The Power of the Pitch

Yesterday, I spent a few hours watching the majority of the 500 Startups pitches during their demo day at Microsoft.  The pitches were all incredible and I think many of these companies are going to be really successful.  Over the summer, I’ve attended quite a few pitch events and have seen some great pitches and some not-so-great pitches.  Here, in no particular order, are the important points that have stuck out to me for creating and delivering a solid pitch.

Personalize: Almost every pitch I’ve seen has clearly addressed a significant problem.  However, often times, these problems are pretty complex and are hard to explain well with a one sentence tag line.  During some of the best pitches I’ve seen recently, all of the presenters talked about the moment in their life when they conceived their idea.  Every time they do this, the product becomes instantly clear because it’s put into a context that I can understand.  For example, instead of pitching my company, FlightPin, as a social-travel-recommendation-deal-finder, I tell people that, when I left for Duke, the vast majority of my friends stayed at colleges close to home, on the west coast.  I always want to visit them, but airline tickets are expensive and finding the best deals takes time.  With FlightPin, I can just enter who I want to visit and what I want to spend, and I’ll be alerted as soon as a ticket matching my parameters is available.  Most people have a much easier time understanding what a company’s value add is when a real world example is used instead of a buzzword mashup.  Additionally, telling the audience how you came up with this idea connects you with them a bit more and turns your pitch into more of a story.  Of all the content you’ve listened to, do you have an easier time remembering pitches or stories?  If you’re like me, the answer is stories (or great pitches that were delivered as stories).

Designer Deck:  Alex Kvamme, of SeatMe, made a great point when he spoke to our group a few weeks ago.  Have your designer make your deck.  If you don’t have a designer (I currently don’t) then make sure you put a significant amount of time into the aesthetics of your deck and get feedback before you pitch on both content and design.  This point seems really obvious, but many of the pitches I saw, before the 500 event yesterday, had ugly or boring decks.  All of the 500 companies had great looking decks that inspired me, as a viewer, to actually read the information that they were presenting.  If you think about it, we spend a ton of time (hours upon hours for me) designing the front end of a website so that users will take the extra second to click a button or read a description.  Why wouldn’t you put similar time into making your deck a pleasurable viewing experience for your audience?  General rule of thumb for decks after viewing a lot of these pitches over the past few weeks: keep it simple.  Say what matters, don’t crowd the slide.

Memorize Content, NOT a Script: Every audience is different.  Each audience you pitch to will have different reactions.  A single audience can have different reactions depending on when your pitch is lined up in the event.  Because of this, memorizing a script is not a great approach for captivating an audience.  If your pitching and the crowd has been dead the entire event, it’s probably not the right time to try every one liner you’ve thought up over the past week.  On the other hand, if you have a lively crowd and you seem scripted, you’re going to come off a bit flat. Bottom line, know your audience and tailor your delivery to them.

Delivery: Stemming from the last point, your delivery is key.  Record yourself pitching multiple times and watch the footage.  You might be shocked with the amount you fidget or the pace of your speech.  The audience will notice these things, so make sure you do too!

Always Be Closing: Ryan Spoon has a great blog post about what it takes to bootstrap a startup.  In that post, he mentions Alec Baldwin’s famous “Always Be Closing” speech.  This concept is really important with a pitch.  You want the audience to remember you and finishing flat is not the way to do that.  Tell the audience what you want (why you’re pitching) and leave them with something to remember you by.  This can be a joke, an incredible stat from your company, or really anything. As long as your last words lock your company’s name and what you want into the audience’s memory,  you’ll be in good shape.

In reality, even a terrible product can be pitched incredibly well.  Inversely, great products are often pitched terribly and may not get the publicity, funding, or recognition they deserve.  The pitch is something that can be tweaked and mastered, however, so there is never a reason to bomb.  If you need some inspiration check out the demo day videos from some of the major incubators online.  The vast majority of these videos are great pitches for great products and a lot of insights on delivery, design, and content can be taken from them.  Best of luck with your next pitch and don’t forget, coffee is for closers.



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