It’s Not Me, It’s You. How to Avoid Rejection.

By Dana Lacey ● May 18, 2018 14:00

I’ve rejected a lot of great ideas.

I’ve been on both sides of rejection. I’ve worked as a writer (rejectee), editor (rejector) and most recently, a partnership manager for publishing and tech companies, where I can reject and be rejected in the same day. I’ve been pitched countless products, services and collaborations.

Partnerships are not one-time transactions, so the vetting process is more intense and much more personal than regular transactions. Personality and cultural fit matter. I’ve seen demos of some fantastically innovative products and services that might have won my company’s business, if not for some missteps early in the relationship.

I want to share a few common mistakes I’ve seen startups and early stage companies make during the all-important first impression of their pitch. 

Man standing in front of a white board. The white board has a couple of flowcharts drawn on it.

Your pitch is too generic

Don’t be boring. I’m not referring to the idea itself — sometimes the best solution is a boring one! — but don’t make your presentation overly complicated. Skip the buzzwords and jargon and meaningless charts, and have a normal conversation. It’s essential to research the roles and responsibilities of your audience and tailor your pitch to them.

If you’re meeting with engineers, have a technical resource in hand. Take breaks to check in with your audience, ask discovery questions to figure out what they care about. Listen to questions and feedback, look for where the audience gets excited or loses interest, and change the tone or topic accordingly. I’ve endured many demos where the presenter barrels on through an idea that’s already been rejected by attendees. 

Your team is boorish

The pitch (and associated cold calling / followups etc.) are a great way to uncover crappy personalities before any contracts are signed. Try not to let that commission desperation show: don’t be too obnoxious or overbearing in securing a meeting or an intro. It’s off putting and annoying and I’ll be less likely to want to go to bat for you to get internal buyin. If you have a team member (or leader) who is prone to longwindedness, interrupting or talking over people, keep them in check during meetings.

And this may sound obvious but in my experience it’s not: treat everyone you encounter like an equal. People notice when you treat the executive assistant poorly. Oh, and don’t assume your audience has zero knowledge on whatever expertise you hold. Mansplaining is condescending and distracts from your value prop.

Your pitch is too long

Respect my team’s time. I usually only give phone pitches a half hour. If you have a deck (ugh), keep it super short. Focus on highlighting the key issues you can solve for the company. Show off your most whiz-bang, competitive features but skim through the more standard stuff. Don’t try to cram every bell and whistle in. And keep your eye on the clock. It’s infinitely better to severe an entire segment of your presentation in order to leave time for questions and next steps, or you’ll just be ushered out the door without feedback. Brevity keeps people engaged but also serves a practical purpose: the most senior executives will only pop in for a few minutes (if you’re lucky). You may be suddenly asked to cut through the preamble and get to the point. A laptop on a tabletop. Next to the laptop is a notebook and pen.

You were betrayed by technology

It’s an ancient truth that every meeting has at least 5-10 minutes of disaster built in — the phone line is dropping people, the screenshare software requires a download, so-and-so can’t find the conference room. These may not be your fault but how you keep your cool under stress matters (I’ve seen executives yell at their teams. Don’t do that). Sometimes your own platform will glitch — or your engineers decided to update your platform at the exact wrong moment — which is especially painful.

For in-person presentations, bring every conceivable dongle connection and find out the guest WiFi code in advance. I usually bring a tablet preloaded with screenshots I can pass around while talking, which has saved me many times. But you should be able to talk about the value of a partnership without a prop. In other words, be prepared to wing your presentation entirely when technology fails you.

You were disingenuous 

Don’t be afraid to address your faults and previous mistakes. Talk about how you addressed issues raised by clients after a disastrous feature launch. Talk about what you learned from a failed business or strategy. I want to know you’re honest, but also that you’re not so stuck to an idea that you won’t listen to feedback.

The best way to make a great first impression is to not lose sight of the individuals you’re trying to win over. Respect their time and expertise and intelligence. While no one item on this list may trigger a rejection, each one chips away at your reputation. And then it doesn’t matter how great your idea is.