How to Pitch a Business Plan like a Story

On April 25, the NYU Stern Business School will host its 9th Annual Business Plan Competition, including a special track for social entrepreneurs competing for a $100K prize. Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to serve as a semi-final judge and new venture mentor to teams competing in the social enterprise track.

As the finalists prepare for their big pitch at the end of April, I’ll be leading a brown bag lunch to help these entrepreneurs hone their 15-minute pitch. Come the finals, they’ve have 15 minutes to tell their story (with the assistance of powerpoint in the background).

Having coached several teams already, here’s what I’d say are EIGHT KEY LESSONS for teams eager to sell their business idea in this competition:

1. Explain Why YOU: People invest in people, not ideas. So give the judges/audience a sense of why you’re the right person. llustrate your committment, knowledge, and expertise. How many years have you been at this? How has your life experience prepared you for this endeavor? Show the judges that you are real, genuine, and passion-driven.

2. Don’t Over-Describe the Problem: Most of us are aware of the overwhelming and intractable problems out there. Unless you’ve got a really unique take or identify a completely overlooked problem…don’t devote more than one slide (90 seconds) on this topic. The more targeted you can be here the better – e.g. “poverty” versus “18-25 year olds in urban communities with untapped talent and potential who seek job opportunities.”

3. Present a Focused Solution: This is what everybody’s waiting for. A simple yet elegant idea for a better mousetrap. The more tangible and clear your product or service can be the better. Most important – Why are you distinctively positioned to deliver this solution? Think really hard here…the “competitive advantage” question is one that I see teams fail to really address again and again. Don’t let a naive answer undermine your perception of credibility.

4. Make it Real: Describe how this is more than just an “idea”. Have you beta-tested the product? Run a demonstration project? Any evidence that there is both a need and demand for your solution? Let people know that you have already begun to experiment with implementation, and have some real on-the-ground experience and lessons learned to date. If so, share them.

5. Find the Emotional Hook: People buy based on emotion and then justify through logic. So how will you get your audience to self-identify with your message? What is it about your business idea that they can personally relate to? In order to find the emotional hook, begin with basic ego needs – who benefits from a transaction with your solution? Does it include any intangible benefits such as “status/prestige”, “feeling good”, or “belonging to something meaningful”?

6. Justify Your Model of Change: Since this is a business plan competition for social entrepreneurs, you’ve got to justify how your idea will generate social change. Get specific. How will launching a fair-trade business in Asia really alleviate poverty? More than superlatives, judges want to know how you will move the needle on this issue. What kind of social return on investment is generated – and can you substantiate it?

7. Describe the Critical Path: Show how you are ready to hit the ground running. Now that you’ve convinced people about the idea and the team, you need to build the judge’s confidence that know how to implement. Say you win the $100K prize, what will you do with this money? Describe your plans, including why you’ve chosen to prioritize certain expenses. How you plan to spend the prize money is DIFFERENT than your start-up or first year budget. You need to present both. Describe short-term milestones, and why these activities are key in scaling the business.

8. Remain Optimistic yet Humble: Conclude with a passionate plea for why you deserve to win the prize – and what great impact can come out of your work. Don’t be afraid to discuss your remaining concerns or vulnerabilities – it shows a great deal of maturity and perspective. And lastly, reiterate your commitment to this idea, regardless of whether you win the prize. There are plenty of other potential sources of funding and support out in the audience.

P.S. With just 15 minutes to make your pitch, PLEASE no more than 10 slides. You’d be amazed how many teams think they can get through 30-40 slides!

P.S.S. It all comes down who can tell the most believable story. Make sure you’ve assembled the pieces to present a coherent and compelling storyline that makes your idea come to life.

May the best story win!

5 thoughts on “How to Pitch a Business Plan like a Story”

  1. Awesome tips Michael!! Thank you for sharing and I will certainly share with my community!  
    I’m sure this will be helpful to many!


  2. Keith Edmeades

    A really comprehensive set of of tips, Michael. They will certainly be incredibly helpful for those in the process of preparing their entries. Unfortunately due to other commitments, I will not be able to be one of them – Nevertheless I wish all those that are in the process of crafting their submissions the very best, of the best. 

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