On Sunday last week, I found myself on a panel adjudicating business pitches presented by entrepreneurs from around South Africa.
They entered the Legends in the Making Competition and won the opportunity to attend a weekend entrepreneurship boot camp in Pretoria organised by Somafco Trust, a social enterprise focused on youth development.
I was intrigued to see young people, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, following their dreams and committing to build businesses. It was truly courageous of them to stand up, speak their minds and receive a barrage of questions from a panel of adjudicators.
Such behaviour puts them leaps and bounds ahead of those who have not even started turning their ideas into reality.
I have been coaching people on effective presentations for many years – anything from personal talks to presentations for the boards of big businesses.
One thing that I have found time and again is that the majority of the preparation time is incorrectly allocated towards the content and technical details of the presentation, and the delivery is overlooked.
This is especially true for entrepreneurs because they are challenged to spend hours and hours preparing the best business case, forgetting that there is more to the pitch than the document itself.
Several studies have shown that the least important part of communication is what you say – that is, the content.
Most of it is driven by numerous nonverbal factors such as tone and body language.
There are three such factors that are critical but quite often missed during pitches: expressing passion for the idea; remaining authentic and being aware of your audience.
Passion is everything. In fact, it is contagious. The more passion an entrepreneur can exhibit for their idea, the more this passion is infused into the audience.
Passion needs to be present all the time, not just when talking to potential investors.
The same is true for conversations with potential customers, suppliers, mentors and even family members who may still have the outdated mindset that going into entrepreneurship is a “crazy idea”.
When I witnessed young people expressing their passions last weekend, I found myself with a growing level of hope that young South Africans have the willpower needed to solve the frustrations that our society has lived with for many generations – frustrations especially detrimental to townships and rural communities. They shared business ideas that could reduce inefficiencies in the public healthcare system, transportation and, most importantly, education.
Passion goes hand in hand with authenticity.
The very word “pitch” misleads us to believe that we should be performing a show of sorts. A plot to hide our true selves for a few minutes. This is a fallacy.
It is more important to present the most authentic version of ourselves. No mask.
When people are deciding whether it is worthwhile to build a long-term business relationship with us, financial or otherwise, they have to see who we really are.
It is not the document or the product they will be investing in. They will be investing in the individual.
Brené Brown is a research professor who is famous for studying vulnerability and authenticity. She delivered one of the most popular TED talks of all time. In her book Daring Greatly, she writes that entrepreneurship is by definition synonymous with vulnerability, and if we shut down vulnerability, we shut down opportunity. She says we need to be able to tell the story of who we are with our whole hearts.
It’s critical to pitch from the heart. This is how we build connections with other human beings.
We need to have the courage to share our true stories, and be vulnerable enough to admit what we do not know.
I have learnt with time how to be authentic and vulnerable when I present to an audience. It can be difficult to expose your true self to others. But these are the moments when I feel most human. They are the moments I feel most connected to my audience.
Pitching is also about listening intently and remaining aware of the audience. Learning about the interests of the audience ahead of time empowers us to communicate in a manner that resonates well with the listener.
Listening gives us the chance to notice what the audience is passionate about and thus connect with them authentically on it.
When someone takes the time to talk to us about our business ideas, it means they want to create a win-win situation for us both.
I am not advocating for people to focus solely on the triad of passion, authenticity and awareness. It goes without saying that it is similarly important to get the basics right about the market, the competitive landscape and how your business will make money.
However, this triad of factors can help entrepreneurs set themselves up for greater success and lasting business relationships.
This article was first published in the Business Times on 27 September 2015