Nov 6, 2023

David Beckett: Pitch Perfect

Redefining the art of persuasion.

David Beckett: Pitch Perfect

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The startup world is one where ideas can flicker and fade at a lightning pace. And in it, David Beckett’s mission is to ensure the brightest of these ideas not only flicker, but flame. An Amsterdam-based pitch coach and creator of The Pitch Canvas, David is seasoned with the experience of over 1,600 startups and tens of thousands of professionals coached.

David's journey to becoming a leader in the art of pitching was, in his own words, "a bit of a 180." It began in the corporate corridors of Canon, where he honed his skills in presentations over a 16-year tenure. "I gave over a thousand presentations there. I was known to be good at presentation," he recalls. But beneath the veneer of corporate success was a burgeoning appreciation for the power of a well-delivered pitch.

David shared the turning point of his career: his departure from Canon in 2009. Post-Canon, he explored various ventures, eventually being drawn to the dynamism and direct impact of startup pitching. It was a video from a startup accelerator that captivated him, showcasing the art of succinct, powerful storytelling. "Instead of this great long story, the first 30 seconds were: Hi, this is who we are, this is what we do," he recounted. This revelation propelled him into the world of startup coaching, where he witnessed firsthand how his guidance played a role in the success stories of emerging businesses.

Now, David is an esteemed pitch coach and thought leader, acclaimed for his Pitch Canvas framework, guiding over 1,600 startups and 28,000 professionals through winning pitches at prestigious forums, alongside shaping narrative mastery at global giants like Shell and IKEA, all underpinned by a rich career spanning leadership roles at Canon to crafting an expansive online Pitch Academy.

David is keenly aware of the gap in formal education when it comes to the art of presenting. He points out a universal shortfall: "I've asked hundreds of people when was the first time that you got any kind of presentation or public speaking training, and almost everybody says either maybe at university, maybe, or in the first or second job—if they ever got help with it." It’s a very real gap, and one he's dedicated himself to filling.

Through his work, David is imparting a skill crucial yet often overlooked. His approach combines the essence of a concise narrative with the power of presentation, a skill blend as vital in the boardroom as it is in the startup incubator. In that sense, David is a narrative architect.

David’s decision to move to Amsterdam was originally intended to be temporary – a stop on his professional journey. Yet, 26 years later, he remains enamored with the city. His observations on Amsterdam's culture – egalitarian, non-hierarchical, and grounded – mirror his own approach to business and life. Riding a bike through the city’s streets, he finds a metaphor for his ethos: simplicity, equality, and being part of a larger flow.

The Art of the Pitch

David harbors a wealth of knowledge about making successful pitches. He emphasizes the crucial first steps any startup must consider: identifying a) the audience, b) the objective, and c) the time frame available for the pitch. Beckett firmly believes that these factors significantly dictate the pitch's content and delivery.

"A classic 3-minute pitch at a competition or a networking event, for instance, requires precision and conciseness," Beckett noted. He underlined the challenge of time management in these scenarios, explaining, "If you don't finish on time, you miss an opportunity."

According to his research, people can process a maximum of about 150 words per minute, roughly translating to nine sentences per minute. In a typical three-minute pitch, that's only 27 sentences to make an impact.

David also stresses the importance of audience awareness in a pitch. Different audiences, whether they are investors, potential partners, or customers, have varying interests and concerns. "The goal is to tell them something about what you're doing that's relevant for them, maybe solves their problem," he explained.

Moreover, Beckett advocates for clarity in the pitch's objective. "What do you want people to do as a result of the pitch?" he asks, underlining that this should steer much of the pitch's structure and content. Before even drafting the pitch, he advises entrepreneurs to reflect deeply: "Put the software aside. Just make a little profile. Who's the audience? What do they care about? And what do you want them to do, and be clear on how long you've got."

To assist in structuring pitches, Beckett created the Pitch Canvas, a tool inspired by the Business Model Canvas. The Pitch Canvas acts as a brainstorming and thinking tool, designed to prompt entrepreneurs in considering various elements essential to their pitch. "There are 11 blocks of content on the Pitch Canvas. Not every piece of information should be in every pitch," Beckett clarifies. The canvas is a guide to help presenters brainstorm and organize their thoughts effectively, tailored to their specific audience, objectives, and allotted time. “It's a thinking tool that helps you brainstorm. Get your thoughts out. And then, based on that thinking, you can start to extract what would be the key messages for this audience, this objective, and the time I've got available."

At the heart of a compelling pitch, according to David, lies the element of professionalism. Preparation indicates respect for the audience’s time, which in turn “communicates professionalism.”

But there's more to a pitch than just professional gloss. David digs deeper, emphasizing the need to be "clear on the pain" — the core problem that the product or idea addresses. This clarity is not just about identifying a problem but quantifying its impact in a tangible way. For instance, David points out, "as soon as you say, this creates X million tons of CO2 every year, or up to 20% of energy is lost through inefficiency," the audience grasps the magnitude of the issue, and the pitch gains solid ground.

Yet, even with a well-prepared pitch that clearly articulates and quantifies the problem, something more is needed — the human element. David highlights the significance of weaving in the non-rational aspects: the personal motivation and passion behind the solution. "Why are you passionate about it? What would it mean for you if you can solve that problem?" he questions, underscoring the balance needed between rational details and emotional resonance.

This holistic approach to pitching is a culmination of David's extensive experience, marked by an impressive milestone of delivering his 1,100th workshop. His journey from skepticism about training as a profession to finding his true calling in empowering others is as inspiring as it is impactful. "It's about helping those people to shine when they need to, because I can't do what they do. But I can help them shine. That's my way of making an impact," he reflects.

The Future of the Pitch

But even as David masters the art of the pitch, he notes an evolving challenge: the shrinking attention spans of audiences. It's not just about mastering the classic 3-minute pitch anymore. The dynamics of attention have necessitated adaptations like the 15-second, 30-second, and 3-minute pitches — each tailored to different stages of engagement in our fast-paced, highly distracted world. The "handshake pitch," as he calls it, becomes crucial in this context. It's a quick, compelling hook that can lead to deeper conversations.

According to David, a critical shift is occurring in personal and professional pitching. He advocates the idea of a "360-degree pitch," encompassing not just face-to-face interactions but also the myriad ways we present ourselves online – from LinkedIn and Twitter to Instagram and beyond. In an era where every online footprint contributes to our professional persona, managing digital impressions becomes just as vital as the traditional pitch.

Take for example how platforms like Whatsapp, predominantly used for personal communication, have inadvertently become professional touchpoints. David cites examples where casual or personal images and texts meant for private viewing are unexpectedly scrutinized in professional contexts. This overlap of personal and professional spheres underscores the need for awareness and strategy in all forms of digital presence.

A Holistic Approach

Post his departure from Canon, armed with a severance package, David embraced the freedom to explore new paths, including his long-held aspiration of writing.

His first literary venture was an exploration of Amsterdam through the eyes of its residents. It was a life-altering journey that led to meeting his wife and starting a family. His reflections on writing — "great fun and terrible" — capture the dichotomy many authors face: the joy of creation against the tumultuousness of the writing process.

But he didn’t stop there. David then penned Three Minute Presentation and Pitch to Win. His process mirrored the structuring of a good pitch: brainstorming, identifying key themes (akin to chapters), and then crafting each section meticulously.

The Imperfect Pitch

David highlights a crucial error that many make: an overemphasis on technology or the product itself, rather than the story behind it. The quintessential flawed pitch, according to David, often follows a pattern of excessive focus on what the product does, inundating the audience with features and functionalities, but failing to address a crucial element – the 'why'.

David believes the transformative approach, and perhaps the future of effective pitching, is to start with the people – the audience. He suggests a narrative that begins with identifying a widespread issue, illustrating the struggles and pains it causes, creating a context in which the product or solution finds its meaningful place.

This is why David advocates for a "problem-solution-result" structure. This approach shifts the focus from what the solution is to why it's needed in the first place. By defining the problem first, the pitch naturally flows into how the product or solution effectively resolves this issue, leading to the desired outcome or result. This framework not only clarifies the purpose of the product but also makes the pitch more relatable and understandable to the audience, whether they are customers or investors.

The Virtual Pitch

But what of our modern phenomenon, the Zoom pitch? Here’s the rub: the art of the pitch changes based on the medium.

In online presentations, David says, maintaining energy and emphasis in vocal delivery can be more challenging. The role of body language is diminished online, as opposed to the richer, more communicative physical presence possible in face-to-face interactions.

But this can give introverts an advantage. The voice carries more weight online, the pressure and nervousness often associated with public speaking can be diminished. Importantly, David mentions that the content's importance is amplified in online settings, shifting the focus from charisma to the value of the message being conveyed.

Behind the Pitch

David’s story is not just about a man who helps fine-tune pitches. It's about a person who appreciates the simplicity in complexity, whether it's in a business idea or a bike ride through Amsterdam's lanes. At the heart of it all is connection and understanding, and it prompts us to reflect: how do we navigate our communication styles in varying environments to ensure our message not only reaches but resonates with our audience? And ultimately, how might we, like David, find intersections between our work and passions, allowing each to inform and enhance the other in a continual cycle of growth and fulfillment?

Images courtesy of: David Beckett

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