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Entre2003 - Making the Perfect Pitch to VCs

When you are pitching your proposal to VCs, tell them an emotional story, says Nick Morgan. And put away the PowerPoint!

For Nick Morgan, the PowerPoint presentation is the last thing you want to deliver when you have your hand out looking for VC money.

Talking to a roomful of entrepreneurs at the Harvard Business School Entrepreneurship Conference 2003, Morgan, a speech consultant, walked the audience through his ideas on what makes for a powerful, emotional presentation—even the twenty-minute, pitch-a-VC variety.

Number one on the list, he said, is to quickly grab the audience's attention. That leaves out PowerPoint, Morgan said. Presentations that rely on slide shows are often dull, awkward, and, worst of all, devoid of emotion. And forget telling a joke—only one out of seven jokes succeed.

To grab the audience's attention initially, Morgan suggested telling a three-minute story—a parable—that involves emotion of some kind, such as pain. A parable, he said, is a story of cause and effect with a point at the end. In pitching a VC, for example, you might start with why and how you started your new company, the obstacles you overcame to do so.

From there, your story leads into a description of the problem you are trying to solve with your product or service, followed by your solution to the problem, and finally a call to action—the first steps toward a relationship.

At the start of your presentation, the audience is asking, 'Why am I here?' Morgan said. "Your job is to take the audience on a journey from why to how. It's that simple, and that difficult."

Whatever space you have, use it to the max.
— Nick Morgan

There are two levels of communication to an audience, he said. On one level is the content, the information you want to deliver. The second level of communication is the non-verbal: the body language, gestures, mannerisms, and style of your presentation by which you deliver the content.

Establishing credibility and trust
You establish credibility with the content, he said, and you establish trust with non-verbal actions. The key is making sure the message coheres with the non-verbal communication. You might be giving the greatest talk ever, but if you do so with a finger stuck in your ear, the audience is going to be distracted, Morgan said.

Non-verbal gestures are important in clicking or disconnecting with an audience. For example, tipping your head to one side as you talk with someone is a non-verbal sign that you are giving up authority. Women often do this when they talk with men, Morgan said. His advice to both men and women: Don't tip your head when talking to an audience.

Good gestures that win over an audience, he said, include nodding, smiling, and raising eyebrows, the latter because it solicits involvement. Presenters should walk around, but stop to talk directly to individual audience members. In fact, you should get within four feet of individuals, Morgan said. "Get in their personal space—they will pay attention."

And while you are engaging individuals, don't just talk to people in the front rows—that just cheeses off those in the rear. Walk throughout the room. Don't sit down—control the space between you and the audience. If offered a podium, decline. "Whatever space you have," Morgan said, "use it to the max."

Other tips:

  • Don't end your presentation with a Q&A—this just deflates the momentum you built with your rousing talk. Instead, consider taking questions during the Problem phase of the presentation, or take questions throughout the presentation.
  • Brush up on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow identified four types of needs we are driven to satisfy, starting with physical needs and moving up to the need for safety, the need for love, and, finally, the need for esteem. "Every time you have a message to give," Morgan said, "drive it down through Maslow's hierarchy." One such possible message: "Innovate or die."
  • For your story, use a quest story. They are by nature emotional and powerful. This might be a story to VCs about how you gave up your regular job, compelled by passion, to undertake this new project, encountering and defeating obstacles along the way.
  • If you must use PowerPoint, make the slides visual. Use them only to convey points that can't be made with words. Turn off the projector when you are not using it.
  • If you are presenting to a hostile audience—a group you know will be against your proposal—acknowledge their point of view. That at least might get them to listen.
  • Use props. During his talk, Morgan gave away copies of his book, Working the Room: How to Move People to Action Through Audience-Centered Speaking, to participating audience members.

The conference took place April 5.