The big pitcher: how to do a killer presentation

"When somebody's pitching to me I'm looking at everything they're doing, everything they're saying, and I'm testing them all the way down the track," says Deborah Meaden, the Dragons' Den investor who's seen far more than her fair share of questionable presentations.

The insight may feel unnerving, but it's also invaluable. Whether you're presenting to a supermarket buyer, a venture capitalist or a potential founding partner, you cannot afford to be anything less than pitch perfect.

Sound daunting? Thought so. That's why Smarta is here to ensure that every last bullet point is exactly where it should be.

Know your numbers

Pitching isn't all sharp suits and seductive sales propositions. The hard work starts way before you walk into that meeting room. Solid, thought-out and realistic financials underpinning your promises come before anything - because without them, you have nothing.

Which brings us to the sticky question of making forecasts. How do you seriously excite the people you're pitching to without overinflating reality and jeopardising your integrity?

"No one's ever written a sales forecast that's correct," says Bill Morrow, founder of angel-investment network Angels Den. "You can't judge what's going to happen next week, let alone five years ahead!"

Morrow says what's more impressive to an investor than a feasible prediction is that 'you have actually thought about the variables in the sales, the inherent assumptions'. Show the person you're presenting to that you've worked through all the different factors that shape your forecast - both positive and negative. Talk through them briefly during the pitch and include a list of them in the packet of documents you give to them at the end (more on that below). It'll need to address potential threats to your sales, business and staff costs, predicted market changes, seasonal peaks and troughs, expected changes in the size of your target demographic and their habits, future events or marketing activity from other organisations that would have an impact on your business, and so on.

Gavin Wheeldon, founder of Applied Language Solutions and famous spurner of offers from the Dragons, pitched for and won a £32m contract when he was just 23. He's been making successful presentations ever since. He gets around the forecasting black spot by giving the investors or firms he's pitching to three different scenarios: 'best case, middle of the ground, and absolute worst case'. "As long as your worst case scenario still looks sensible, then everything else is an upside - and they really appreciated it."

Make your forecasts up to two or three years ahead. After that, Morrow says, you begin to lose credibility. And avoid overvaluing your company at all costs - anyone who's ever watched Dragons' Den knows that particular fault sets off the loudest clanging of alarm bells in investors' heads.

The next brick you need to lay for your pitch-perfect financial foundations is working out how much equity you're willing to give away to an investor. You also have to be clear on precisely what the money you're asking for will be used for - every last pound of it. Don't, whatever you do, say you're planning to draw a healthy salary from it. (Although you do need to have accounted for your wages in your workings.)

And if you have savings, now is the time to use them - no investor is going to give you their cash when you're not risking your own.

"I look for commitment that shows that if it goes wrong, it will hurt," says Meaden. "If it isn't money then it's got to be time or it's got to be equity or it's got to be a patent."

If you're after a contract from a supermarket or superchain buyer, the equivalent of this part is knowing what price you'll be happy with for your product and how many units you can handle logistically. Always have your walk-away figure firmly in your head - and never go lower than the one you reserve for worst-case scenario.

The ingredients of a pitch

You pitch should needs to provide an overview of your business along with all the key factors investors or buyers are going to looking for.

So that includes: your idea (describe it in a sentence within the first 30-seconds); your market; the market gap or problem you're solving; your USPs; your idea or product in more detail; your forecasts; and any evidence of sales, orders placed or client testimonials you have. You also need to run through your management team and their relevant backgrounds. Then, your logistical infrastructure showing your capability to manufacture - transport and so on - and any marketing and growth strategies - or at the very least your plans for all that.

Each section should last around two to three minutes when spoken aloud - apart from the 30-second intro, and perhaps the explanations of your team, which may serve as a strong selling point if you have a good one and, if so, should be longer. Your pitch as a whole should aim to be around 20 to 30 minutes long.

Put together three or four bullet points for each of the above sections, with the person who's going to be hearing your pitch in mind. Tailor things to their wants and need-to-knows - the hard facts that are going to please them. Use statistics to back up what you're saying, talks margins and profit, and avoid jargon at all costs.

Barbara Houseman is a course trainer for Jo Ouston & Co who specialises in improving public speaking in corporate environments and boosting personal presence. Her guidance on getting through the pitch without sending everyone to sleep is to describe your business 'like a story'. "The more that you can create a picture, rather than being abstract, the better." Of course, you need hard evidence to back up what you're saying as well - but bring this in to support what you're saying, rather than just listing facts in a horrendously tedious half-hour-long list.

And so: to PowerPoint or not to PowerPoint?

Investors' and buyers' reactions to slides vary. Take whichever route you feel most comfortable with. If having a visual prop helps guide you through, use it - if you're worried you'd fumble and press the wrong button, just talk. Aim to have a purely spoken pitch prepared to fall back on in case technology fails you on the day either way.


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