How to Nail your Start-Up Pitch

Most start-up competitions revolve around a 3-4 minute pitch. So much so, that the Web Summit event this year has 2 start-up pitch competitions (the ‘Spark of Genius’ and ‘Pitch’).
Therefore, with the Web Summit just around the corner, I wanted to share how I use a script led approach to prepare for big pitches.
Note: I’ve also included the script I used for the 2010 Web Summit ‘Spark of Genius’ competition as a real world example here

1. Throw out your Deck

 DO NOT START by opening PowerPoint. You probably already have a 10-15 investment slide deck that you have been using for investor meetings. You need to start from scratch when it comes to preparing a short, snappy and entertaining pitch that is designed to win over judges (and potentially the audience) in 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Have a Meeting with Yourself

Go grab a coffee, go for a run, or take a drive.
Do what ever it takes to get away from all distractions and think about what you would want to say. How do you want the audience to react? What is the one or two things you want to make sure the judges understand about your business? How should the audience feel after your pitch?
Be adventurous and let any and all ideas play themselves out in your head. Keep playing with ideas and brainstorming until you feel the gist of your pitch coming together. Sometimes this might take me a few days to get right.

3. Mash Keyboard

Write your pitch. Don’t use bullet points, write it out using the exact language you think you would use in front of the judges. Do not worry about any slides, images, demos or anything else for now. You will add these later once you have the script nailed.
It is very important to to ignore images / media / slides at this point.
Your narrative is the foundation of your whole pitch. Too often I see people trying to write a pitch around the amazing video or technical diagram they created for a previous presentation. These existing assets may not suit the format of the start-up competition pitch. Do not fall into the trap of using existing materials as a ‘crutch’.

4. Find a Stage.

Print out your first draft and find a ‘stage’. A stage is anywhere where you can walk around like a crazy person talking to yourself out loud.
I like to find a hidden room somewhere in my office or house where I know I won’t be disturbed. I will typically start by pitching out loud and recording my talk on my phone. Listening to yourself pitch is a great way to put yourself in the audience shoes.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4

…Until you are happy that you have nailed your script, hit all your key points and stayed within your time limits.

6. Build your Props

Now you can open PowerPoint / Keynote / Prezi or what ever other tool you want to use to provide supporting props for your script. Only add media, images, diagrams, demo’s etc.. that work with your script. I’m not going to write about how to create a good slide deck but some simple rules of thumb; slides should only be added if they ‘add’ to your narrative, make sure no one has to read anything on your slides, try and have only one point per slide, keep all text really big (32pt min).
Remember that the best pitches do not have any slides or props. Martin Luther King did not use slides when he said ‘I have a dream’. Obama never had to ‘go back a slide’ during his presidential campaign.

7. Scene Setting

This is where we add in some self-visualisation and NLP tricks to prepare mentally for the pitch. You are going to be very nervous on the day so anything you can do to calm your nerves and trick your subconscious are worth giving a try. These are the same visualisation techniques top athletes use to picture success and prepare for a big game;
  • Try to describe scene in detail. What will the noises, activities and energy that will be in the room when you are about to present. It will probably be loud, hectic and slightly disorganised on the day of the start-up competition so expect this.
  • Try to describe who will be in the audience? Where will you be? Will you be sitting or walking? Will you have a mike that allows your to roam the stage?
  • Add some fun. Who would be the actors that would play you and the other characters involved? This will help you de-personalize the event and ‘watch’ how the event would play out from an audience point of view. Go to your ‘happy place’.
  • A very handy technique from NLP  is to try and ‘anchor yourself’ just before you go on stage. This means focusing on a place/emotion where you were fully relaxed and calm in order to help settle your nerves and slow down your breathing. My ‘anchor’ is a beach on Nantucket from my student days.

8. Dress Rehearsal

This is the final and most enjoyable part of the pitch preparation. This is where you bring it all together and add an element of ‘performance’ to your script.
This means adding EMPHASIS at key points using your voice or tone.
This means adding … long… pauses …. where you want something key to sink in.
This means timing when to click the transition button on your slide deck so that it matches up perfectly with what you are saying and you don’t break momentum.
This means putting the emotion of your story into your pitch and bringing your script alive.
This is where you make it ‘look easy’ and hide all signs that you prepared for this pitch.
You are ready when your language, narrative and slides flow seamlessly every time you practice (and within the alloted time).

9. Go Live

As the day of your pitch arrives, and stress levels rise, you will probably lose the ability to read your script.
In case my mind blanks, I create 3-5 high level ‘Chapter Headings’ (cue cards) that allow me to easily remember the flow of the script / narrative. Under each ‘chapter’ I might add 2-3 bullet points to help recall what I’ve prepared under each heading.

Some Final Advice

Preparation is the best way to protect against ‘Murphy’s Law’ (no relation).
Back in 2010, like any live event, there were a few last minute problems with microphones and seating that I think unnerved several of the other finalists. As I had gone through this process, I was pretty un-fazed, and did not miss a beat when it came to making my pitch. You should always presume ‘Murphy’s Law’ will turn up on the day. This means that you are less at the mercy of your props failing (i.e. PowerPoint/Demo fail) or the environment throwing you a ‘curveball’ (i.e. wifi not working, schedule running late, poor acoustics, etc…)

Happy Pitching and Good Luck! 

Let me know if you think this is helpful or have any other advice or tips on to a nail your pitch for start-up competitions. You can reach me via @ConnorPM


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s