Andrew Tollinton is the new Chairman of the IoD’s London Young Directors Forum and last month led the group’s investment-style event, the YDF Den, at 116 Pall Mall.
Having organised, judged and participated in similar pitch environments in the past, Andrew was ideally placed to spot some valuable insights when it comes to raising investment.
As with many things in life the most interesting interactions often take place where you least expect them. For example, when I gave a TedX talk the speech was not the most rewarding part, it was the discussions with fellow speakers at the after party.
The YDF Den was no different. As is traditional with these events, once the pitches are over, the investors (or judges) will speak with the unsuccessful entrepreneurs to explain their decisions. Often, the investors find the entrepreneur’s proposition far more attractive when communicated in conversation compared to the pitch.
Also in keeping with YDF Den tradition, after the event the organising committee invited the panel of investors to dinner. This year I again heard the same message from investors; the entrepreneurs in conversation were far more convincing than in their pitch.
One reason for this could be that entrepreneurs find conversations more natural than formal pitches, helping to reduce anxiety and increase lucidity.
Another explanation could be that we lie in a formal pitch, whereas investors respond more positively to the honesty shown in conversation.
“Humankind can not bear very much reality.” T.S. Elliot
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting we lie just to our audience when we pitch. I’m suggesting we also lie to ourselves. Take a look at these two questions below:
- Why hasn’t this been done before?
- Couldn’t a bigger company simply do what you propose and do it better? (Google is commonly referenced).
These are possibly the most obvious questions to answer in any pitch. The Queen is as likely to ask these questions as James Caan. However, of all the competitions I’ve been involved with these questions are hardly ever addressed during a pitch.
The entrepreneur does not set out to deliberately avoid these questions in a pitch, their intention is not to mislead. The entrepreneur has simply discarded and classified this information as irrelevant. This is the entrepreneur lying to themselves.
Why We Lie
After decades of struggle, psychologists have managed to convince society at large that we as humans sometimes make imperfect, illogical decisions. One driver for these imperfect decisions is what’s known as ‘confirmation bias’.
Deanna Kuhn describes how confirmation bias works in action: “Here is some evidence I can point to as supporting my theory, and therefore the theory is right.” We ignore all the information that does not comply with our existing theory.
Imagine a person holds the belief that blonde-haired people are stronger than dark haired people. Whenever this person encounters a person that is both blonde and sporty they place greater importance on this "evidence" that supports what they already believe. This individual might try to find proof that supports this belief while ignoring examples that don't support the idea.
As humans we are not impartial rational agents looking to hoover up information to get to the truth. We only onboard information that complies with our existing thoughts.
When it comes to pitching we tend to only talk about that which conforms to our idea.
In the past I have worked with Dr Simon Moore of Innovation Bubble. He uses a picture of a beautiful sun drenched beach to illustrate how differently people see the same thing.
If you were a tour operator and using such a photo to sell a holiday, what accompanying narrative would you use? Bear in mind tour operators typically promote escapism, relaxation and rest, and so most would focus their message around the warm water and endless sandy beaches.
But what about the area under the cliff face? Is it safe? Does anything unwelcome lurk within it? There are a large proportion of people that would not be sold until such concerns addressed.
Investors tend to want to know about the sand, the sea and what lies beneath the cliff.
“Predictions are difficult, particularly about the future.” - Niels Bohr
One way to address confirmation bias is to make decisions as part of a well-balanced, diverse team. In the case of a pitch competition the team would determine what to include in a pitch.
Unfortunately, the entrepreneur that pitches is usually the founder and the founder usually holds the vision of the enterprise. Visions are tricky to argue against.
This leaves entrepreneurs with the freedom to present to investors what they like, which is information that supports their theory.
The investor’s interests are typically long-term and directly aligned with your business success, honesty is therefore at a premium. I once heard Paul Daniels, YDF Den investor and IoD member say the number one thing he looks for in an entrepreneur is integrity.
To counter confirmation bias next time you pitch, ask people you respect to assess your pitch. Ask them to not only note the sea and sand but also what they think may lurk beneath the cliff face. Investors will see you as more credible if you do and, you’re more likely to win your next pitch competition.
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