I watched 10 women semi-finalists, all leaders of early-stage companies, present their innovations to a stellar jury at the Women in Cleantech Challenge, a pitching competition in Toronto with roots in San Francisco. Women are underrepresented in the energy field and in cleantech in particular. That was the reason for a targeted accelerator program and the opportunity to earn a jackpot of $1 million down the road. Though these leaders were pitching to win entry to an incubator, what we learn from them can apply equally to any change you are promoting in your organization.
One of the most important leadership skills you can develop is influence, and we can learn a lot about influence from savvy entrepreneurs who deliver pitch presentations. These presentations often take place under high stakes and with little time to sway the outcome. Entrepreneurs pitch to get money from investors, secure partners of all types and land customers who ask for orders. Particularly in the early stages of developing their business idea, they revise and hone their presentations frequently, well before they reach the stage of commercialization.
Here are the five keys to a persuasive pitch:
Many people start with the urgency of a problem followed by an invitation to imagine the impact if the problem was solved. Or they start with something about themselves and their background that earns them credibility right off the bat. Both can be powerful but the key is to grab attention quickly. However you start, begin bold and strong, and consider doing the unorthodox.
One entrepreneur worked against predictability by introducing herself and then surprising us by sharing her age, 22, which elicited a hush of momentary disbelief from the several hundred onlookers. She proceeded to describe the challenge and her business idea to create a sustainable method of cleaning up oil spills with science and business solutions, delivering it with passion and succeeding in winning people over. By then no one could judge her as too young or without credibility, she had proven herself and inspired awe in the audience.
Prepare Yet Improve
Most people will tell you to prepare but there’s a caveat here that’s often overlooked. You can over prepare in ways that aren’t helpful. We all feel the need to memorize our content when there’s a lot at stake. I admit that this is something that I’ve done with mixed results because I went too far to ‘get it right’. The best presentations happen when you are solid in knowing your content but you leave yourself the freedom to improvise. A robotic presentation delivery, pacing the stage getting through your lines, and working hard to remember your script means you are reciting. Make sure you resist over-rehearsing so that your presentations aren’t stale. Not surprisingly, my clients often raise the question about when is ‘too much’. I tell them that when you are bored of giving your presentation in rehearsing it is when you’ll know. Then it’s time to breath new life into it.
Make It Personal
When entrepreneur Amanda Hall presented an innovative means of resource extraction to create a sustainable source of green lithium for batteries used in electric cars, she showed a cheeky glam portrait of herself leaning against a Tesla near the finish. Her message had been that electric cars are coming, and that’s positive, but we don’t want to risk depending on dirty lithium mining and extraction without a green solution. When she flashed the photo she was signaling that we can feel good about electric cars when we solve the lithium challenge. She then let us know that the car wasn’t hers, it was her landlord’s “who’s clearly charging me too much in rent”. Keeping it light and making yourself relatable worked for her as it will work for you.
Show Don’t Only Tell
You’ve heard the maxim ‘show don’t tell’ for writers, right? It’s equally true for storytellers. We believe it more when we see it with our own eyes. That was the effect when Julia Angus played a video clip of a prototype of her solar-POWERED ocean monitoring boat navigating the waters, and when Luna Yu reached into her pocket and held up a high-quality biodegradable plastic that she invented to show proof of concept. Again, showing something makes an impression when you are selling your vision.
Frame the New With What We Already Know
When Luna told us the origin story of how she used the family rice cooker for early experiments converting organic waste to energy when she couldn’t afford expensive bioreactors, and then scaled up her DIY operation in her garage, it rang a familiar bell. Many know of the personal computer revolution starting in several wiz kids’ garages in Palo Alto in the 1960’s and the 1980’s. Pointing to something familiar when facing a high-risk opportunity is reassuring and it inspires. See what tropes, anecdotes, stories, processes, services or products are similar enough to the thing you want to see happen and refer to it. It will lessen the perceived risk in people’s minds.
Whether or not your strength is presenting, it’s vital to communicate persuasively. Looking at how these entrepreneurs are tackling the world’s toughest environmental challenges there’s a lot to master to present well, and like anything you want to excel at, it takes doing a lot of that thing. And here’s some good news. All the contenders referred to in this article were among the finalists. They were persuasive. Congratulations to them and lucky us.
Photo credit: Thank you to Lane Jackman
A version of this article appeared at Forbes.com on October 15, 2018