I’ve posted a lot about how to create a pitch but it occurred to me yesterday at a pitch review, that I’ve never provided any tips to those, like myself, who get tasked with reviewing pitches.
Know the audience and purpose
While the vast majority of decks we are asked to review are for the purpose of raising money, not all are aimed at investors. The second largest category I see are pitches for contests. While there may be investors in the audience, often the goal is to win or place, which is often accompanied by a cash prize in the low to mid five figures. Other audiences include trade show and conference attendees – I’ve given a number of presentations at conferences myself; customer pitches; partner pitches; and company pitches. Often, as in demo days, the purpose of the pitch is to drive the audience to the presenter’s exhibit booth to make a personal connection to the company and see their product in action.
Understand the constraints
The major constraint for organized pitches like business plan contests is time. Usually each participant is allocated somewhere between 4 to 10 minutes. Sometimes, that’s it. Other times an equal amount of time is allocated for Q and A. And how strictly the time limit is enforced varies, but best practice is to assume enforcement is strict. Another constraint is asking for money! The MIT VMS Demo Day pitches can not explicitly ask for funding, presenters can only indicate that they are actively raising capital. At times there are also format constraints; some pitch contests don’t allow video or require all presentations to be in PowerPoint so they can be loaded onto a single laptop for ease of presenting a number of pitches, one after another.
First time run through
Even if the pitch is aimed investors it is a good idea to set a time limit. 15 to 20 minutes for a detailed presentation to interested investors is typical. But whatever the audience give the presenter the opportunity to run through the pitch without interruptions, but against the time clock. This will give the reviewers a chance to emulate the actual audience – aside from VCs, who often will interrupt founders so many times they may never get to finish their pitch! (And that’s actually good, as it shows they are engaged.)
It can be less threatening for the founder and an easier start for the reviewers to address the format of the deck. There are dozens. if not hundreds, of posts about how to format a pitch, but even so as a reviewer you will see mistakes. The number one mistake is cramming multiple points into a single slide. If I could give founders one piece of advice it’s the formula one idea = one slide. You will often catch things like a “Confidential – Do Not Distribute” footer on what will be a public presentation – that’s just a distraction. Judges also need to look for consistency of format, readability of text, sufficient white space, correct use of color and fonts, etc. Reviewers can also leave format comments to last – up to them.
While it can be tempting for reviewers to jump on slides that they feel are weak or even should be deleted, the first step in the substantive review is the story. Is it clear? Is it compelling? Is it concise? Does it make sense? Do the slides reinforce the story or are they redundant and/or distracting? Does the pitch make clear not only the problem and solution, but who the customer is? One common mistake founders make is to confuse institutions with customers. Hospitals are not customers for medical devices. You can’t sell to a “hospital.” Who in the hospital makes the buying decision? Who actually cuts the check or issues the purchase order? Who will use the medical device? These can be the same person, but in large organizations are most often three or more persons; sometimes committees decide on high ticket, high impact technology purchases.
Are assertions, like market size, backed up with evidence or citations? A pitch isn’t an academic paper but presenters need to back up assertions that they make. Make sure presenters don’t go down technical or other rabbit holes. No technical or business jargon!
If you have 45 minutes to review a pitch, spend the majority of the time, say 30 minutes on the story. The founder should be able to tell the story smoothly without notes and without slides. The slides should reinforce major points in story, not simply reiterate it. Getting the story right is necessary, but not sufficient.
Reviewers can not be bashful about critiquing the presenter: their speech, their body language, their pacing – too fast and they will lose the audience, too slow and they will bore the audience. Presenters need to speak clearly and forcibly. If they are working with a fixed microphone they need to be aware of mic technique – don’t drift away from the mic but don’t get on top of it either, you may start popping “”p’s” for example. If no mic they will have to speak loudly. Do presenters make good eye contact with the audience or are they looking at their notes? Their slides? Their shoes? Presenters should be enthusiastic and confident, but not overly “salesy”. People make snap judgments; they can decide in as little as 15 seconds whether they like someone or not, so make sure presenters get off to a good start – no fumbling with papers, no throat clearing, mic testing or other warm up tics. See my post It’s the singer AND the song.
Slide by slide
I find it most helpful to founders to go through each slide individually to make sure it does its job of helping to tell the story. Don’t be afraid to tell a presenter to cut slides; the other day we told the presenter to dump his entire fancy graphics-laden presentation in favor of a very simple 5-slide, text-driven presentation. His story was so simple, so engaging that all the fancy slides were nothing but a distraction. But most presenters will benefit by having slides to reinforce their speech. Don’t assume that the presenter has the slides in the correct order. I often find that presenters “bury the lede,” that is they don’t get to who the customer is and what the problem is until they’ve spent way too much time describing the marketplace. Reviewers need to be familiar with good slide design, if not they shouldn’t be reviewing! Make sure that the slides are in sync with the presenter’s speech and vice versa. Each element may be fine on its own but if they aren’t synced up correctly that’s a problem. Are slides in the correct order? Is every slide necessary? Less is often more.
Finally, can the presenter take in feedback or are they defensive or filled with hubris so they ignore feedback? If the founder doesn’t take in and act on valuable feedback the reviewer’s time is wasted and most likely the presentation will be weak. During MIT VMS pitch scrubs where we do a two-pass review, I’m often amazed by how much better the second version of the pitch is; founders exceed my expectations.
If time permits it can help the presenter to ask them what they learned from the review and reviewers may need to reiterate major points that the presenter didn’t seem to absorb.
Dealing with the group
Pitch scrubs almost are always done in groups, this can be both a problem and an advantage. I like to know the background of the other reviewers – for example, they may have domain expertise, such as in medical devices, which I lack. The other day I had no background on the other reviewers and there were several of us. In that situation my practice is to let others go first. Often there will be someone who is really good on story telling, another person an expert of graphic design, and yet another may have deep domain expertise.
Don’t be afraid to second someone else’s point. Getting the same or similar feedback will help the presenter to understand what they need to pay attention to. Be as brief and concise as possible to leave air time to others. Don’t interrupt other reviewers or the presenter. But don’t be bashful about asking to go back to slide “n” (it really helps reviewers if all slides are numbered. These numbers can be dropped from the final version).
Finally keep in mind, a pitch review is not a shooting gallery. Your job is not to shoot down the presenter’s slides, it is to provide valuable feedback and advice to enable the presenter to improve their pitch, to get the next meeting, to successfully raise capital or win a pitch contest. You are a coach and you want your player to improve so that they will win. Act accordingly.