Communicating Your Big Idea

Stanford lecturer shares tips to improve your next business pitch.

October 05, 2021

Meet Martin Stimela, CEO of Botswana-based Brastorne Enterprises, and Matt Abrahams, Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer and communications expert. As Stimela prepares to pitch his business expansion plan, hear Abrahams’ tips on how to grab attention, harness emotions, and create a lasting connection with your audience. Then listen in on Stimela’s actual pitch — and Abrahams’ feedback.

Almost every entrepreneur eventually needs to make a pitch to capture attention — and dollars. Stimela is no exception. As CEO of Brastorne Enterprises, he’s looking to raise capital to scale his growing technology company to 19 more countries, starting with Cameroon, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Mali. His vision: to connect the unconnected by enabling internet access without the need for expensive data plans or smartphones.

Abrahams is a Stanford GSB lecturer and host of the podcast “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” and he has plenty of strategic communications advice and techniques for both Stimela and fellow entrepreneurs. Before you even write the first word of your pitch, Abrahams suggests you need to think first about who your audience is and what they need from you.

“A fundamental mistake people make is they start by saying, here are the things I want to say,” Abrahams notes. “Rather, you need to focus on, what do I want them to know? How do I want them to feel? And what do I want them to do?”

Here are a few pitch-worthy pieces of advice:

Create a good hook to capture people’s attention.

“You know, 99% of people start with: Hi, my name is_______. Today, I’m going to talk about______. If you do something different, you automatically stand out as different.”

Introduce a character.

“Think about leveraging testimonials, examples of how people are benefiting from your particular set of offerings. If we become familiar with a particular person and their situation, it makes it much more real for us than simply talking in generality.”

Be conversational.

“Avoid reading word-for-word from a script or slides. Instead, focus on the structure of your message and the key ideas you want to get across.”

Practice by teaching.

Like most things in business and life, practice makes perfect. And Abrahams encourages practicing by teaching.

“When entrepreneurs are working on pitches, I invite them to actually think about how would they teach somebody else to pitch their business. So bringing on a co-founder or a colleague, how would you teach them to pitch the business by putting themselves in the role of teacher? It helps them see things that we don’t typically see.”

Listen to Abrahams’ advice and Stimela’s pitch to learn new strategies and techniques to improve your own pitch.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Attention is our most precious commodity that we have in the world today. It’s more valuable than Bitcoin, more valuable than GameStop stock.

Darius Teter: As an entrepreneur, whether you’re pitching investors, hiring talent, speaking to board members, or selling to customers, you have to be able to communicate your big idea.

Matt Abrahams: It is critical that we get people’s attention, and then engagement is actually sustained attention. We actually have to sustain it. In that hook is where you do that.

Darius Teter: We communicate constantly. We’re social creatures. So why is it sometimes so damn hard?

I’m Darius Teter, and this is Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed, the show where Africa and India’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs, with insights from Stanford faculty and global experts on how to tackle challenges and grow your business.

Today, we have a different type of episode. We’ve invited Martin Stimela, CEO of Botswanan tech company, Brastorne Enterprises, to tell us about how his technology is bringing affordable, actionable information to marginalized people with the most basic phones. And we’ll hear about his vision for Pan-African expansion. We’ll also be joined by Matt Abrahams, Stanford lecturer and host of the podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart.

Now we’ll share some important strategies for powerful, compelling communications. Together, Matt and I will hear Martin try out his investor pitch, and then we’ll have a conversation about what worked and what could have been improved. Along the way, you’ll get tips on how to grab attention, harness emotions, and create a lasting connection with your audience. So let’s dive right in.

Darius Teter: Martin Stimela has a gentle, steady presence that immediately puts you at ease, but he also has a question that he wants answered. Actually, he has a few.

Martin Stimela: I always questioned things. I always got in trouble for trying to ask those questions like, “Why? Why? Why are we doing things this way? Isn’t there a better way of doing things?”

Darius Teter: It was this drive to know more, to do better, that led Martin to entrepreneurship, and Martin’s company Brastorne, who added that same questioning spirit.

Martin Stimela: For me, coming from a technology background and understanding how to build solutions for the top of the economic pyramid, because that’s really the world that I lived in, and then moving into the development space and realizing that there’s so many people who just don’t have access. They just don’t have access to the same technologies that we do. But the need is still the same. For me, that really spoke to me. It struck a chord. How can we provide access? At the core, the internet is such a luxury in some of these markets in Africa, where we operate. How do we provide internet? And what is the internet? Internet is just access to information. It’s access to markets, and it’s access to social communities. How can we provide those for those people who don’t have smartphones?

Darius Teter: The argument is almost that access to basic information and community is a fundamental right, or we should think of it as a fundamental right.

Martin Stimela: That’s correct. We are seeing that the internet is a necessity, rather than a nice to have. Africa has some of the most expensive prices for broadband. That means that they can’t benefit from the opportunities of being connected to the internet. There’s 620, 650 million mobile phone users in Africa, and 77% of those use feature phones. That means that they can’t benefit from the opportunities of being connected to the internet.

Darius Teter: For our listeners who aren’t familiar with feature phones, when I think of a feature phone, I think of that first Nokia brick that I had, my very first cell phone, unbreakable. The battery lasted forever, but it was pretty much useless for anything other than speaking.

Martin Stimela: Absolutely. That’s exactly it.

Darius Teter: To analyze Martin’s pitch today, we brought in an expert on how to get across your big idea.

Matt Abrahams: My name is Matt Abrahams. I am a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where I teach strategic communication. One of my great pleasures is also to host the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast.

Darius Teter: Matt, as you can tell, is a professional communicator, and he’s honed his skills with some of the harshest critics out there.

Matt Abrahams: My younger son can do a perfect impression of me. I actually will do a practice for him, and then I will ask him to impersonate me so I can actually learn all the things I do wrong because he exaggerates all the things I do wrong.

Darius Teter: To help Matt analyze Martin’s pitch, I wanted us to have a deeper understanding of his business and perhaps more importantly, Martin’s vision.

77% of the 650 million cell phone subscriptions across the continent are based on feature phone use and voice SMS text. What does your technology do for them?

Martin Stimela: We literally enable the underserved to connect without the need for data plans. In simple sense, it’s literally we’ve got technology that allows you to either use voice prompts or use a technology called USSD, which is mainly used for mobile money transactions here in Africa. It’s literally just text strings. But using that, you can actually connect to the internet, fetch data, and dumb it down, and bring it back, which is quite crucial to people who don’t have access.

The easiest explanation is maybe going on Wikipedia. You dial the short code, and a menu pops up, and you text or you type in Stanford University. If Stanford University is in Wikipedia, through our APIs, it’ll literally bring back information about Stanford University because remember, they’re probably using those phones with small screens. They literally keep pressing one for next, next, next and are able to read a whole article. The opportunities are endless. Those people who can’t read or write, illiterate, they can use voice prompts, and it gives the same user journey.

Darius Teter: Many people that use Brastorne services are actually farmers in rural areas. So many, in fact, that they developed a platform especially for them, called mAgri. What Martin realized was that simple information that was otherwise hard to get was actually crucial to these farmers’ livelihoods.

Martin Stimela: What are the average prices that people are selling in your region? What is the recommended price for you to sell? What type of crops to grow? Who’s buying what this season? That sort of information that allows you to have the best yields. After that, we set you up with a mobile store so business comes to you, literally, from the comfort of your own farm. But that’s not it. It’s not the only way. We’ve taken the farmer and said, what are the needs they have? We’ve got health in there. We’ve got information for COVID now and other things. We’ve got legal services in there. So it really opens up a whole world to these farmers or underserved communities.

Darius Teter: Martin, what’s the growth strategy for Brastorne? Where do you want to go five years from now?

Martin Stimela: We’ve now started expanding into Cameroon, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali. We’ve got quite a number of countries that have shown interest and are in our roadmap. That’s really why we feel at this point, we need partners that can help us really grow as quickly as possible.

Darius Teter: You have a specific fundraising opportunity. You’re looking for partners to invest. Can you describe a bit more what you’re after? And have you already reached out to potential partners?

Martin Stimela: We’ve grown, like I said. We’ve bootstrapped for the past five years, and we’ve had about 100 to 200% growth year on year. It’s been good, but we really are chasing a closing window because, at some point, smartphones will be cheaper. Something can come and disrupt us. The idea is to build a database as quickly as possible and pivot into other things, like financial services and so forth, which we’ve already started in Botswana.

We are looking for funding to help us move quicker than we are, to help us target our 19 countries within the next two to three years, rather than the two, three new countries every year.

Darius Teter: You have a very bold vision: 19 countries, connectivity, building a community. It all sounds very compelling. So have you actually pitched to an investor yet? Have you put it out there?

Martin Stimela: We have, and to be honest, the investors that we pitched to, we were really looking for angel investors, people that understood that we’re not just purely chasing profit, but we are looking for conscious profit with some social good.

Darius Teter: I see. In a sense, you’re looking for patient capital, but also people who are aligned with you on your social mission.

Now that I understood Martin’s business and his vision, I asked him to prepare a brief three-minute pitch. And in the meantime, I reconnected with Matt Abrahams to dig into his framework for great communication. Matt, let’s start with the term strategic communication. What does that actually mean?

Matt Abrahams: At the highest level, strategic communication is really about thinking through your strategic goals and how you can operationalize those goals in your communication. It’s how you position yourself, your business, how you propagate information through an organization, across people. And it’s how you handle challenging situations like crises. It’s really about applying some foundational building blocks skills, communication that helps you accomplish your goals.

You need to start by thinking about who your audience is, and what is it that they need from you? It’s not what you want to say to them. That’s a fundamental mistake people make; they start by saying, “Here are the things I want to say.” Rather, you need to focus on what does my audience need to know or need to hear? And once you think about your audience, things such as what are their knowledge levels about the topic that I’m presenting on? What are their attitudes likely to be? What are the resistance points? You must consider that first.

From that, you then begin to think about what is my goal for them? And to my mind, a goal has three parts. It’s about information, emotion, and action. What do I want them to know? How do I want them to feel? And what do I want them to do? And in fact, I ask every entrepreneur, every student I work with in terms of the presentations they do in our class, to start with the goal. I need to understand your goal.

Darius Teter: I want them to invest in my business. I want them, if it’s a board, I want them to be convinced of the competence of my management team, in my choices or my strategy. If it’s my customer, I want them to believe in my solution.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Those are all great knowledge goals. But how do you want them to feel? Do you want them excited? Do you want them to feel confident? Do you want them to feel a fear of missing out, that if they don’t invest that they might miss out? Or maybe you just want to, if you’re talking to a customer or a prospect, you just want them to feel validated that I heard you, I understand your plight.

And the big thing that people never think about is what goes before them and what comes after them? You know this. But if you’re going into the board, and you’re going to make a request, if the person before you just gave bad news, that might influence what you’re about to say. You need to think about context, timing in terms of time of day, but also timing in terms of sequence, really important.

We create our communication as if we are speaking in a vacuum or communicating in a vacuum, and that’s not true. The audience is coming to your pitch, your presentation, your meeting from something else. They’re worried about what comes after. Anything you can do to connect what you’re doing to their broader experience is going to make the message more relevant, and it’s going to stick longer.

Darius Teter: You also talked about the importance of connecting emotionally. Is that about what you want them to feel? Or is there more than that? Is there something else to that?

Matt Abrahams: It’s about what you want them to feel, for sure, but it’s also about demonstrating that you appreciate their experience, that you understand their feelings. It’s not just what you want them to feel. It’s this notion that I get it, I get it that it’s hard. I appreciate and understand that, and therefore, we can connect and build that trust. Trust is built through emotion, not bullet points on PowerPoint slides.

Darius Teter: Trust is built through emotion. Can you say one more sentence about that?

Matt Abrahams: It’s about connection, and we connect fundamentally through our shared experience, through our ability to listen and empathize. Definitely, communicating about feelings and sharing that you understand somebody’s feelings is a great way to connect, and that’s how trust gets started and continues.

Darius Teter: We know our audience. We’ve made some sort of emotional connection that’s starting to build a sense of trust. But how do we actually draw them into our story?

Matt Abrahams: A good hook is something that captures people’s attention. Attention is our most precious commodity that we have in the world today. A good hook is going to do something that’s going to get people to focus. It could be a question. It could be a poll, a startling statistic, perhaps an image, a video. Get people focused.

99% of people start with, “Hi, my name is… Today I’m going to talk about…” If you do something different, you automatically stand out as different. And that’s helpful. A VC who hears umpteen pitches a day, all of a sudden, “Wait. You’ve got my attention just because you did something different.”

There are lots of ways. Someone like Tina Seelig, somebody like Christian Wheeler, these creativity folks, they’re going to say, “Just brainstorm five different ways of starting, and test them. Challenge yourself to have five different ways of starting, and go test them out.”

Darius Teter: Another compelling technique that Matt recommends is introducing a character.

Matt Abrahams: Also think about leveraging testimonials, and as I said, examples of how people are benefiting from your particular set of offerings. And maybe personas. We become familiar with a particular person and their situation. It makes it much more real for us than simply talking in generalities.

Darius Teter: When you’re pitching, you’re generally going to have slides, and you’re going to reference those, or you’re going to have notes that you can read. But there are actually so many opportunities where you’re going to be asked to tell your story without any of those things. And Matt says they’re often a hindrance anyway.

Matt Abrahams: We need to pull people away from reading scripts and reading slides. Conversation is critical, and you need to come off as conversational. This hearkens back to what we started this podcast with. The reason many people read is they want to get it right. There is no one right way to pitch your business. There are better ways and worse ways, but there is no one right way.

I spend a lot of time working with people to find ways to wean themselves off of the script and to focus on the structure of their message and the key ideas they want to get across. I like to say, “It’s hard to get lost when you have a map. It’s hard to forget what to say when you know your structure well.” So I believe in practice, vocal practice, not just thinking through, but actually speaking through your pitch. But avoid reading word for word if you can. There are very few situations in life where word-for-word reading is the right choice.

Something that I find very useful for entrepreneurs to do is when they’re working on pitches, I invite them to actually think about how they would teach somebody else to pitch their business? Bringing on a co-founder or a colleague or something, how would you teach them to pitch the business? By putting themselves in the role of teacher, it helps them see things that we don’t typically see.

The question could be what are some things people could do to get stronger at their pitching? And my answer to that question is practice, get feedback, and be very open to that feedback and see it as an offering and as a gift, to think about how you would teach somebody else to pitch your business, and to make sure that you focus on not just the value that you and your company provide, but think about the “and that’s not all.” Many good pitches have an “and that’s not all.” And that’s something that goes beyond what you’re pitching, but it tantalizes, teases, and builds curiosity about what’s possible, beyond what they’re doing.

Darius Teter: Now that Matt has outlined some of the key elements of a strong pitch, let’s get back to Martin Stimela’s challenge, finding a partner to help Brastorne expand across the African continent.

Martin, what I’d love for you to do now, I’d like you to pitch to me as a potential partner in your growth plan and investor. Whenever you’re ready, Martin.

Martin Stimela: Did you know that Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the lowest incomes? Sub-Saharan Africa is ranked the most expensive place in the world for mobile data prices. What we do is simple. We connect the unconnected, and that’s because the internet is used primarily for three things across the world: access to information, markets, or to socialize.

In Africa, the vast majority of the population have their first interaction with the internet on a mobile phone. But what you find throughout Africa is that 77% of mobile phone users use feature phones. This means they can’t take advantage of the opportunities that come with being connected to the internet.

But what if you could provide the power of the internet to everyone, regardless of the kind of phone they can afford? That is exactly what we do at Brastorne. We enable access to the internet without the need for expensive data plans or smartphones.

This is how our solution works. Boosie is a smallholder farmer. She uses a feature phone, and normally, she would have to travel a hundred kilometers to access that latest information on how to improve her crop yields. When she wants to sell produce, she would have to travel another 60 kilometers without proper knowledge of market prices. If she wants advice about best practices from friends or just wants to chat, she’d need to spend a large percentage of her daily earnings on phone credit.

With one of our solutions, mAgri, Boosie can do all of these things without having to leave her village or spend much money. For just three cents a day, she simply dials a short code on a feature phone, connects to our mAgri platform, and now has access to a dedicated knowledge base for farming, Wikipedia, social media platforms, chat, and other internet-based applications. And if Boosie struggles to read, she can interact with our platform using voice prompts.

At Brastorne, we have applications not only in agricultural services, but in healthcare and legal services as well. Boosie, however, is not our only user. We reach more than 1 million users in Botswana and the DRC and are currently scaling to Cameroon, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Mali. Not only does our solution have a social impact, it is also completely self-sustaining. Given our low prices and high number of users, we’ve generated nearly USD $2.4 million in revenues in the last 12 months and maintained positive margins. We have a team of more than 30 people, led by myself, my co-founder Naledi, and a passionate management team that is dedicated to making a difference for the unconnected in Africa. We have grown organically and have bootstrapped for a while now. This limits our growth, and we are looking for the right partners to help expand our impact across the continent.

The internet is a basic need. We could argue that it’s a human right, but the reality is, in most parts of Africa, it’s still considered a luxury. Help us bridge the digital divide. Help us connect the unconnected to the world. Thank you.

Matt Abrahams: Nicely done, nicely done, Martin. I liked that. How did that feel for you to do?

Martin Stimela: It really felt really good. I’m more accustomed to, obviously, talking to people, maybe being on stage or just having a conversation. But I think for me, it’s much harder staring at a screen and trying to speak. It’s really daunting.

Matt Abrahams: I felt it was very complete. I liked how you pulled in the specific example and shed light on what it was you were… How your offering was simple to use, cost-effective, and helpful.

A couple of suggestions that come to mind. First, you started by saying that Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the poorest places. I can’t remember the transition word you used to get to the internet and the cost of the internet, but I would like it to be, “Yet, when it comes to the internet, it is one of the most expensive places” to really highlight that juxtaposition.

Do you talk about what percentage of somebody’s salary it would be to have access? It might be nice to highlight, to say, “Some people have to pay up to 50, 60, whatever percent of their…” Just to really drive home the expense.

Martin Stimela: I am going to note that down because we actually have that, and we do talk about it in some of our pitches. So yeah, I’m going to put that in there.

Matt Abrahams: Part of what I’m suggesting, Martin, is two things. One, just really highlight the disparity. So things like, “What many of us outside of the continent take for granted is actually incredibly costly and hard to manage.” And then when you say feature phone, you can say, “The type of phone that everybody was carrying around 15 years ago.” Just something to really drive that point. Again, what you’re trying to do is set up the disparity and then come in and say, “This is how we remedy it.”

I’m wondering at the ending. One thing I’m not clear on exactly is what your ask is. Do you have a specific number you’re looking for?

Martin Stimela: Yeah. Normally we leave that to the type of investor we’re talking to. Some of the investors, we’re just literally just looking for some TA because we study the investor, and we know their ticket sizes. So some we would ask for like 300 convertibles, or some would ask for three million. I mean, yeah. Ideally we would look for three million, but we play the investor.

Matt Abrahams: Okay. So when you have a specific investor in mind, you do make a specific ask.

Martin Stimela: Correct, yes.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Perfect. Just the ask felt a little generic and not specific in the pitch, which I totally understand because I don’t have that kind of money, although I totally support what it is you’re doing.

I’m wondering if at the end — and this might not fit you — you have to be comfortable and authentic. If I were in your shoes, at the end, I might come back to the persona you mentioned earlier and say something like, “To be able to help people across the continent or across this specific geography, and then name her again.” Just to bring her back at the end to really personalize it is something you could use.

And again, that has to be comfortable for you. For me, I really like bringing it back to a person or a specific situation rather than something more generic. So tie them together. Say, “We can help lots of people like…” And then end there.

I don’t know if there’s competition in the market. I don’t know if competition is necessarily a bad thing, given what you’re trying to achieve. But you might want to say, “Among those doing this work, we are the most profitable or we are…” I assume you’re not the only one trying to solve this problem. That was the one piece that I noticed that was missing. And some investors might be concerned about that.

Martin Stimela: Yeah. Most people will have your mAgri-type applications, where they give market pricing tips and things like that, or health care or whatever. But as far as we know, because we have to partner with mobile networks, we are the only ones using USSD to provide internet services. No one else is doing it for Wikipedia, social chats, and whatever. It’s mainly just for mobile money.

Matt Abrahams: I might say that.

Martin Stimela: Okay.

Matt Abrahams: And do you also do mobile money?

Martin Stimela: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. I might position it that way and say, “While there are others who are filling certain niches, we actually offer it all and have strong partnerships with telcos and others that have helped further our growth.” Just as a differentiator, and I believe that when you don’t mention competition, people might think, “What’s going on there?” So if you can at least acknowledge them, then I think that helps. And again, I’m not saying spend two minutes on it. It could be as short as a sentence as, “Through our strong partnerships with multiple telcos, we are able to provide a complete solution in a market where there are just point solutions around money and advice. We offer it all, and our clients find value. And our telco partners find value.” And that’s all you have to say.

Darius Teter: Matt believes a pitch can benefit by including some what-ifs to answer the question. What if we could do this? In his pitch, Martin allows us to imagine a future when he says, “What if you could provide the power of the internet to everyone, regardless of the kind of phone that they can afford?”

Kudos to Martin. But in his feedback, Matt also wanted to address Martin’s tone.

Matt Abrahams: It was not as conversational as you are right now. As you practice it, it will sound more conversational. I know this is a bit performative where you’re speaking, and you know you’re going to get evaluated, so it’s a different way of communicating. But you have a very natural, conversational tone and approach, and if you can pull that in a bit more to the pitch, I think it will endear you more. Not that what you did was bad, it’s just, to me, listening to you converse, and then to do the pitch, there was a significant difference in how you sound.

Martin Stimela: Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot. This has really been helpful, hopefully life changing.

Matt Abrahams: Well, we’ll stick with helpful. Life-changing would be amazing. But we’re happy to be of help.

Martin Stimela: I say that because that bit about anxiety and excitement. For me, if I could master that, that would be a game changer.

Matt Abrahams: If anxiety is a big issue for you, Martin, go to a website that I curate called nofreakingspeaking.com, and there’s a whole bunch of resources there around managing anxiety around speaking.

Darius Teter: Thanks, Matt. Thanks, Martin. Anything else from either of you?

Matt Abrahams: No, just best of luck, Martin, as you continue to do the good work that you’re doing. Your pitch is strong. The value is strong, and the intent is important. Keep up the good work. And thank you for taking the time to listen to the advice we had and implementing it. All the best.

Darius Teter: I want to thank Martin Stimela for putting himself out there and pitching his business vision to an invisible listening audience. There is no doubt that communicating your big idea on the podcast medium, it’s hard. But he did an amazing job. I also want to thank Matt Abrahams for giving some of his precious time to help all of us communicate better.

And if you haven’t listened yet, you have to check out Think Fast, Talk Smart, Matt’s podcast dedicated to the art of communicating.

This has been Grit & Growth with Stanford Graduate School of Business. And I’m your host Darius Teter. If you liked this episode, leave us a review on your podcast app. It really helps us to share the stories of these incredible entrepreneurs with as many people as possible.

To learn how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs throughout Africa and South Asia, head over to the Stanford Seed website at seed.stanford.edu/podcast.

Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode, with additional research by Jeff Prickett. Kendra Gladych is our Production Coordinator, and our Executive Producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Isobel Pollard and Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media.

Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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