How To Prepare For A Pitch With A Sparring Partner


This article is a result of a question from the Global Business Women forum about advise and tips for preparing a new venture presentation to a bank, but should be usable for any kind of prepping for presentation.

With any kind of business venture, there will be presentations about your company and your product. The following probably sounds like a lot of work and time consuming, but in most cases you will find yourself doing these steps automatically after an initial learning.

Looking specifically at a presentation to a bank or a VC, I would advise the following extra ’rounds’:

Your New Best Friend, A Sparring Partner

In theory, you should be able to do everything on your own, but in reality this is where you bring in an advisor / a sparring partner. I have been doing this kind of advisory for years now and when the other side is open for this kind of feedback, it is a very rewarding win-win for both sides (and I do not only mean monetary win).

As an entrepreneur you get a fresh perspective from the outside and it can help you avoid getting stuck. Involving a third party also invokes the known trick of “try to teach / tell someone and you will notice all the missing peaces”.

A sparring partner is somebody to give you honest and constructive feedback, a sounding board with a specific purpose. Ideally you integrate this person from early on, as this should be an ongoing, refining process. Later this sparring partner usually becomes a mentor / advisor and helps grow your business, providing an outside perspective.

Banker / VCs expect you to do your homework. This is part of it – because if your sparring partner can spot things, so can the they. But he or she is on your team and will help you to correct / improve everything before the real meeting.

How To Work With Such A Sparring Partner

Your sparring partner is there to go through your results, give you feedback and most likely assign ‘homework’. It is not the job of the sparring partner to do your work; this can be part of the arrangement, but most likely it will not be.

Most of it can be done online through mail, Skype and web conferencing; but in some cases it is better to be in the same room, like for example when testing your presentation.

This Is Training, Not Attacking

It is important to realize that it is the purpose of a sparring partner to go through everything and find the weak spots. Point them out to you. Be the enemy.

Quite often there is the trap of personal ego and dismissing findings as irrelevant, or beside the point. Finally the decision lies with you to incorporate the feedback or not, but the goal is to have it on the map. You need to ask yourself if you are up to such feedback or if for example your ego can’t take it.

Taking Apart Your Documentation / Concept

When dealing with bankers / VCs, everything is about stripping it down, the executive summary etc. Don’t be fooled by articles telling you to only prepare simple slides. Yes, you absolutely should try to start out with as few as possible, but be prepared to expand from there. As this necessary, you do start with the full deal and strip down from there.

Besides your presentation, you probably will deliver a handout with your business plan / concept and your preparation starts here. Actually, please start with an internal document out of which you generate the external document, so a short detour to avoid later troubles.

Separate Internal / External Content
These are different documents, but should be connected. ALWAYS work with your internal document and prepare this to consist of “internal view / external view”. Data / tables / graphics are build on the premise to be standalone for external view and referenced for internal use.

Example for figures:
You have an “external 3-year planning sheet”. Your internal planning sheet references the external one through formulas in your spreadsheet so you always have the same numbers in here as in your external sheet.

Adjustments are done through correcting positions in the internal sheet only. This way, no matter what your officially external document never has more data than it should have.

Example for text:
Include official external text in the document, followed or prefixed by additional internal memos. Do not format external text differently other than with color; once you edit your final external document, you can mark everything and reapply black easily.

The Logical Flow
Your documents and your presentation ideally tell a story and have a logical flow, but you have been working on this for a while and will not see missing parts or conceptual / logical flaws. This is relevant, because those flaws / errors have a tendency to stand out: Once they are discovered, the conversation tends to focus on them.

You should be especially concerned about missing parts. Nobody knows what you are doing like you do. It is not the job of your banker / VC to be mind reading or omni knowledgeable. It is your job to bring all relevant information.

The logical flow is usually easy to spot. If you feel the need to jump ahead into a different section to get some information, chances are that you do have the wrong order. Sometimes it is enough to have a reference to cover the mental check box “I wonder if they will go into more detail about it”.

Don’t Make Me Think
This round also includes checks for smaller stuff like formatting and order of elements. There is a great book about usability / web design called “Don’t make me think” which is what applies here. Don’t make your banker think about small stuff and leave her or him with the impression “if they can’t even get that right, what am I supposed to think of their real business?!”.

Examples are

  • Why is the font size different in certain passages?
  • Did they ever hear of a spell checker?
  • I can’t quickly read the numbers, why did they use this format?
  • They start with the product jump into the customers, go back to marketing and then to product, why?
  • I am used to seeing pictures of the management team. Why do they use bad scans with different backgrounds?

This sounds totally stupid to some people, irrelevant and nitpicking. It is not. The problem is that nobody ever tells you that these are reasons to dismiss your concepts, but those small things add up. They irritate. And make the decision easier.

My aunt once told me about the recruitment process of high profile jobs: “If I have dozens of applications and you can’t get your commas right, your application goes straight to the ‘no thank’ you pile”. Of course this is exaggerated. But only a bit.

Because if it boils down to a decision, this can be the tipping point. Maybe you have two prospects of getting the money, both with a probably solid concept and one with good material and one with irritating material, then the decision is also based on things like this.

The Other Side Has Certain Expectations, Which You Should Cover

You may not think of them as relevant and they are probably not, but this is a different issue. As bankers / VCs are trained to see a lot of business plans and presentations, certain points need to be covered; even if they do not apply to your business.

Example: You are planning an online business, which does not have ‘offline’ customers, so there is no need for offline marketing. Fine – just mention it accordingly, so that there is a mental “checked” on this point.

Ask the other side up front about what they would like to see or hear, and what they don’t need. What their preferred way is. Pay attention to small remarks and try to find others who can give you insights about presenting to this special banker / VC.

Don’t Be Too Perfect
At the same time, you don’t want to be too perfect. You want to have something which is called in German “Sollbruchstelle”, basically a “predetermined breaking point”. In case of the business concept this is something where the other side can trip over but you know what it is about.

A teacher once said at the beginning of a year: “I know I am supposed to give you an 1 (A grade in American teaching) if you have everything right, but for me that is only a 2 (B grade). You really have to wow me for you to give you a 1.” This received protest from the class, especially from the typical suspects of having everything right, but nothing more. He then added: “Trust me, if you have everything right, I will start looking for errors. And believe me, I will find some.”

So don’t be too perfect. But don’t insult the intelligence of the person you are presenting to either. Additional if you know the person you present to, you may already know which trigger this person reacts to.

Taking Apart Your Slides

Once the documentation is ready, you can start preparing the presentation, consisting of slides and your delivery. This is basically the same process as above, with a different output. Ideally you should be able to get most of it out of your concept and just strip it down.

“Something is perfect once you can’t take away anymore.”
(Quote butchered and I forgot where I have it from)

While you need to check your concept for “is every relevant question answered accordingly”, the slides are build around other parameters. Like “how much time do we have”, “who is the audience”, “what is the goal of the presentation”. Assuming that you will present in more than one case, I advise to start with a general concept, which should be adaptable to each new presentation so you do not need to start from scratch every time.

Framework For Your First Presentation

There is a great posting by Guy Kawasaki on the subject of presenting to a VC called “The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint“:

It’s quite simple: a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points. While I’m in the venture capital business, this rule is applicable for any presentation to reach agreement: for example, raising capital, making a sale, forming a partnership, etc.

Ten is the optimal number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation because a normal human being cannot comprehend more than ten concepts in a meeting—and venture capitalists are very normal. (The only difference between you and venture capitalist is that he is getting paid to gamble with someone else’s money). If you must use more than ten slides to explain your business, you probably don’t have a business. The ten topics that a venture capitalist cares about are:

  1. Problem
  2. Your solution
  3. Business model
  4. Underlying magic/technology
  5. Marketing and sales
  6. Competition
  7. Team
  8. Projections and milestones
  9. Status and timeline
  10. Summary and call to action

The items above are your basic story board and should be checked every time if necessary. If you think this is very boring and simple, remember: you are talking to VCs / bankers. They are used to numbers and want information. They also want to be impressed and see nice things, but basically stick to what Guy says.

Usual outcry: “But one cannot do this in ten slides!”. Usual answer: “Yes, one can. Maybe not you.” To quote Tim Gunn: “Make it work!”

The one thing I disagree with: You should have few slides, but nobody says you have to cram it all in one slide. If it makes sense, enhance a topic to more slides. Also if useful, prepare additional slides. The above is just the starter, afterwards you go into discussion – which is where your knowledge of your company comes in handy (see below testing).

Also, if you go into a second or third round, you will have to expand your presentation and maybe even answer questions from the last time. Which is why you go back to your story board.

Start With The Postit Story Board
A story board is a rough sketch of what will happen. This is easy doable as it requires just some big postits and big pens. Writing simple 2-4 words on a postit and then arrange them, it will help you focus on the content of your presentation.

Do not start editing in Powerpoint directly unless you are used to structuring there; you will get trapped otherwise. First get the content and order right, then make a presentation out of it.

Using ‘offline’ postits has the great advantage that you will feel free to throw everything around easily, replace it and brainstorm. It also works great if you are in a small group. Go crazy with colors and content.

The Logical Flow, Part II

Does R come before or after T? Most of us will quickly repeat in their heads ‘QRST’ and then answer the question – because we are used to the logical flow of the alphabet. If your slides are not in order, you will always trip up or even worse start going into a different point covered much later.

Try this:

  1. Business model
  2. Problem
  3. Your solution
  4. Marketing and sales
  5. Underlying magic/technology

If you start your slides with the biz model, you will find yourself presenting problem and solution, because you need to. Putting them in the right order helps you presenting as you can flow from one point to the other.

Also I have placed ‘Marketing and Sales’ as 4th where it does not make sense – at that point you are required to talk about ‘Underlying magic/technology’ first. This is what is referred here as “does it feel right?”

The Extended Story Board

Once you have decided on the logical flow of your presentation you need to put in content. Use printouts of your biz plan and highlight passages which could go into such a slide, and strip it down further and further. Note that in most cases you will start out with full, ugly slides full of text from your concept, possibly in small fonts. That is fine. This step is about content not formatting, remember?

Use dry runs of your presentation until it feels right and you like what you are presenting. Use normal printouts as your slides and arrange them on a pin board.

Always ask yourself “do I need this at this point? Is this relevant to the audience?”. Your advisor at this point is supposed to play devil’s advocate and ask “why do I care about this? Is this really necessary? Why is this not on the presentation?”. Rinse and repeat.

The result will consist of must have slides plus backup material of likely questions. Usually it is a good idea to put them after your ‘thank you’ slide (the thank you slide or something similar is used as your stop indicator). Be sure to make slides “self sufficient / explaining”. Imagine you can only present single slides – they should not rely on “three slides before”.

Test Your Knowledge Of Your Own Concept / Slides

Once the content of your concept and your presentation is in order, you need to know it from your heart. Get yourself a collection of all kinds of questions you could think of and write them on index cards. Make a game out of it. Get yourself a bowl and grab a card once in a while, ask one of your partners.

Include the topics of your slides, but also other questions, like:

  • why is this market booming, what is this based on?
  • are there successful similar products
  • name three competitors and their advantages / disadvantages
  • tell me something about the demographic of your target group
  • which influencers will you contact once your are started?

Play this as a game – once one partner has answered the question, go one further: Ask the next partner to give an additional comment.

Taking Apart Your Presentation / Delivery

Prepare The Actual Presentation

After boiling down on order and content, you can start with making the real presentation. Only now, as you have everything ready, should you start with formatting. And as you have everything ready this should be done fast, basically a writing down of what you already have on paper.

Print out / test the rough version one last time before you apply fine tuning / formatting.

Note that while your presentation is reduced (the famous few words per slide), your content during delivery is not. Put this content into the notes function of your presentation software, as you will be able to use them as a reminder if necessary during presentation. This is about keywords, not formulated sentences!

Prep Like An Actor

With your final presentation ready, you can start preparing the delivery. Like an actor preparing for a role, you start by printing out your slides, one slide one page. Highlight areas you want to emphasize, and try speaking them out loud. Rearrange / replace words if you stumble / stutter. Some phrases look good on paper, but you may trip over them every time.

Then, start again and add the content you put in the notes. Does it still makes sense content wise? Does it feel right? Enhance and ‘prepare’ the performance.

If you have a change in presenters, try this too. Also, everybody involved should be able to deliver the presentation! Just imagine before your final date, the dedicated presenter gets a cold or else.

Get The Ok From Your Sounding Board On The General Approach

Have a test run to check if this is the way you want to present. You still can read from the slides but should start to get comfortable seeing a keyword / phrase and take it from there. When you do have a logical flow you will also be able to take cues from there.

At this point you are likely to sound not very convincing, rough, stereotypic. That is fine. Only if it does not get better over time, you should consider additional training like with a voice coach or alike.

Learn Your Lines And Rehearse

Once you decided on ‘this is it’, you start prepping for presenting. At this point, there should be no more need to discuss the _content_ from here on, just the presentation. Already you should be quite comfortable with the slides. Just remember how you learned poems in school, this is very similar. Start prepping in front of the mirror, in front of your colleagues to aim for the target time and become confident in presenting.

Although you work with the flow of your slides, you should be able to start at any point plus be able to leave out any slide and not be irritated. Also you should be able to expand any slide to ‘more’, if necessary with backup slides.

Videotape / audio record yourself. Get used to seeing you on tape and listening to you on audio – trust me, everybody hates their voice and how they look. Analyze how you look and sound and get others to do the same. Remember, this is about feedback, not about being mean to you.

Full Dress Rehearsal In Testing Mode

This is your final rehearsal in front of audience, this can be friends or ‘new’ people to give you the feeling of what it will be like in the real presentation. You might also visit another company to have a foreign surrounding.

Start from the beginning, this includes coming into the room, greeting everybody etc. The more trained and used you are to those details, the more likely you will automatically do them. Do your spiel, and possibly record it, analyze it.

After that, try variants of it. Ups, the internet is broken. Your laptop abruptly stopped working (happened to me recently), and you need to use another machine and can’t get your display of notes and slides to work. There is no other laptop to replace yours, you need to use your printout. The VC suddenly addresses you with a question different to what you have planned.

After drifting off to this, you need to get back onto track, but have no clue how much time is left. You suddenly have a cough attack and need a sip of water.

Your customer base is international, but you prepared everything in f.e. German as you start there and your bankers / VCs are German too. Suddenly a very interested VC is in the room – but only understands English. In such case it is okay to improvise and a bit less fluent in presentation, but still:

How do you deal with these interruptions?

Keep Copies Of What You Presented

The usual “Mail yourself the files to an account accessible through the web. Put a copy on a USB-Stick as presentation plus pdf file” applies.

Make sure you do finalize the files you use as standalone files for this special presentation. Afterwards make those files read only so you won’t be able to change them. Before you do go back to a next round, recheck what you presented last time!

As you have a very stripped down presentation, the other side has a tendency to remember certain aspects. You want to avoid questions like “last time you said you would reach milestone X in six months, now it is a year?”.

Best use a separate folder, name the files with the date in them (in the only order sortable by computers: year-month-day) to keep track, also if you may note why you stripped / added certain aspects.

“You had me at hello”

There is a reason why the emphasis is on being prepared, being ready. It is a collection of examples which I experienced with customers over the years and what worked or not. But it is not as if bankers or VCs are monsters, only out there to get you.

Most of them are very nice people, very polite and such and will probably be nowhere near what I imply as possibility for happening. Nonetheless, you want their money and in preparing for a reasonable worst-case scenario you will gain the needed confidence.

Hope this helps!


One Response to “How To Prepare For A Pitch With A Sparring Partner”

  1. Sebastian says:

    Nice one Neezee, your experience speaks for itself. Just a side note, expectations are met, not covered ;-)