Elevator. Escalator. Cab ride. Waiting for the bartender. Unexpected invitation to “take a seat” and chat a while. Coffee. Dinner table conversation. Text. Boardroom presentation. Video-conference call. Email. SXSW handshake. Friend of a friend who has a friend in a high place. Your mom. Your website.
Where are you going to make your next pitch? The ideal of a streamlined and convincing presentation of your business can easily get lost amidst the daily din of to-do’s and minute operational details. On top of that, and especially for a startup, even the basic definition of what the company is and does can change by the week. We can barely keep up with the internal pace of running the company; how are we also to be constantly prepared for these surprising make-or-break encounters with investors, clients, the press, etc.? So often, because of our accidental spontaneity, we end up steamrolling or underwhelming a potentially fruitful conversation.
“The Real World”
Back in college, we were of course told that all the books and papers and discussions were important. The life of the mind, blah blah blah (this coming from a Philosophy major!). What we really believed, however, is that someday we would enter “the real world” where these ideas may or may not be applicable. We thought these two worlds were somehow thoroughly distinct; more specifically, that the skills we were learning in the classrooms were disconnected from practical activities beyond them.
I’ve found this to be wholly untrue. For me, the synchronicity between intellectual and business pursuits has been remarkably refreshing. This is blatantly evidenced in the content. For example, my research in Sound Studies and technology clearly translates into consumer electronics and musical instrument design. But these are only the manifest functions of an academic career, ones that can largely be gained independently through Wikipedia University. More important, I’ve found, are the practical lessons learned by struggling through the academic process itself.
Case in point: while writing a paper or dissertation, you have to convince a few groups of people along the way that 1) you are smart enough to be here 2) you have something interesting to say and 3) you can actually accomplish what you’ve set out to do. Now, as a Sociology professor, this is the biggest shortcoming that I’ve observed in my students (and thus my most pressing lesson): they all want to tackle the world in a 10-page paper. “A Sociological Study of American Culture” and “The Rise of the Internet and the Decline of Communication” are common student-proposed topics. This is not a completely discouraging phenomenon, since it shows both ambition and motivation to tackle something big. It does not, however, display a sense of discretion or context-awareness; however determined they may be to write an excellent inquiry into the depths of an issue, most students in this category end up with an unconvincing surface treatment of a general topic.
We constantly translate our business vision to various individuals in multiple situations
The reason is simple: they did not adjust their scope and approach to the nature of their medium. In my students’ case, it is the 10-page format. In the typical businessperson’s day, it could be any and all of the list with which I began this writing. A mentor early in my career gave me an excellent piece of advice. He said I must pre-consider each encounter and description as a scaled version of the same argument. Indeed, the structure of the dissertation reflects this. One begins with a title, a sentence, an abstract, a first summary chapter, and then the dissertation as a whole. Additionally, one must be able to describe the entire project in a single word. At the risk of suggesting an undue hierarchy of efficient descriptions, here is a visualization:
Clearly, these academic standards don’t literally reflect standards for business writing. Few of us write books, after all… unless daily email output counts. What we do, nonetheless, is constantly translate our business vision to various individuals in multiple situations. The ability to scale this vision, to narrow or extend the scope based on contextual cues, is a skill worth intentionally developing. Here is an alternative illustration to exemplify this pitch scaling:
By tailoring your pitch to the time and attention constraints of the situation, you provide what I’d like to call margin for feedback. The whole point of talking with people about your business is to get a response, but so often we flood the whole encounter with our own verbiage and leave no room for the interlocutor. If you have to cram everything you want to say into a shortened time frame, you should probably just say less. By doing so you allow the other person to respond positively or negatively, but always productively. Hence, why I budgeted 15 minutes instead of the full 30 for the typical meeting time. By preparing for margin, you enable the other person’s excitement to build around your idea; by planning for feedback, that excitement can be expressed in the other’s own words and actions toward your business model.
Not everyone wants to be a partner in your business in the same way that not everyone wants to read dissertations. We simply don’t have that much time or interest. However, by distilling readymade versions of your pitch to suit the circumstances and learning how to pick from these versions on the spot, you’ll not only be more equipped to pitch to others. You’ll probably also learn something about the essential aim of your own business along the way. Businesses are not run on one word alone, but the best introductions often are.