Ditch the pitch – London Business School Review

Over the decades I’ve listened to many hundreds of would-be founders pitching their ideas. Mostly on-stage during competitions and pitch events. But also, at networking events, reluctantly cornered by an invariably enthusiastic individual intent on giving me chapter and verse on an incredible venture idea.

There is rarely any self-doubt. Occasionally that is fine, either because the business is already gaining traction (the ultimate proof-of-pudding) or because preparing the perfect pitch is part of the business plan competition game – when there’s just one prize it pays to fool all the people for just long enough.

And yet, in my experience pitches are usually counterproductive. I’m frankly bewildered by the number of entrepreneurship educators who devote valuable time to teaching students how to make the ‘perfect pitch’. Worse, the elevator pitch. Many do so, so I must be wrong, but after 14 years helping nascent entrepreneurs at LBS (and a further 28 at University College London) I can’t think why.

Potential investors and advisors hate being sold to, especially at networking events.  Many professional networks ban selling altogether, precisely for this reason. Entrepreneurs think they’re being passionate.  In fact, they’re being pushy, thereby repelling, rather than recruiting, top talent in the vicinity.  When anyone corners me at a networking event (you can see them out of the corner of your eye, hovering, twenty paces away) I’ll do anything I can to bat them away.  I want conversations, not a monologue, no matter how spirited.
By turning a two-way exchange into a polished ‘transmit-only’ monologue, they’re passing by any opportunity for quality feedback and advice. They talk and talk, presenting a supposedly perfect offering as if it’s a no-brainer.  They are telling the audience that they must be stupid if they don’t ‘get it’.  They hope to win over their audience by the power of logic, even though the argument is leaky. The fact that pitches are usually fast-paced works to their advantage; as someone once said, when you’re on thin ice the only thing going for you is speed’.
As a judge – and curious human being – I crave a good conversation, debate and argument. I get really grumpy when I’m deprived of this opportunity by anyone who merely wants to present – with oratory or Powerpoint’. This happens a lot at pitching sessions, especially when teams are presenting, and everyone wants a say. They have a 15-minute slot including Q&A but insist on talking for 12 minutes, leaving no time for back-and-forth with the judges. This is insane – there’s no better tactic for annoying judges that giving them no time to engage in conversation with you.  Some of the best ‘pitches’ I’ve observed are those that take only five minutes, leaving the judges time to engage.
Pitching signals lack of objectivity and a closed mind. It says, ‘I’ve nailed it and there’s no point convincing me otherwise’. Like an accomplished doorstep evangelist. Resistance is futile. So we don’t even try and the pitcher exits merrily with another battle won.  As Neil Rackman says in his marvellous book, Spin Selling, ‘if you turn a conversation into a presentation then you’re missing an opportunity’.
You’re signalling that you’re not open for feedback or suggestions. Everyone likes helping a fellow would-be entrepreneur in their path. But by creating a ‘hard exterior’ you’re showing that such suggestions are unwelcome. As Ogden Nash quipped: “The door of a bigoted mind opens outwards so that the only result of the pressure of facts upon it is to close it more snugly”.
You’re preventing others the opportunity to really understand the essence of your idea. Pitchers believe that people learn as they listen.  This is only partly true.  For many people learning happens (and enthusiasm builds) as they talk about and play with ideas.  Ideas are co-created. I think Socrates observed that: “Truth emerges in the ebb and flow of conversation”. He certainly said that: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”.
It goes against one of the first maxims of management, which is to ‘seek out the disquieting evidence’. In my early twenties many of my friends started families and we were often handed new-borns by adoring parents. Many times I had to remind myself that, there’s no such thing as an ugly baby.  There is, of course but it’s hard to say so when the parent so desperately seeks confirmatory evidence. Purveyors of new, half-formed ventures need to take note – some ventures are born ugly. Even if you can’t see it others can. But actively seek out the negative.  Give folk permission to be constructively negative.
Many ‘pitch evenings’ are designed to enlist help from members of the audience who may well have complementary skills and sector experience.  I’ve been to loads of these events. The bigger the event, the more prepared and polished the pitch. Audiences want to know how they can engage. The problem is that the more polished the pitch, the more any potential contributor is made to feel that the team is complete and every management base is covered’.  Outsiders are superfluous, perhaps even an irritation to be patronised. Pitch trainers kind-of get this and always encourage entrepreneurs to finish every pitch with ‘an ask’. This is fine but those ‘asks’ tend to be worthy or artificial perhaps a touch arrogant?  The search for the perfect customer or investors. Everything suggesting that they’re a few strides away from a home run. A room full of admirers but they leave the party alone.
Most entrepreneurs are plagued with doubts about the whether their venture will fly and whether they’re on the right path.  Alongside that ambiguity, it can be quite a lonely existence. Very little of this can surface in a pitch lest it be interpreted as weakness, lack of ambitions or wavering commitment. The old boy scout leader adage, ‘wrong sometimes, uncertain never’. The performance lacks authenticity. They’re encouraged to say that all is well when they know it’s not. Too many performances like this creates dissonance. Maybe the constant pressure to maintain external bullishness impacts mental health.
No-one is taken in by the perfect pitch.

So, what’s the solution? Ditch the pitch entirely? Well, sometimes, yes. When I discuss ventures with LBS entrepreneurs, I reject pitches. As soon as sense that their laptop opening and a Powerpoint presentation is imminent I politely close the laptop shut. Deprived of their set-piece, they tell me roughly what they’ve got in mind and then it’s down to an easy conversation where I can probe where I want to probe in order to understand their venture – and we slip easily into discussion. Maybe at the end I ask to see the presentation, simply to see whether we’ve missed anything. It’s nice to discuss a presentation afterwards to see whether it tells the same story.

With larger audiences of fellow students and other supporters, I think it’s more about storytelling. Think, networking evenings, hackathons, business plan competition finals, accelerator show-and-tells and even ‘pitch events’. Something is still needed to set the stage. But the objective is not to ram stuff down their throats. Rather it is to explain the venture opportunity with clarity, brevity and enthusiasm. The story becomes the minimum viable product – required for an audience to ‘get it’ so that they become intrigued and start thinking with you. Open up. Expose doubts and weaknesses. Tell them what it is you don’t know about your market and industry. Tell them what you’re struggling with.  Show some vulnerability. Seek out the disquieting evidence. In so doing, you’ll be inviting them to start thinking with you and be on your side. Of course, you can go too far; exposing vulnerabilities isn’t the same as sounding pathetic. But it is showing where the cracks are.

Then there are the mega events. Showtime. Go ahead and pitch your heart out. It’s a performance – they’re expecting pitch perfect. Enjoy yourselves.

I have a simple deal with my students. If they temporarily suspend belief in their venture idea, then I’ll suspend disbelief. That way we can have a way more constructive conversation.

Forget your perfect offering. There are cracks in everything. That’s where the light gets in.

Jeff Skinner is the Executive Director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London Business School