Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pitching your grandmother

I attended the UC Davis Graduate School of Management’s Big Bang! business plan bake-off last night. The event has matured considerably over the past seven years; 150-plus people enjoyed presentations by five nascent (and impressive) companies questing for $15k in prize money. In years past, two Venture Lab (my former incubator’s) portfolio companies cashed in; one company invested its couple-of-thousand dollars of winnings into a bizdev trip back east. Instead of Eureka! or I’m going to Disneyland!, it was, We’re going to Buffalo! Cool beans.

The BigBang! presentations reminded me of a wonderful lesson I learned in graduate school. Professor Tsai commenced our stats course with a pledge: I’m going to teach you statistics so you can explain it to your grandmother. The presentations reminded me too of an undergrad English professor who, I’m convinced, went to bed each night spooning a copy of Strunk and White’s 85-page tome, The Elements of Style. Said prof embedded the book's rules in our impressionable noggins. His favorite: Rule 17. Omit needless words.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Where am I going with this? Let’s return to last night’s presentations. Each of the companies has germinated from, or is inspired by, a UCD technology. Brain-freezing stuff for us mortals; attempted comprehension creates a residue similar to slurping too much of a Slurpee. (BTW, I’ve been trying to salvage a used Slurpee machine for the past decade … please email me if you have one laying around.)

If there’s a constructive ounce of critique – a word -- for the presenters (across the board, and this relates to most every company pitch I’ve absorbed), it’s simplify. Four more: Ensure every word tells. Six more: Describe your company to your grandmother.

It’s common for people to complicate simple things; it’s uncommon (and most challenging) to simplify complicated things. Especially when you’re pitching a PowerPoint to 150 people. Particularly when you’ve sired the idea: you know it, you love it, you own it … everyone else should get it, right?

Orate what you do in one simple, understandable-by-all sentence. Employ an analogy (one a layperson will understand). Better yet, impersonate a six-year-old’s show-and-tell (sharing, in today’s grammar school vernacular) classroom presentation and share a tangible prototype (no matter how raw). Or, role-play the experience a customer will enjoy. Keep it simple and make it memorable.

Your grandmother will be proud, and you may even raise a few bucks.


Post script (8/2/07): Just discovered a relevant and worthy commentary from Garage Technology Ventures' Bill Reichert. Quick summary: The purpose of your pitch is to sell, not to teach. Your job is to excite, not to educate.

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