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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    • Tathagat
    • Blogger,
    This is true even for corporate employees. While bottom-up innovation is critical for most companies, the reality is that execs don't have enough bandwidth to listen to all the ideas - so, unless something is extremely well thought-out and crisply articulated, it fails to fly. So, employees think the execs are simply paying lip service to their innovation mantra, without realizing what might be wrong with the way they are presenting their ideas...
    • Jim Bertsch
    • Enterprise Architect, Kroger
    Ideas can be well articulated. In fact, too well articulated. The immediate gut reaction from the exec: "We don't have the resources (money/time/people) to do that ..."

    Often this is not the case. The real issue is a paradigm shift. "That's just the way it is ..." or some variation of that. The human tendency is too push the issues elsewhere, which allows us to exonerate ourselves and become powerless victims of circumstances.

    Getting past "I don't have the resources... or It is outside of my control ..." are the two biggest barriers I have seen. Trust and love are the virtues that win over a client. and open up wallets.
    • Eric Esievo
    • CEO, FOURTHMAN Global Consulting Ltd
    Ideas as it were rule the world, but the energy depends on available resources. Just as Jim underscores, "'Trust' and 'Love' are virtues that win over the client and open up the wallets", however the passion and enthusiasm demonstrated at presentation of the idea are the icing that invite the audience for a revisit or rethink on the idea.
    • Dr.Arun Kumar
    • President, TARA Machines
    There is a triad of communication Mantras; I say this from experience of a seasoned technology innovator turned social enterpreneur.
    Young and aspiring enterpreneurs, even students, need to unwind the complexity and communicate passion with simplicity. Sadly, investors are immune to the world of complexity. Keep It Simple Stupid!
    • Marian Gryzlo
    • President, Think to Lead
    It is also powerful to paint a vivid picture while communicating relevant and powerful metrics describing the ROI or the WIFM (What's In It For Me?") Combining facts with visual descriptions and delivering the message with sincere passion and energy is critical.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This is true about professionals in general. They have not learnt soft skills and hence falter in their communications, verbal as well as written. They take short cuts to earn qualifications which help them to get appointments in organisations. Here they carry on and they care little for their personal overall growth. They do focus on their jobs and nothing beyond.
    Innovators have to be well versed with what all they are engaged in. They must be fully involved and totally appreciative of their work. If well understood in all respects, it would be easier to explain to the audience.
    A rehearsal of the presentation can help time adjustment as only five minutes are made available. It happens also that in some cases even this short duration appears to be too long on the stage. That would not happen if the planning is proper.
    • Charles Sorensson
    In our E-MBA entrepreneurship course, we all practiced pitches. Our professor lambasted all of us for not starting the pitch with a clear simple statement of WHAT WE WANTED from the audience.

    I don't know if others would agree, but I think he was spot on.
    • Riaz Padamsee
    • Managing Director, Eagle Home Appliances
    if you are truly convinced then you can convince anybody.

    So first be your own brutally honest internal critic, after which all the external critics can't shake you.

    Then state the bare facts without embellishment and let the listener color the facts with her imagination.

    Don't exaggerate, in fact be conservative in your estimates.

    Ask for help, don't expect it automatically.

    Painstakingly re-explain dozens of times if asked -- never show impatience.

    Try to understand the unspoken thoughts of your audience and publicly rephrase their doubts openly.

    Don't boast. Don't bore. Don't berate.

    Thank your audience for listening to you. If you cannot do it in words then do it in your heart and mind which makes you more humble and they will notice.