You are in good company if, as head of a start-up organization, you are wary about promoting your idea, and raising the money necessary to succeed. Whatever makes you nervous about the process – the economy, public speaking, grant writing, asking for money, the gnawing frustration that this is not how you had envisioned spending your time, and the unspoken worry that your words will not do justice to your cause – it is inevitable that fears arise when we are faced with the challenge of conveying our passion, and fighting for its life. “Making the pitch,” orally or on paper, to a Foundation or to an individual, to your mother or to a potential client, is among the most daunting tasks any organization, and especially a start-up, faces.
You are not alone. Numerous figures in TaNaKh were challenged with the task of selling their ideas (or God’s). Abraham had to convince idol worshipers to become followers of monotheism, and Jonah was so uncomfortable in his role as spokesperson that he lay himself in the belly of a ship, hoping to go unnoticed. One of the most eloquent figures in his resistance to an undertaking, who claims even ineloquence as an excuse for his inadequacy, is Moses. He had it all: a burning bush which was not consumed – a visual metaphor for purpose, for passion, for achieving the unthinkable; a clear, meaningful, relevant mission statement – freeing the enslaved from bondage; and an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God on his side. Foolproof! Who wouldn’t fund that? And yet Moses comes up with every excuse in the book (according to some – he writes the book) to avoid his role.
Moses’ dodging dance, upon exploration, and God’s responses, can actually serve as a guideline for how to organize your pitch, and the pitfalls to avoid.
1. Who Am I?
Moses’ immediate reaction to God’s proposal, that he go to Pharaoh and demand that the People of Israel be released from bondage in Egypt, is a personal one. In Exodus 3 verse 11, Moses says: “Who am I to go before Pharaoh, and to take the People of Israel out of Egypt?” This question, in fact, should be the starting point of any pitch. You need to answer that question for yourself and your audience – they are, ultimately, interested in your idea, but they must believe that you have the talent, perseverance, passion, and drive to carry it out. A great idea is only as good as the person, or people, behind it. The challenge is to remain humble while conveying that you are the most capable person to make this idea real. God responds to this question by reminding Moses that he represents something, and that there is a profound vision to his enterprise. This initial part of the pitch, then, must convey the hope, the potential, the fire and the dream of the project, and, you must represent that.
2. What Should I Tell Them?
Moses next anticipates his audience’s most challenging question. In Exodus 3 verse 13, he says, “now I will come to the People of Israel, and I will say to them that the God of their Forefathers has sent me to them, and they will ask me – what is his name – what should I tell them?” This question addresses the most important component in any pitch: What is it you are doing, and why? Moses’ ability to anticipate his audience’s most difficult question (consider yourself lucky – you don’t have to figure out how to describe God to sell your idea!) is critical to his success. Gale Mondry, UpStart Bay Area’s Vice President of Development and Operations, reminded a group of UpStarters recently in a workshop on grant-writing that each pitch, written or oral, should include these two crucial elements:
- Need: Though it may be obvious to you, your audience most likely does not understand the need for your new idea. Spend time on this piece of your pitch. Quote research and data – demonstrate that you know your field, and that there is a need in the community for what you are proposing
- Goals & Objectives: Connect your organization’s goals to the need you have articulated, and focus on what concrete changes will take place as a result of your proposed work.
3. But They Will Not Believe Me
Moses’ next fear is of his audience. He fears that even if he can convince them that he is the right person for the project, and even if he can somehow express the need and vision for the project, it is inevitable, as he muses in Exodus 4 verse 1, that “they will not believe me, and will not listen to me.” God responds by giving Moses concrete “proofs” – a staff that can turn into snakes, a hand that can be stricken with and cured of leprosy – of God on his side. You too must bring concrete proof, to the best of your ability, that your vision can become a reality. Reveal your commitment to measuring outcomes through assessment and evaluation, and show how you will impact and change the field. Guy Kawasaki, in his book The Art of the Start, says that “nothing in a pitch is more powerful than combining an answer to ‘So What’ with ‘For Instance…’” If, as Kawasaki says, you “know what’s important to your audience,” articulate the significance of your idea, and discuss a real-world potential impact you can make, then you’re on your way to success.
4. Heavy of Lip and Heavy of Tongue
Finally, upon learning the elements necessary for making a pitch, Moses concludes that his very nature seems to contradict what is required for this work. In Exodus 4 verse 10 he says, “I am not a man of words…for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” Once he has a better understanding of the work before him, Moses decides that he is not the right person for the job. Oftentimes, the founder of a start-up, or the creative force behind the idea, is wary of becoming its salesman. The challenge is to know yourself: What are your own insecurities and fears? And what are the best tools at your disposal to enable your success? Maybe you need an eloquent Aaron to attend meetings with you, or to write your grants. Maybe you can overcome your fears and use your challenges to your advantage.
Remember that you will have multiple opportunities. Moses keeps going back to Pharaoh, time after time, failure after failure. If your idea is one with the potential to make concrete, impactful, meaningful change in the community, you will, ultimately, be successful. After all, Moses did successfully lead the people out of Egypt. Reaching the Promised Land, though, is a different story.
Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities. Maya is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.