plan it was built for. We want to see the summary numbers, such as unit, headcount and expenses. We want to look at the reasoning behind the strategy, the lay of the land, the metrics. What the pitch summarises, we want to see in detail.
  • Investors will almost always suggest changes. What would you do to have faster growth, and what would happen if it went slower instead? Could you do it with fewer people or less money? Can you accelerate the pace of reaching the major milestones? And if you don’t have
  • A plan to run back to, tweak, and then review with changes, you’re not credible.

In the end, it’s about understanding the medium and the context. Pitch presentations have a special purpose: to summarise your business plan. Show the highlights. Optimise the tool for the medium and the audience – busy people want to get to the heart of it quickly and easily.

Tim Berry
Tim Berry is the founder of Palo Alto Software, a co-founder of Borland International, and a recognised expert in business planning. He makes several notable appearances in Fire in the Valley, Swaine and Freiberger's classic history of the PC industry, and is the originator of plan-as-you-go business planning. He has an MBA from Stanford and degrees with honours from the University of Oregon and the University of Notre Dame.