S4E41 Neil Thompson | Technical Pitches: Revealing Flaws, Using Stories, & Wiggling Toes
Who is Neil Thompson?
Neil Thompson holds degrees in materials engineering and biomedical engineering. Neil has held roles as a product development engineer, freelance writer, patent agent, professional speaker, business development manager, author and company founder. You can find him online at teachthegeek.com, askuncleneilbooks.com, & youtube.teachthegeek.com.
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pitch, investors, product, talk, flaws, technical, pitch competitions, presentation, story, company, pitching, technical backgrounds, entrepreneurs, giving, put, people, toes, engineer, words, sweater
Presenter, Aaron Moncur, Neil Thompson
Hi, everyone, we’ve set up this being an engineer podcast as an industry knowledge repository, if you will, we hope it’ll be a tool where engineers can learn about and connect with other companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. So make some connections and enjoy the show.
Neil Thompson 00:18
One thing I would say is, if you’re giving 10 minutes, for instance, don’t practice to you are finishing within 10 minutes because inevitably, during the pitch, you may say something that you hadn’t practiced. And then next thing you know you’re going over the time. So if you’re given 10 minutes, I’d say practice to eight minutes.
Aaron Moncur 00:50
Hello, and welcome to the being an engineer Podcast. Today we are speaking with a repeat guest, Neil Thompson, who holds degrees in materials engineering and biomedical engineering. Neil has held roles as a product development engineer, freelance writer, Patent Agent, professional speaker, Business Development Manager, author and company founder. You can find him online at Teach the geek.com ask Uncle Neil books.com and youtube dot teach the geek.com. Yo, thank you so much for joining us again, on the being an engineer podcast.
Neil Thompson 01:23
Thanks for having me back, Aaron.
Aaron Moncur 01:24
All right. So you help engineers or technical professionals, stem individuals speak better present better. You have a new program that you’ve just released. Tell us a little bit about this program?
Neil Thompson 01:43
Sure. Well, I’m calling it the teach the geek pitching society. So as you mentioned, I work with technical people on their presentation skills. But up until this point, it’s been mainly people that work within companies with the pitching society. I’m now reaching out to people who have technical backgrounds may have been employees at one point, well, likely were in employees at one point. But now they’re founders, they founded their own companies, they’ve bootstrapped their companies to as far as they can take it, and now they’re looking to get investment from angel investors, VC firms, they’re entering pitch competitions, and perhaps are not the best at putting their ideas out there to a point where people could really understand what they what they what they have founded what their products or services, and they’re struggling to get the funding that they really deserve.
Aaron Moncur 02:31
So this is largely geared towards technical professionals. Is that right?
Neil Thompson 02:35
Yeah, absolutely. Everything I do is is geared towards people like me people with technical backgrounds.
Aaron Moncur 02:41
Nice. And why is that the focus? Why not open this program up to everyone under the sun? Who’s doing pitches? Because
Neil Thompson 02:49
I don’t know anything about everybody I know about. I know about me, though. I know about that. Sound fair? I know that I was a technical professional, or I suppose I still am. In a sense. Maybe you always are. i Everything I do even like even the children’s book, it’s all geared. It’s all geared towards tech. It’s all geared towards stem, it’s all geared towards people like me.
Aaron Moncur 03:10
Yeah. So this is different than teach the geek to speak, which is a brilliant name, by the way.
Neil Thompson 03:16
Thank you. Yeah, this is the teach the geek to speak was geared towards technical people who actually work in companies. So when people have to give presentations in front of management, maybe they have to give a conference talk as a as a representative of their company, that type of thing. The pitching society is for people who are entrepreneurs, but but they have these technical backgrounds as well.
Aaron Moncur 03:36
Okay, what are some of the obstacles that you find technical professionals often fall victim to when they’re their pitching?
Neil Thompson 03:46
A big one is empathy. It’s very difficult to put yourself back in the position that you were in before you were a technical person, because we weren’t always that way. It’s taking degrees and, and years working within an industry or having your own business to really go hone those skills as a technical person to have that technical expertise. But there are instances where you’re giving a presentation in front of people who don’t have that same level of expertise. And you can tailor your presentation to in a way that these these type of people can understand. And now you’re actually you need something from them as opposed to back when you were working in a corporate environment. Maybe you’re looking for buy in for a project now you’re actually looking for money for to fund your endeavor. And that can be the difference between the company existing and not existing, at least, if you fail to convincing somebody at a company when you went back when you were an employee to take on a project, you’ll still likely will have a job, you’ll still get paid every other week. But when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re you’re basically a wild animal. You’re not a zoo animal anymore. You got to go out and then and chill. And if you don’t children, you don’t eat. And if you don’t need then then you starve and go back to corporate. So I’m really, really keen on helping the technical founders just understand that for Under further for your message to even be to even be accepted by the people that you’re speaking to have some empathy to know that they’re not the same level as you. And you need to tell your presentations to a way that they can understand. And I think another big issue that a lot of them have is they use a whole lot of jargon, that perhaps the people in the audience, the people who are the decision makers may not understand. I mean, this whole idea of the pitching society came from me attending pitch competitions. And a lot of the people that were pitching, they have technical backgrounds, because they would say, so during the presentation, maybe they had a PhD and in an engineering or PhD in biological science, something like that, a PhD in a STEM field. And when they presented you can tell they use a whole lot of jargon that perhaps the people in the audience can understand. And if people can’t understand, then the answer is likely going to be no. And as I mentioned before, you really don’t want the answer to be no more often than not, because the, the, the livelihood or the vitality, the the existence of your company depends on you succeeding in these pitch competitions and succeeding in convincing investors to invest in your company. So I think that’s a big one, too, is just using more commonly used words, as opposed to the technical jargon that it’s you’re accustomed to. And then another thing that I think we struggle with is, we like to talk about features as opposed to benefits. But the people may not the people that are judging you on your on your pitch may not care so much about the features, they care about what your product or service is going to do for the people that you’re trying to help and, and engineer, the specialty are really keen on talking about technical features, because we think they’re cool, but this isn’t about what we think other people should want to hear. It’s really about figuring out what we what they that they what they want to hear so that the answer is going to be yes. As opposed to No. So those are the three the ones that I could think of just having empathy for your audience, using less technical jargon and more commonly used words, and then focusing on benefits as opposed to features.
Aaron Moncur 07:02
I’m curious, have you had many discussions with the the other end of that pitch, so the investors who are hearing the pitch and received any feedback from them, what have their experience has been when listening to a technical professional, pitch them and maybe use words they don’t understand or terminologies, anything like that?
Neil Thompson 07:20
Well, what it does is give very well eliminate you from consideration. Especially, I mean, these investors, especially VC investors, they get pitches all the time. And you really want to be if you want to be able to differentiate yourself from people, well, you, I think, a baseline requirements that they need to understand what you’re talking about, if they have to ask too many questions, just to get a firmer understanding as to what your product even is, and who it helps it. That’s the problem. You don’t want them asking those type of questions. I mean, if they have more technical type questions, because in a lot of instances, the people who are judging, you may have technical backgrounds themselves, they may go into the weeds on what the technical features are. And if that’s the case, you can talk to them at that level at that time. But that’s not something to assume, right away. I mean, there’s still gonna be other people who are judging your your, your pitch, who don’t have that background, and you want to, you want to cater to those people and talk technical, when it’s appropriate.
Aaron Moncur 08:17
Do you have recommendations for how entrepreneurs should start their pitch? You know, maybe that like the first one or two or even three slides? What information should they put out there, right away to differentiate themselves and capture the attention of who’s listening to them?
Neil Thompson 08:34
You know, it’s really helpful that and this is actually something that I saw at a pitch competition that I went to fairly recently, it was a short video, and the video was about a person who was helped by the product that that the that the picture was was talking about. So they’re, they’re more further along, I suppose or not at the beginning of their of their entrepreneurship journey. But so they’re but they’re still seeking funding for their for their ventures, but they’ve actually sold product. But the video was able to convey the benefit of that product, but not from the company, but from someone that actually use the product. And when you do that, you get that third party type of approval or your little seal of approval. It means way more than a company saying that my product is good. What else am I supposed to say? It sucks?
Aaron Moncur 09:22
Let’s hope not. Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so use a video that reminds me of something that I heard you say on your YouTube channel, which is to use stories when you’re communicating with people. How does the use of stories tie into investor pitch?
Neil Thompson 09:39
Oh, one it? It’s critical? Because people people follow the story more than they follow any sort of features and any muscle anymore more so than even data you have to. The data has to be couched in stories. I mean, this even this even comes comes back to teach the geek to speak and working with technical profession. Still the same the, the idea of using stories to convey a message. And when you’re trying to convince people to invest in a company, they have to see the story. And the story has to involve a number of things. Certainly it involves the product. But it also involves the people who are involved with putting the product together involves the team, people who invest in these investors, they’re investing in people, they’re investing in people that they think can can take this product all the way to an successful exit, or whatever the the, the ideal, or the goal of the of the product is. And if you don’t, if you’re not able to convey some sort of message at followable, that’s clear, and people get it, then you’re likely not going to get the funding you think you deserve.
Aaron Moncur 10:43
Are there any rules of thumb that entrepreneurs should follow? As far as a good story versus a poor, not very compelling story?
Neil Thompson 10:53
I think when it comes to stories, they have to be easy to understand, you have to again, use words that are understandable by by everybody, or by the majority of the people, the story obviously has to be compelling, the story has to involve the benefits of the product you’re trying to sell. Basically, you’re trying to elicit an emotion in the in the people who are judging your product. I mean, as I mentioned, I’ve served in a number of pitch competitions. And the winners aren’t necessarily the ones who have the best product, at least in my mind. They’re the ones who are able to convey the best story that they’re able to convince the the people who are judging that this story is one that you should be willing to invest in. And I think, when it comes to developing what that story is, and how it should be structured, it should be easy to follow. I mean, no, no, no going off on tangents, this is something that you really need to hone in very carefully, and make sure that people can can follow it. And that it’s and it’s easily understandable. If you
Aaron Moncur 11:55
ever heard of the book, Made to Stick, it’s a great book, it’s about stories, it’s about how to tell compelling stories, they go through all sorts of urban legends and, and things that are really sticky stories that are really sticky. And they break them down, deconstruct them into their, their, their basic, underlying frameworks. And they come up with this this framework of how to put together a sticky story. It’s really a great book. And I think something that would be super useful for people who are, you know, trying to pitch investors or really trying to sell anything trying to get an idea to stick in somebody’s mind. I won’t go into too much detail about that. But it’s the Heath brothers, H E A T H two brothers chip, and I can’t remember the other one right now, but Made to Stick. I’ll put that in the show notes. In this episode. It’s a great book for people who are doing pitches and need to get people to remember a story a compelling story.
Neil Thompson 12:52
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, the thing that mentioned about stories is somebody that make the memorable is overcoming a challenge. mean, typically, if you’re pitching a product or service to get investment, there’s some sort of problem that you’re trying to solve. And there’s going to be obstacles in the way of solving that problem. What have you been able to do as the as the, as the person as the technical founder to overcome the problem better than others that have already come up with other thing, you know, come up with other competitive products. If you’re able to convey that story, then you have a really good shot at getting investment?
Aaron Moncur 13:29
How about the length of the pitch? Are there any rules of thumb for the ash, it’d be five minutes or 50 minutes or completely depends on the context of the pitch?
Neil Thompson 13:38
It certainly depends on the context. I mean, as I mentioned, I’ve attended a number of pitch competitions. And they seem to run from 10 to 15 minutes. So if you’re given that amount of time certainly use it. One thing I would say is, if you’re given 10 minutes, for instance, don’t practice to you are finishing within 10 minutes, because inevitably, during the pitch, you may say something that you hadn’t practiced. And then next thing you know, you’re going over the time. So if you’re given 10 minutes, I’d say practice to eight minutes. So in the event that you say things that you during the actual presentation, during the actual pitch that you had, in practice, you still have that two minute buffer to play with to make sure you finish within time.
Aaron Moncur 14:19
That’s a great pro tip. Anything else that you’ve observed in attending all of these different pitches? I mean, you’ve talked about a few things already use simple words, use stories, any other really compelling or influential factors that you’ve observed? Watching all these different entrepreneurs pitch?
Neil Thompson 14:38
This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s having the confidence to say I don’t know. Ultimately, when when company or when venture capital or angel investors are investing in people, they want to make sure that these people are coachable and open to feedback. It’s very difficult to have all the answers to all the problems. No one likes to know it all. So during the q&a Hey, after the presentation, if you’re given a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t try to BS your way through it. actually say that you don’t know. And ask that person who asked the question if for additional feedback, because they may, they may very well be an expert in the question that they’re asking. And they can offer you that feedback. And then they’ll actually think you know, what this person actually had the confidence to say, I don’t know, because I think a lot, in a lot of cases, when people are in these positions, given these pitches, they think if if I say, I don’t know, then they’ll think that I’m not an expert. They’ll think that this is not something to invest in, and then I won’t get the funding that I’m seeking. But I think it actually does the opposite. It just shows that you’re well shows that you’re confident and also shows that you’re honest. So if you’re both of those things, I think those are two qualities that make it more likely that people invest in you.
Aaron Moncur 15:50
Yeah, I agree. I have a couple things to add to that. One, is that, based on the very few investors that I’ve talked with, or I know, it’s super important to focus on the team, as much as the product. In fact, the investors that I know, they get kind of not super happy when the whole presentation is just about the product, and the team isn’t discussed, because ultimately, they’re investing in the team, the team is the only thing that really exists at the time of investment, right? There is no product. I mean, yeah, sure. Some, some of these companies are a little bit further along, maybe they have some sort of MVP, but a lot of the time, it’s an idea, right? There’s nothing tangible, right? The only real thing that exists at that point is the team. So talk about the team, emphasize why it’s the right team for that particular venture. And then the other thing is, there’s another book called originals by Adam Grant. And he talks about this goes kind of along with what you were saying, Neil, if an investor asks you a question that you don’t know the answer, to just be honest, say, I don’t know the answer to that. What Adam Grant talks about, he might be citing another study, I can’t remember now. But he talks about how, how effective it is to talk about flaws, very openly, not trying to hide the flaws. You know, I think human nature is we want to talk about all the good things that are part of this new idea, this new venture, I did this and that and it’s XYZ is so much better than the competition. And we tend to maybe gloss over the the flaws or the shortcomings of the product. And research shows, apparently, that if you do that, and then the investor pokes and prods and starts to pull out some of those problems. It is it is much you’re much worse off, you’re much less likely to get the investment than if you were to start by saying, you know, here’s some reasons why this is a bad investment. This part doesn’t work at all right now, we’re not sure why we’re still trying to figure it out. This that part of the market, we don’t even know if they have enough money for it. Or I’m just kind of speaking extemporaneously here, but talk about the flaws, and be very honest upfront about that, and then talk about the positives, the pros of it. And that has been shown to be much more effective in getting investors to say yes,
Neil Thompson 18:14
100% error. And what it also does is when you reveal those flaws, that people who could potentially invest in you, they may be experts in getting rid of those flaws. But if they don’t know the flaws exist, well, they can’t really help you. So I think you’re absolutely right. It’s, of course, you’re going to talk about the pros, and now how your product is better than what’s already out there. But I think by addressing the flaws as well, you’re just you’re presenting a complete picture of what your your your what your venture is, what your what your company is, and I think it really doesn’t make it more likely that you get that investment.
Aaron Moncur 18:49
Yeah, you know, I sometimes do a little what’s the word I’m looking for example, there’s a better word than example, anyway, I’ll have when I’m trying to teach this principle, I will ask someone to put their fist up in the air, right? And I’ll say, okay, just hold your fist there. And then I’ll put my fist right in front of theirs. And then I won’t say anything, but I’ll start pushing on their their fist. And inevitably, they push back, right? And I say, Why are you pushing back? And they say, Well, I don’t I don’t know you pushed on me. So I just use natural to push back. And that’s what happens when you’re, you know, you’re trying to pitch Oh, it’s perfect. Everything’s good. Investors almost have this sixth sense, and they’re gonna push back. But if you start with the flaws, then it goes the other way. Right? You’re kind of pulling at that point. You’re like, pulling, pulling, I don’t know how to say it exactly. But you’re talking about the flaws and investors instead of pushing back on you they’ll they’ll pull the other way in the world. That’s that’s not so bad, actually. Just like you were saying, right. And you’ll maybe they’re experts in that area. Oh, that’s not so bad. I know how to fix that. We’ve dealt with this before. That’s not so bad. So it creates kind of a In a mirror energy of what what you’re putting in, if you’re trying to push all the features there, investors probably are going to push back. But if you kind of pull back a little bit, this is why it’s not a good idea. Investors are going to come to the rescue almost Ah, that’s not so bad, we can figure that part out.
Neil Thompson 20:16
Yeah, I fully agree with what you’re saying, Aaron. I mean, as I, as I mentioned, you can talk about all the features, and that’s great. But if you don’t mention those flaws, those flaws may never get addressed, because you’re trying to hide them. And when you’re when you’re a founder, of course, you’re seeking money, you’re seeking capital, what you should also be seeking his advice, which you should be seeking his feedback. Because when you do that, then you you improve your MVP, you improve, you improve your overall product, you improve the morale of the team, because we’re not fighting over what those laws already were, we’re actually getting solutions to what those laws are, because we’re open enough to and honest enough to talk about them. It’s just I don’t see a downside to it. It’s really just more of an ego thing. You don’t want to admit that there are flaws. But I think you do yourself a disservice when you do that.
Aaron Moncur 21:02
Totally. Yeah. Yeah. And the best investors are not the ones who are just giving you money is like you said, they’re giving you advice. They’re providing a support system, a team, they’re bringing in expertise that you should and can leverage.
Neil Thompson 21:17
Oh, and that’s that really should be the whole point. I mean, if you’re just worried about the capital, I think that’s a very short sighted view to take.
Aaron Moncur 21:24
Yeah, agreed. All right. Well, what else should entrepreneurs keep in mind if they’re pitching to investors?
Neil Thompson 21:30
Oh, I think when it when it comes down to it, it’s just, he puts us certainly you need to put yourself out there. I mean, there are instances where you may be working on working on a product and you know that you need the investment you’ve bootstrapped as long as as far as you can go. But perhaps you’re a bit shy or hesitant to actually get up in front of people because you’re scared they’re going to call your baby ugly. And that may very well be the case. I mean, maybe your baby hasn’t looked the best they can look but you can help this these people gonna help your baby look the better than it currently does. So it’s certainly helpful to put yourself out there to get your baby looking nice.
Aaron Moncur 22:08
I don’t know why I just remember this right now. But you have this. I thought hysterical video on YouTube. About what to do if you’re a sweater, right? If you’re someone who sweats up there gets really nervous. Do you remember that one?
Neil Thompson 22:20
Oh, yeah, if you’re a sweater wear a sweater.
Aaron Moncur 22:24
I love it. It’s such a dad joke. It’s if your sweater wears sweater. That’s right.
Neil Thompson 22:32
I’d slept really well. We usually wear a regular shirt. You see those bagel pit stains? Oh, no. Oh, wet and stuff I bought looking at you like Oh, no. Bullets like, like, like, like, like, it’s a problem. But you wear that sweater it comes out up real nice.
Aaron Moncur 22:48
I laughed out loud when I when I watched that one. Any other tips he can provide for people like me who tend to get alone nervous when I’m up in front of a crowd, I don’t know speaking.
Neil Thompson 22:59
Well, I mean, certainly, it’s something to manage. I’ve actually had a few people on my podcast who have given some interesting tips on how to manage to manage nerves. One of them is to go into the bathroom, not to use any of the facilities, but just to go into a stall and sit down to collect your thoughts. And to breathe, can typically, if you’re outside of the cell, well outside the bathroom, that’s where the pitch is happening, there’ll be a whole bunch of people there. And that might just heighten your nerves even more. But if you just go to a quiet place, like a bathroom and just sit there, it’s really helpful just calming your nerves. Another another one of the really interesting was wiggling your toes. And apparently, if you will, and the person who gave it this advice swears by it. And she says if you when you wiggle your toes, it, you forget more you forget about your nervousness, and you’re thinking about the toe wiggly. So it’s something that I’ve tried, and I mean, I think it works pretty well. But I would suggest if you were to do it, don’t wear open toed shoes.
Aaron Moncur 24:04
Good. Good advice. You know, when I get nervous speaking to people, not necessarily even public speaking, just I don’t know if maybe I’m talking with new customers or something. And I just I find that I get nervous sometimes speaking to people, I find that I will naturally start curling my toes. It’s just an a subconscious thing that happens. Maybe there’s some reverse correlation there. If you intentionally start curling your toes, maybe that tends to relax you somehow I don’t know. But I do think that psychology follows physiology. So it whether it’s with wiggling your toes, or maybe it’s just taking some big deep breaths nice and slowly, right. Controlling your physiology is going to lead to a more calm psychology.
Neil Thompson 24:53
Yep, we’ll go your toes. Deep breaths and wear a sweater. There’ll be
Aaron Moncur 24:58
a sweater Ha, wise words from Neal Thompson. All right. What else? What other thoughts do you have that we should cover that we haven’t talked about so far?
Neil Thompson 25:10
Let’s see any other thoughts, I mean, ultimately, you have to get out there and do it, you don’t get better at it without the reps. And every time you give a presentation, if at all possible video with, so you can see yourself afterwards, and then see all the things that you liked about your presentation about your pitch, and all the things that you think you could do better, especially the the nonverbal type of of, of, of things that you could possibly do when giving a presentation? Do you do weird things with your hands? You? Are you sweating profusely, and so and get that sweater going? And but you know, this video yourself, and then you can get better for the next for the next for the next pitch?
Aaron Moncur 25:52
So you’ve got this program that you’ve developed to help technical professionals pitch investors, what does that look like? If I wanted to hire you? How would we work together? What can people expect if they were to engage with you?
Neil Thompson 26:06
So the pitching society, as I see is a monthly membership. And what you would get with it is an online course, similar to the teach to geek to speak course, although this one would be geared towards technical founders. And then you’d also get an online portal where you can interact with the other people and the other members of the pitching society. And then there’ll be monthly calls will be can go over your pitches just to offer feedback to make them the best that they can be. I mean, right now, what I’m doing with it is is gathering information, really gauging interest, and then developing a waitlist. And so once I once enough people join it, and they see the benefit of it, well, then it’s go time It’s time to make it make it happen and and help help these technical founders with their pitches.
Aaron Moncur 26:50
All right. And if people want to reach out to you and get on that waitlist, how do they do so
Neil Thompson 26:55
they can go to teach the geek.com/pitch
Aaron Moncur 26:59
Awesome. All right, Neil. Well, a delight again, thank you so much for coming on the show. And it’s been a lot of fun to catch up and learn more about how to pitch to investors.
Neil Thompson 27:09
Great. Thanks again for having me, Aaron.
Aaron Moncur 27:10
You bet. I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design, and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Team pipeline.us. Thanks for listening.
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