Entrepreneurs Without Sales Backgrounds Struggle to “Pitch” Their Products

Entrepreneurs may be great innovators, but not necessarily great presenters. A recent article in Harvard Business School Working Knowledge related how Associate Professor Thomas Steenburgh teaches students the fine art of product pitching. Key concepts include:

  • Crafting a compelling product pitch can be a difficult process for entrepreneurs who have a technical, engineering, or non-sales background, or another non-sales discipline. They are not used to having to convince anyone of the merits of their projects, and can be downright hostile toward the whole sales and marketing song and dance.
  • A pitch can go awry when the presenter gets too wrapped up in details rather than concentrating on the central idea, or has not thought through the idea enough to really understand it.
  • An audience will give presenters 60 seconds to capture their attention—then they tune out.
  • A key for entrepreneurs pitching their plans is to show passion for the idea and for the audience.

Steenburgh relates how everyone has a good idea for the next hot start-up or the next great invention. Unfortunately, developing the idea often is the easiest part of the equation when it comes to starting a new venture. Getting other people interested enough to either invest their money or buy the product is the really difficult part, and it’s often the spot where even the most experienced executives and entrepreneurs stumble.

Steenburgh teaches a Business Marketing course that includes an exercise in which students must develop, hone, and deliver a five-minute sales pitch for a project. It’s an elaboration on the classic “elevator pitch” exercise in which entrepreneurs must come up with a 60-second presentation that tells the story of their product, company, or project as efficiently as possible.

Steenburgh, who has been teaching the course for several years, says that the project pitch concept has evolved over time with several clear trends emerging. Even though many HBS students have worked in business before enrolling in the MBA program, “Some people just don’t know how to talk about an idea. They’ll give you tons of background information, and at the end of the five minutes, they’re just getting around to the actual idea. It should be just the opposite,” Steenburgh says.

Then there are other students who are convinced they have a great concept, but really haven’t thought it through. “They think they know their idea, but they really don’t. Getting in front of an audience helps them understand that,” Steenburgh says. “An idea isn’t well understood until it can be explained to someone else.”

The keys to succeeding in these situations are two-fold: conveying passion about your idea, and demonstrating enthusiasm for what audience members could bring to the party.

If the speaker doesn’t seem to care about the idea, then there’s not much chance that the audience will either. Passion and enthusiasm can be contagious in pitch situations, but so can a lack of those qualities, Steenburgh says. If the presenter appears bored or unsure, the audience will pick up on that quickly and tune out. That’s why he thinks it’s important for speakers to grab the audience’s attention early.

There are a number of tricks for doing so, such as posing a puzzle to capture the audience’s attention. “I tell students that they have 30 seconds with an audience,” Steenburgh says. “At the start the audience is with you, they want to like you. But you have to give them a reason to continue listening.”

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