The pitch isn’t the only thing that will make your business successful; far from it. But it sure does matter when you have an opportunity to get on stage and present. Those opportunities may be few and far between, but you don’t want to blow them. And opportunities to pitch your business should happen all the time – because ultimately we’re always pitching, whether it’s investors, customers, business partners, candidates, spouses, or random people we catch on the street. Pitching and presenting are critical skills for startup owners.
After attending the YES Entrepreneurship Conference and watching a handful of young startups do their 5-minute pitches, and jotting down some notes, here are 15 quick pitch tips. First, let me say that I was impressed with all the presentations. For very early stage startups, with minimal (if any) pitch / presentation training, they did a good job. Pitching isn’t easy. And it takes a long time to learn how to do well. And it takes continual effort. So kudos to everyone that had the guts and willingness to get on stage in front of the audience and share their dreams.
- Pitch Solo. Most of the companies that pitched at the YES Conference did so with 2 (or 3) people. If I remember correctly, there was only 1 solo pitch. The problem with having two (or more) people pitch is that it’s distracting. The audience can’t follow as easily. It’s made worse when transitions between presenters are clunky, or seemingly at random. Or when presenters interrupt or talk over one another (say, during a Q&A session.) Having one presenter allows you to pick the strongest person for the job, and lets that person get into their own rhythm. You might have someone else controlling your PowerPoint slides (for example) but stick to one person who does the talking.
This doesn’t mean you don’t reference your other team members and highlight their skills and the value they bring to the company. Just don’t have everyone presenting.
- Tell a Story. Even in a short presentation you have time to tell the audience a story and improve your chances of creating meaningful context. Yes, we need to understand things like market opportunity, competitive advantages, business models, etc. but it’s the story and relevancy it creates in our lives (or the lives of other people we think about at that moment) that make the presentation worthwhile and memorable. Stories can be extremely varied, but your best chance of creating a story is near the beginning, as you’re describing the problem that you solve. Make that problem relevant to me and I’ll pay much more attention.
- No Wimpy Words Allowed. Wimpy words diminish credibility and the power of a presentation. “I think…” is wimpy. We know you think it, because you’re saying it – so just get to the point. “We believe…” is wimpy too. It’s OK to state assumptions (and it’s even OK during a Q&A session, for example, to admit you don’t know the answers to certain questions), but cut the wimpy words. Another classic, “What we’re trying to do…” You’re not trying, you are. Simple as that. Even if you haven’t even started your business, you’re already doing it, not just trying to do it. Yoda was right about that one.
Removing the wimpy words from your presentation is hard. They’re often ingrained in our speech. But that leads me to point #3…
- Practice. Very few of us are natural presenters. I only know of a couple people who don’t get nervous on stage (which I still believe is unnatural and probably some kind of strange condition!) You can conquer fear (to a degree) and certainly power through your fear with practice. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice in front of your team members. Practice in front of other people. I’ve found the key is to practice so much that it’s almost robotic, and then you deconstruct it, loosen up and make sure it comes across naturally. If you come across too robotic, and your presentation appears too memorized it’s very difficult to bring out the necessary passion and excitement. It’s hard to capture the audience’s attention when every word is perfectly spoken, spaced out and said in a monotonous, even tone. So practice. Practice. And practice some more. Then forget everything you’ve memorized and just do it.
- Keep Track of Time. If you’re given 5 minutes, make sure you say what you need to say in 5 minutes, not 5 minutes and 5 seconds. Just five. If you’re given 10 minutes, that’s fine, but stick to the time allotted. Oftentimes saying less is better than saying more; so don’t try and cram 10 minutes worth of words into 5 minutes of time. It won’t work.
- Keep it Simple Stupid. I’m not an expert in your business. You are. I might not even know a single thing about your specific industry or how it operates. So avoid anything that’s overly complicated when explaining your startup. Keep things simple. And be careful about trying to teach, especially in short presentations. There’s not a lot of time, and frankly I don’t want to be taught (nor do I want to be an expert in what you do) … I want to be convinced that there’s a big enough opportunity in what you do that I should be interested in it. And I need to be convinced that you know what you’re talking about, without getting lost in jargon, acronyms or in-depth industry details. You can teach me later…
- Humor is Hard. Cracking jokes in a presentation is risky. If no one laughs you’re left on stage looking like a putz. Be very careful with humor. On top of that, humor doesn’t necessarily capture people’s attention. They might chuckle, but what you really want them doing is paying attention to your kick ass startup idea.
- Gimmicks are Worse. Gimmicks are even riskier than the use of humor. Props, for example, can very quickly make you look silly. Props and gimmicks might not work on stage, and then you’re stuck. In some cases a prop might be great, especially if it’s core to your business, but don’t distract the audience with it too much; show it, use it, grab people’s attention and then get to the meat & potatoes of your presentation.
- Expect the Obvious Questions. Some issues are universal for businesses. Target markets, for example. Every business has a target market. And it’s fairly important to know the size of that target market, especially if someone asks you about it. I did say in a previous point that it’s OK to admit when you don’t know the answer to a question; let’s face it, you can’t know everything. But there are some obvious questions you can expect (if you don’t address them properly in your presentation), and you need to be ready for those. Incidentally, it’s those obvious questions that you need to address during your presentation (so you don’t leave it to people to ask you!)
Other obvious questions will be about your business model (how you make money), your competition (it always exists), and your sales & marketing strategy (often a startup’s weakest aspect).
- When Things Fail (And They Will) Power Through. PowerPoint presentations are notorious for not working just when you need them. Live demonstrations of your product can fail as well. When something goes wrong, you have to power through it. There’s no other choice. It’s extremely hard to do, although lots of practice will help. When we launched Standout Jobs at DEMO, the conference organizers suggested that we practice contingency presentations, should something go wrong. At the YES Conference, one group’s presentation didn’t work. They managed to get through very nicely, so kudos to them.
- Don’t Look Back. When your presentation does work, and they put it on a big screen behind you, don’t look at it. This was part of the advice I received from David S. Rose of the New York Angels, and it makes sense. When you look back, you lose eye contact with your audience. You’re giving yourself the opportunity to be distracted and it can easily break your rhythm. Incidentally, it’s almost impossible to do; we’re just naturally inclined to look back at our presentation. But do your best to avoid looking back – and if you can gain some mastery of this, it will mean you can also do much better in emergency situations.
- Tell Me What I’m About to See. Another difficult thing to do is to talk ahead of the slides that you’re showing. Tell me what I’m about to see on the next PowerPoint slide (without saying, “What you’re about to see…”). But if you can master this skill it means you’ve gotten so comfortable giving your presentation that it flows beautifully. One of the presenters at the Conference had a very nice slide with the number “10%”. That’s all that was on the slide (very nicely done.) With better timing, the presenter would have been speaking about the number before it appeared on the screen, because the minute it did, I started wondering about what it meant. And the number isn’t very high after all, it’s only 10%, so it seemed a bit weak. It wasn’t a weak statistic for them, and it was a fairly strong way for the presenter to end their pitch, but I was already thinking ahead of where he was in the presentation when I first saw it.
- Tell Us What You Do Upfront. Within the first 30 seconds of your presentation I need to know exactly what you do and why I should care. If you can’t get that boiled down into 30 seconds, and you can’t start your presentation with that information, you’re going to lose me (and most people.)
- Don’t Save the Best for Last. This is a common mistake – people want to end with a punch. But as I just pointed out, the “aha!” moment really belongs at the beginning. The catchphrase, elevator pitch, 30 second story on what you do and why I should care belongs at the beginning, but too often people leave this until the end when most people have stopped paying attention.
- But Don’t End Weakly. No surprise, the ending still has to be strong. But the point of the ending isn’t to explain what you do, because if you’re using the ending for that you’ve lost. The end of your presentation is there to hammer home your key messages (of which I would recommend only having 1-3) — the things you absolutely want people to remember when they leave and talk about you (and your presentation) for days thereafter. The ending doesn’t have to be flashy, it has to be concise, convincing and concrete.
Pitching is hard, whether it’s on stage, in a boardroom, on a conference call or anywhere else for that matter. Most of us are not natural born salespeople. It takes work and practice. But without a doubt you can improve at it; even if you’re shy or introverted. Good luck!