Communication skills are essential when you’re a founder. You have to get investors on board with your idea and convince them that you’re the right person for the job. But no matter how great you think your idea is, when it comes to pitching, there are still some basic communication rules you have to follow.
Antonella Cvrtak is familiar with situations where founders sometimes struggle with communication skills. She is the Program Manager of Grow F at the Vienna based Female Founders, an investment readiness program for female-led ventures and gender-mixed teams that shape the world of tomorrow. She has seen over 30 startups go through the program since she started in 2021, and has noticed patterns in communication that often hold founders back.. We spoke about how female founders can communicate with more confidence when pitching their ideas. Here’s what came up.
Lead with the problem, not the solution
It’s important to be passionate and enthusiastic about what you’re building, but leading with a monologue about your company will most likely backfire. “Focusing too much on the solution is really common,” says Cvrtak, “You have to be able to speak to the problem well first.” Problems are interesting and create the context your audience needs to be receptive to your solution.
Here’s an example:
I remember trying to get home late one night while living in San Francisco in the early 2000s before Uber and the other rideshare companies came on the scene. There were no taxis around and bus service had already stopped for the night. What were my options? A not so safe 30 minute walk home, or waiting until a taxi randomly drove by. After waiting an hour and shedding a few tears, I ended up getting lucky with a taxi.
Transportation was a massive problem in San Francisco then, which is why a service like Uber made so much sense. Now imagine trying to pitch the idea without the problem. You’d be met with the blank stares of your audience trying to figure out what exactly “ridesharing” is and why you’d even need it.
“I often joke that I have to stop founders from talking in Grow F application interviews because they’re so into their own ideas,” says Cvrtak. Being enthusiastic is one way to show confidence, but “it gets way more difficult when it comes to talking to investors and understanding how the investor ecosystem works, how VCs approach conversations with startups, and why there is actually so much pressure around it.”
Prioritize connecting with your audience
Your idea may be amazing, but too much focus on your product/service alone will weaken your pitch. Who are you pitching to? What do you know about them? How will you make this pitch relevant and interesting to your audience? How will you balance the rah-rah with facts, numbers, and storytelling? Cvrtak says being able to connect with the person you’re speaking to is the key to success and to confidence.
“Making it about your audience and not about yourself is crucial for being convincing and persuasive.” —Antonella Cvrtak
She goes on to say, “If an investor is really into facts and numbers, give them that. If they start with their story, give them yours.” Of course, that begs the question, how do you know what your audience is into?
Know your audience
The key to a successful pitch is making sure it’s designed with the receiver in mind. This is true whether you’re pitching to investors or trying to persuade your boss to follow a strategy idea. Knowing more about whom you’re talking to will help you feel more confident when pitching. I asked Cvrtak how she would recommend a founder get to know their audience. “Some would call it stalking,” Cvrtak laughed.
“There’s so much information out there we can already see in the investor’s background: hobbies, interests, the kinds of Linkedin posts they share.” —Antonella Cvrtak
Cvrtak goes on to say that another strategy for getting to know whom you’re speaking to is to reach out to other founders who’ve gotten investment from the same VC. “Ask them about their experience and if they have any recommendations. The great news here is that founders are the most friendly and helpful people you will ever meet. If you find someone you want to talk to, there’s a very high chance that that person is super open to talk to you and share unfiltered insights as well.”
Pitch to the opportunity
In my work with founders I’m often asked which pitch style is best. Cvrtak insists that there is no right or wrong way to do it. The important thing is that it must fit your own personal style.
“When it comes to pitching there isn’t a right or wrong way. It really needs to fit your style.” —Antonella Cvrtak
Leaning into your own style will help you be more confident. But for those who don’t know where to start, Cvrtak gives us a typical formula. “Most people do a little intro, and then introduce the problem, the solution, and finally the business opportunity.” The opportunity could sound like this: “The market is this big. This is scalable. The business model is already working in my industry.” Then give your audience a sense that the time is now. In other words, you have to create FOMO.
“Give investors the idea that this is a unique opportunity and that they could be part of the next big thing.” —Antonella Cvrtak
Then pitch your story. “This has a lot to do with how you pitch, how exciting you are, how engaging you are—the storyline itself,” says Cvrtak. “You should never rely on your slides to tell the story. Your slides are only visual support. Then you can add some highlighted words or numbers to make your pitch more exciting.” Your deck is a tool that helps you communicate; not the focus of your pitch.
Another thing to remember is that text-heavy slides will detract from your pitch because people can’t read and listen at the same time. That’s why Cvrtak recommends creating two versions of your pitch deck: one that’s mostly visual that you use when you’re pitching in person, and another that has more text that you send to investors in an email. Never make your deck the focus of your pitch if you’re meeting in person.
It can feel intimidating to pitch your ideas, but it doesn’t have to. Following these key guidelines will help you speak with clarity, connect with your audience, and communicate with more confidence every time.
What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to pitching your business to VCs? Drop your answers or questions in the comments.
Watch the full interview with Antonella Cvrtak here.
If you struggle with communicating for impact, or just want to master this skill set so you can be more visible as a leader, check out our women’s group coaching cohorts.