• 11 Aug 2011
  • Lessons from the Classroom

Perfecting the Project Pitch

Entrepreneurs may be great innovators, but not necessarily great presenters. Associate Professor Thomas Steenburgh teaches them the fine art of product pitching. Key concepts include:
  • Crafting a compelling product pitch can be a difficult process for entrepreneurs who have a technical, engineering, or non-sales background, or another non-sales discipline.
  • A pitch can go awry when the presenter gets too wrapped up in details rather than concentrating on the central idea, or has not thought through the idea enough to really understand it.
  • An audience will give presenters 60 seconds to capture their attention—then they tune out.
  • A key for entrepreneurs pitching their plans is to show passion for the idea and for the audience.
by Dennis Fisher

Everyone has a good idea for the next hot start-up or the next great invention. Everyone. Just turn to the person next to you on the subway and ask her; she'll almost certainly detail a can't-miss opportunity.

Developing the idea often is the easiest part of the equation when it comes to starting a new venture. Getting other people interested enough to either invest their money or buy the product is the really difficult part, and it's often the spot where even the most experienced executives and entrepreneurs stumble.

“An idea isn't well understood until it can be explained to someone else”

Overcoming that obstacle can be a difficult process, especially for entrepreneurs who have a background in a technical, engineering, or another non-sales discipline. They are not used to having to convince anyone of the merits of their projects, and can be downright hostile toward the whole sales and marketing song and dance.

"People with engineering backgrounds tend to struggle in this process," says Harvard Business School Associate Professor Thomas Steenburgh, who teaches the Business Marketing course that includes an exercise in which students must develop, hone, and deliver a five-minute sales pitch for a project. It's an elaboration on the classic "elevator pitch" exercise in which entrepreneurs must come up with a 60-second presentation that tells the story of their product, company, or project as efficiently as possible.

Steenburgh, who has been teaching the course for several years, says that the project pitch concept has evolved over time with several clear trends emerging. One is that there is a significant subset of students who have very good, well-thought-out ideas, but they have a difficult time communicating them to their audience for various reasons.

"Some people just don't know how to talk about an idea. They'll give you tons of background information, and at the end of the five minutes, they're just getting around to the actual idea. It should be just the opposite," he says.

Then there are other students who are convinced they have a great concept, but really haven't thought it through. "They think they know their idea, but they really don't. Getting in front of an audience helps them understand that," Steenburgh says. "An idea isn't well understood until it can be explained to someone else. "

In Steenburgh's course, students give their pitches in front of peers who evaluate the performances on a number of factors, including the quality of the idea itself, how likely it is to succeed, and how effectively the presenter communicated it to the audience.

"I'm interested in how well students can position their projects and themselves," Steenburgh explains. "The pitches take only five minutes, and I tell them that there are no do-overs. We turn on the camera and say 'go,' and they can't stop at that point. It's all constructive criticism, and we're also trying to find out who else in the class could be helpful with the project."

Passion And Enthusiasm

The keys to succeeding in these situations are two-fold: conveying passion about your idea, and demonstrating enthusiasm for what audience members could bring to the party.

If the speaker doesn't seem to care about the idea, then there's not much chance that the audience will either. Passion and enthusiasm can be contagious in pitch situations, but so can a lack of those qualities, Steenburgh says. If the presenter appears bored or unsure, the audience will pick up on that quickly and tune out. That's why he thinks it's important for speakers to grab the audience's attention early.

There are a number of tricks for doing so, such as posing a puzzle to capture the audience's attention. "I tell students that they have 30 seconds with an audience," Steenburgh says. "At the start the audience is with you, they want to like you. But you have to give them a reason to continue listening."

Most of his students have a decent amount of experience in the real business world before they come to HBS, yet many still find the project pitch exercise to be a challenge.

"I've taught this to first- and second-year students, and I think that by the time they get to the spring of their second year, they understand that just about every job involves some kind of selling," he says.

About the Author

Dennis Fisher is a writer based in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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