A screening of Aaron Sorkin’s remarkable new film on Steve Jobs reminded me of what a textbook example of the entrepreneurship mindset he had. He regularly demonstrated creativity, persistence, opportunity recognition and other key entrepreneurship traits.
The movie also reminded me of his incredible ability to sell his ideas. The iconic images of Steve Jobs on stage, unveiling Apple’s newest products -- whether it be the iMac or the now forgotten NeXT -- and selling them to the world under the toughest circumstances demonstrate his true genius.
Related: Steve Jobs: An Extraordinary Career
Being able to explain your ideas and create action in your audience is a critical part of the entrepreneurial mindset -- the way entrepreneurs think and act. Often, we just take for granted that leading entrepreneurs have the personality and presence to be great at explaining and selling. But many aren’t. Some entrepreneurs, like all people, hate the idea of speaking to even small groups, let alone crowds.
Personally, I’ve spoken to some pretty large crowds and to some pretty important people all over the world. I know it can be nerve-racking. But, in entrepreneurship, there’s no getting around it.
"Having a great idea isn't worth much if you can't explain it to anyone and get them excited to invest in it or use it,” said Todd Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs which provides incubation services to entrepreneurs with military experience. “Entrepreneurs absolutely must be able to explain and sell their ideas and products -- often before those products are even real. Getting people to see and understand what can be, and why it should be, can be a challenge.”
And a few really successful entrepreneurs get the opportunity to lead their company through the process of going public by launching an initial public offering (IPO). Harlan Waksal, the CEO of biomedical company Kadman, is going through that process again now, and he recently told me that nothing is more important to an IPO than how a CEO communicaties -- leading the road show and pitching well.
The good news is that you can learn to be a good communicator. Like all the skills in the entrepreneurship mindset, you can learn how to do it. Or learn how to be better at it. Truthfully, of all the skills entrepreneurs need, being a good speaker and communicator may be the easiest to improve.
With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to step up your pitch game.
1. Acknowledge it’s important.
I’ve met so many entrepreneurs who think, "People will see the brilliance of my idea, so I won’t have to sell them on anything." In almost every case, that’s wrong.
First, sales are very import to a company and many times, the founding entrepreneur has to make those sales. That’s true even when your idea is revolutionary. I’m sure at some point, Thomas Edison had to sell a light bulb which is now, ironically, the very representation of a brilliant idea.
2. Know your audience.
Even great speakers can make communication errors by not knowing who they are speaking to. Or, more often, the error is in not accounting for the audience’s knowledge base or technical awareness. Unless you’re explaining something to a peer -- engineer to engineer for example, don’t use technical language or acronyms. If in doubt, ask about an audience’s baseline of information before you start.
3. Know what you want.
Before even agreeing to speak to a group, know what you want them to do. What you say to investors or a venture capitalist (VC) board may be quite different than what you’d tell a pitch competition audience or a potential customer. Be clear with yourself about what your goal is. Literally ask yourself, “What do I want these people to do after I finish?”
4. Get help.
There are professional speech writers and speaking coaches who can make a world of difference in both your presentation and, very importantly, your confidence. Don’t be too proud or too nonchalant to ask for help. Even if you’re a skilled and experienced communicator, a little polish can go a long way.
Seriously. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve put far too much into your project already to wing a presentation and see what happens. Once you’ve done the basics above, practice. Ask friends, family and coworkers -- even strangers -- to listen to your presentation. Do it again and again. Getting your ideas delivered clearly, your way, is worth the extra hours.
6. Be confident.
Confidence is contagious. If you’re not convinced of your own communications talents yet, be confident in your idea. Sell your product or solution. Believe in it. Your audience will be able to tell that you believe in what you’re talking about even if your delivery is more Inspector Clouseau than George Clooney.
You may never be Steve Jobs on stage. And that’s just fine -- you don’t need to be. But if you can get better -- and you can -- you should. Being an entrepreneur is too hard to let one of its most learnable skills set you back.