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Special Report: Technology Marketing

Honing your pitch to get your message across

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By Sam Whitmore

The nightmare began four years ago last month when the NASDAQ fell from its north-of-5000 high, never to return. Since then, many tech marketers who once laid it on thick came to appreciate the pragmatic, customer-centric presentation skills of the sales pro.

Last month I had occasion to listen to 15 marketing and business-development execs pitch their companies to a panel of venture capitalists. VCs, like you, hate to have their time wasted. The supplicants had 10 slides and 10 minutes to explain what their companies did, why they did it better than competitors, for whom, at what cost and why they'd be around tomorrow.

Humbly submitted, here are the best insights from those sessions.

Sell at the right level. One presenter bragged that his product saved a customer a six-figure sum. What if the prospect cares more about growing the top line than trimming the bottom line? This year you might need two presentations: one for the optimists and the other for skeptics still focused on ROI and risk-avoidance.

Know your place in the market. One presenter positioned his company as "tight" with IBM Corp. when it was simply one of thousands of small-fry IBM turns to in vertical markets worldwide. Don't exaggerate your affiliations with an industry titan. Having a big brother works well in the schoolyard when the bullies come around. Otherwise, it's better to associate yourself with partners your own size.

Beware of breathless market stats. Omit the "hockey stick" slide you'd get from an IDC or the like. There's no need to blather about projected long-term growth in your market. If you must project your own company's growth in a presentation, project no more than 12 months out.

The "reason to buy." Nothing compels more than citing a cogent reason to buy. Dedicate at least one slide to your customer's compelling reason to buy your product or service. Don't say it "helps" customers do this or that. Few prospects will pay merely for "help." Know exactly how your customers make money with your product or service and build that inexorable concept into every slide.

If you lost money in 2003, say why. Prospects need to know whether you'll be around tomorrow. You'll exude confidence and integrity if you explain that last year's investment in, say, customer service or a key acquisition created short-term red ink. Remember that those listening to you have businesses to run, too. They may empathize more than you think.

Maintain eye contact. Most speakers only look at those who are truly listening, because they find the daydreamers insulting. But the day-dreamers may be exactly the ones you need to reach, especially if your pre-call analysis did not identify the most influential people in the room.

Talk about the competition. If you have an archrival, say so. Don't be shy. And you're not fooling anyone, anyway. Without rhetoric, say why you're better. Say why the customers choose you. And say why they'll choose you tomorrow no matter what the bad guys do.

Brag about your board. The shrewdest audiences consider even your CEO a wage slave, someone who takes orders like anyone else in the organization, no matter how divine he or she may appear. The board-or board of advisors if your company is private-influences a company's influencers. Be sure to allocate a slide that describes these vital individuals.

The VCs gave the highest marks to a presentation crafted by a consultant from the Chasm Group, whose founder, Geoffrey Moore, wrote those tech marketing classics "Crossing the Chasm" and "Inside the Tornado" and now is a venture capitalist himself. It began with a slide stating the company goal in customer-centric terms. The second slide was dedicated to the customer's problem, and the third, the solution to that problem.

There's surely more than one way to make the killer "elevator" presentation. However you approach yours, please remember the late, great Winston Churchill. "I'm sorry I didn't have time to make the speech any shorter," he'd often intone from the podium. A useful thought indeed for anyone infatuated with PowerPoint or their company's own future.

Sam Whitmore is editor of Sam Whitmore's Media Survey, a Web-based tech editorial analysis service, and writes a monthly column on media for Forbes.com. He can be reached at sam@mediasurvey.com.

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