If you've founded a cleantech company, there's a better than even chance your background is in science or engineering. There's also a high probability you could write an encyclopedia about your invention. Neither of these factors is likely to help you make a successful pitch for investment in your cleantech startup.

In the academic world, people are praised for their brilliance and encouraged to achieve breakthroughs in their fields and publish technical papers which are only understood by a small cohort of similarly trained individuals. Unfortunately, the premise behind your entire academic career is no longer operative when it comes to attracting investment and customers.

No, this isn't a clarion call for smart people to dumb themselves down or appeal to the lowest common denominator, but after spending yesterday at a cleantech showcase with two dozen growth stage companies, it became apparent to me there is an inverse relationship between the expertise of the speaker and the success of their pitch.

With the hope of seeing more cleantech companies get funded, here's a list of the most common pitch mistakes and how they can be solved.

 

The First Commandment: Get Your Story Straight

Whether you are pitching investors, building a website, or sending out an email, if your audience can't follow along, your credentials and ideas are irrelevant.

What I repeatedly heard yesterday was smart people talking about their science instead of engaging their audience with a story they could relate to and get behind.

Getting your story straight means having a narrative structure, which is always a variation of the same basic plotline.

  • Here's the future we desire
  • Here's the obstacle in the way of the future we want
  • Here's how we conquer our antagonist
  • Here's how you can be part of the solution.

 

Use Your Time Wisely

I like pitch competitions that allow presenters no more than five to seven minutes. Why? Because it forces the speaker to narrow his/her focus down to only the essential points, he/she is trying to make.

Yesterday, each presenter had 20 minutes to speak, including questions and answers. Unfortunately, every one of them used their entire time.

There is no rule that says you have to use all of the time you are given. Use what you need.

The antidote, learn your five-minute pitch until you can recite it in your sleep. Don't deviate from it.

I get blow-back for saying this, and my reply is always the same. "If you can illustrate your story in five minutes, anything more than that is either restating what you said or muting the volume of the points you already made.

If the audience gets your main objective, they will ask questions after. It's not your job to fill in all of the blanks or answer all of their questions before the Q & A session; your job is to pique their curiosity, so they want to learn more.

 

Your Audience Is There To Ask You Questions, Not Vice-Versa

It's OK to launch your presentation with a question to the audience as a way of focusing their attention on your narrative. Asking multiple questions in a presentation makes you look like the smartest kid in the class showing off, and no one likes to have their intelligence belittled.

If an audience member doesn't understand something, they will ask a question. If you continue getting asked the same question, it's a good indication there's a hole in your narrative.

 

Slides Are Adjuncts, Not Focal Points

Neuroscientific research has shown over and over again that people are only able to focus on one thing at a time. They are either watching the presenter or viewing the slide deck.

I find most presenters cram information on to their slides because they think it allows them to present more information, when in fact they are diluting their presentation.

  • The best slides tell a story, which is why pictures are better than words for slides. They are illustrative of the point(s) you are making.
  • Words on a slide that repeat what you are saying are redundant. The adage, "If it bears saying; it bears repeating," is dead wrong in this case. Less is always more when giving a speech.
  • If you must use copy with slides, limit yourself to one idea per slide, and use it only to reinforce your point.
  • While a single bullet point draws attention, multiple bullets both take the viewers attention away from the speaker and dilute your main point. Subheads with more bullet points? Just don't.

 

Don't Waste Time Restating the Obvious

If you are pitching your idea at a cleantech conference, it's a safe assumption 100% of the audience already knows carbon emissions are rising and we need solutions to stave off the climate crisis. They also know we use too much plastic, need alternative fuels to power our transportation system, and know solar and wind is intermittent power requiring storage when the sun isn't shining, or when the wind isn't blowing. If they didn't understand these facts, they wouldn't be at a niche conference like this. Restating the obvious not only insults them but wastes valuable time you could be using to make a more convincing case for your company.

From a visual perspective, no one needs to see slides of the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, polluted city air, or algae blooms in lakes and rivers. It can go unstated unless you are speaking to a 101 college-level course. Start with a shared values statement like, "We all want clean air and water" as an aspirational statement like the one in the first section.

 

You Are No Longer A Neutral Party In The Process

One way I can always tell if the speaker is a Ph.D. scientist is they shirk away from answering questions about the advantage of their technology over the competition. Engineers typically have the reverse problem: they can't wait to tell you how superior their invention is to others in their field.

Scientists: once you launch your company, you have taken a side. You are a participant in the scrum, not the referee. The paper you wrote to be peer-reviewed needs to be crumpled up and tossed away because you are now a fully-fledged advocate; act like one. It might hurt your professional pride, but your audience assumes you have a bias so you might as well own it.

 

Your Investors Care More About How They Make Money

Finally, think of your pitch like an iceberg. Sure, the vast majority of your time was spent building and testing your invention, but that's not the part your audience wants to see. They want to see the section above the waterline: your business, pricing and distribution model; your price or technology advantage; your IP; the customer's ROI, and; your growth or exit strategy.

Before you deliver that 5-7 minute presentation, imagine yourself as a member of the audience, and ask, "Why would I want to be involved with this cleantech startup?" That's your starting point.

It's hard enough launching a cleantech startup in 2019. There's a smaller pool of investors who have to be more patient to see a return on their investment. Overcome some of these classic pitch mistakes and give them one more reason to put your company at the top of their due diligence list.

CleanTech Focus