My partner, Aaron Rothenberg, recently wrote a piece about the communications gap between startups and investors. Basically, he states that startups fail to convey their message and offering to investors. In no place is this truer than in the amorphous “startup pitch”. Why amorphous? Simply because this pitch may take many forms – an elevator pitch, an investor presentation, and even the startup’s written materials. They are all some form of “pitch”.

There are many lessons going around about how to properly pitch, they tell you to: tell a story, connect with the audience, be brief, simplify, the list is virtually endless. All (or at least most) are very true. But I think that if entrepreneurs want to know how to really pitch, or just to understand where their pitch is failing, they need to think like a doctor. Not a Dr. Pitch, but an actual medical doctor, you know – an MD.

To make this point clear I’ll give an example. Say (god forbid) you have a terrible headache. You go to the doctor and undergo a series of tests. A few hours/days/weeks later you return to the doctor’s office to hear his prognosis. And here is what he tells you:

“I’m glad you came in. I have an incredible set of molecules that block the production of prostaglandins which cause a headache. A lot of people want to use these molecules and you should too, it’s much better than the other doctor’s molecules. Dr. XYZ is the inventor, and he has a patent for ‘uses of AdvEx in the relief of headaches’ which is pending, he is also a doctor in Mount Sinai, he teaches at Harvard, he likes to water-ski and has two daughters. I can give you the molecules as a shot, or a pill, or a liquid, or a drip, or a combination. It’s amazing. Do you want it?”

I don’t know about you, but that would be the stage where I pack my stuff and run away from this scary physician.

Here’s what a real doctor would probably say:

“I’m glad you came in. Your tests show that you have a migraine. I have an incredible pill, we call it AdvEx, and it will help ease your headaches in no time. It does it by blocking the production of prostaglandins which are the root cause of your headache. There are other solutions you may try, such as Advil and Aspirin. After all, over 50 million people suffer from migraines each year, but AdvEx has been proven to have the least side-effects and is non-addictive. It was developed by a world-renowned scientific team out of Mount Sinai Hospital and since it reached the market three years ago, has been shown to be effective across a wide range of people. Let me give you a prescription, it’s covered by your insurance”

You see the difference? It’s no wonder that the success of doctors is determined not only by their medical acumen but also by their bedside manner, or rather how they communicate with patients.

 So let’s break it down. What makes the difference here?

It’s a matter of clear structure

You probably already know that the pitch should cover the basic sections: Need (a.k.a the Pain), Solution, Market, Competition, etc… But hearing all this information at once may be confusing to a first-time listener. As such, it is your job to make it easier for them to categorize each piece of information into the right area, and understand how they connect. Each section should be clearly defined, and a flow should be created. When you talk about the need, speak only about the need. Don’t go into your solution, don’t talk about the team or the market. When you speak about the solution, address how it solves the need, and when you speak about the team explain why they are the most qualified to make the solution.

The wrong way:

“I have an incredible set of molecules that block the production of prostaglandins which cause a headache.” – This talks about the solution without first explaining why it is needed. The need (a headache) is actually hidden somewhere in the sentence, which confuses the listener even more.

The right way:

  • “Your tests show that you have a migraine” – this is the need. Simple, to the point.
  • “I have an incredible pill, we call it AdvEx, and it will help ease your headaches in no time.” – This introduces the solution and shows what it does to solve the need
  • “It does it by blocking the production of prostaglandins which are the root cause of your headache.”– Shows how the solution works, it may not be simple, but the doctor (read: startup) appears to know what he’s talking about.

Talk about a product, not a technology

Even though you are most likely selling a technology or a concept, it is hard for the listener/reader to immediately understand the usage case. In order to keep them interested and in tune with the message, tell them about the product: how it is used and its benefits. Remove the need for the listener to start doing the math: From technology A you need to develop solution B which can be in form of a product C. That’s your job.

The wrong way:

“I have an incredible set of molecules that block the production of prostaglandins” – Are you sure the listener knows what a molecule is and what they do? As a potential user, how will I use a molecule?

 The right way:

“I have an incredible pill, we call it AdvEx, and it will help ease your headaches in no time.” – It’s a pill which I know you swallow and it eases headaches – that’s wonderful!

Don’t go into too many details

During a pitch, the attention span of the listener is very limited. If you give too much information his/her mind will start wandering off. Keep to the point. Say only the important things. If you get their attention, they will ask for the details. That’s how you get a conversation going.

The wrong way:

“Dr. XYZ is the inventor, and he has a patent ‘uses of AdvEx in the relief of headaches’ which is pending, he is also a doctor in Mount Sinai, he teaches in Harvard, he likes to water-ski and has two daughters.” – Frankly no one cares. You lost me at Mount Sinai.

 The right way:

“It was developed by a world renowned scientific team out of Mount Sinai Hospital” – Short and to the point. This shows that there is a serious team. If I want to know more about the team, the IP or anything else – I will definitely ask.

Detail unique competitive advantages

Many entrepreneurs seem to want to belittle or ignore the competition. That’s just bad form. First off, if they are out there and someone uses them, that means there is a need. Second, they are out there. They may not be doing things as well as you think you can do, but people are using them, so they must be doing at least something right. Third, thinking there is no alternate solution to this need is just a type of blindness that makes me think you are either lying to me or have no grasp of your target market.

The wrong way:

“it’s much better than the other doctor’s molecules” – How? Why? Why should I believe you?

The right way:

“There are other solutions you may try, such as Advil and Aspirin. […] but AdvEx has been proven to have the least side-effects and is non-addictive.” – These are the two main concerns when using competing products. Show how you address them.

Don’t give too many options

One thing that really turns off investors is lack of focus. You are after all a startup, the amount of attention (management, capital, marketing) you can give to anything is limited. Focus allows you to concentrate all your attention at one place. If you provide too many options for your company: types of products, revenue streams, target markets, etc… you are basically showing that you will be spreading your efforts on too many things and therefore lack focus. Select one or two options (one is better) in each decision the startup needs to reach: one type of product, one type of revenue stream, a target market. You get the idea.

The wrong way:

“I can give you the molecules as a shot, or a pill, or a liquid, or a drip, or a combination” – simply too many options. It’s confusing.

The right way:

“It’s a pill” – one clear choice. I may think a liquid might be better, but that is a matter for later discussion, once I am more engaged with the startup and know more information.

There are many other points, but you get the idea

Of course there are additional points you can address such as: call to action (“let me give you a prescription”), financial risk mitigation (“It’s covered by your insurance”), market size (“50 million people suffer from migraines each year”) and traction (“has been shown to be effective across a wide range of people”), but this article is becoming too long, so I may address them at another time.

So next time you need to pitch your startup to someone, be it verbally or in written form, take a moment and think: If I heard this from a doctor, would I try the medicine? If the answer is no, rethink your pitch.

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net