What's in a Pitch?

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I've been taking a closer look at the characteristics of shorter talks recently, especially pitches; i.e. the (supposedly) short and to-the-point presentations that startups use to promote their ideas.

Disclaimer: The following are observations from a rather small sample of pitching events that I attended, so take them with a grain of salt.

Initial Disappointment

After seeing some of the local startups pitch at events, I was actually a bit disappointed by the quality of those pitches from a presentation point of view: Boring or overloaded slides seemed to rule. Abbreviations and technical terms were thrown around liberally but never explained. Several of the presenters were visibly very nervous (which is understandable, of course). The most puzzling observation, however, was that quite a few of the candidates weren't able to explain what they do in a short and memorable way.

There are two aspects, though, that made all the difference and helped the respective startups to win over the jury and/or the audience: Showing their passion and showing that they did their homework.

Show your Passion

Showing your passion sounds cliché, but a surprising amount of the presenters that I've seen seemed to lack it - at least while they were on stage. Instead, they concentrated on facts and how their business model works. Those are all important things, of course, but they can easily lead to a dry presentation. Showing that this is really what you love doing right now will help your case. You'll usually win over the audience with a combination of having a good idea and showing your passion for it.

Do your Homework

The jury at such events will acknowledge your passion but they will also have some hard questions for you. You know you're in trouble when the first question is for you to explain again what it is that you do or how the business model is supposed to work (as has happened at the events that I attended). Usually, however, the jury will try to find the flaws in your thinking or your business plan - and that's where it pays off to do your homework. If you have answers to these questions, then any possible flaws in your actual presentation are easily forgiven.

Audience

I couldn't help noticing that these pitching events, where the startups pitch their ideas mainly to win some sort of competition, are a bit schizophrenic. You have to win over the jury - but there's also an audience in the room. That audience is usually not entirely unfamiliar with the startup scene, but they can feel left out if you're only giving a presentation aimed at the jury. Some events also let the audience vote, either with the jury or for a separate "audience choice" award. That's better for integration but makes the job of the presenter harder.

And then there's the puzzling fact that one demographic is suspiciously absent from all of these events: The actual target group for the product, i.e. the customers.

No Conclusion (yet)

As mentioned above, I'm relatively new to this scene, so I don't have any good recommendations just yet. I mainly wanted to write down my initial impressions while they're still fresh.

The quality of the presentations that I've seen so far was rather mixed. In fact, there were very few presentations that I would consider good examples. So there's a lot of room for improvement. The reality of startups is of course that they have to concentrate on figuring out how to make their business work. That often leaves very little room for presentation training.

I'd argue that preparing a presentation about your business can help defining it. After all, if you can't summarise what it is that you do in a short and memorable way, chances are that you haven't really thought it through. So maybe presentation training should be an integral part of the training programs for startups.

(to be continued)

(Photos by yours truly, taken at two local pitching events.)

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