Entrepreneur

This is why your startup needs to ditch the pitch

More and more, I have entrepreneurs coming to me before a major competition, pitch event, or conference saying, “We only have _____ (fill in the blank with any single-digit number) minutes to present. How do we get it all in?”

I also coach hundreds of accelerator demo days, and with each event they seem to have more presenters and less time.

But here’s the thing: Even though that window of opportunity to pitch seems so brief, when you’re onstage and talking, five minutes is a really long time. If you can’t tell your story in that much time or less, your audience will start tuning out, checking their email, and texting before you can say, “We’re gonna change the world and we’re raising a seed round.”

But how do you say the most important things in the time allotted? How do you make sure they “get it” without force-feeding them? How do you leave a lasting impression and, more importantly, get follow up meetings?

First, you have to let go. You have to ditch the pitch and be willing to tell a real story about yourself and your startup. Here are eight guidelines to get you started and explain why ditching that pitch is your only hope.

Know before you go

Do your homework. Who will be there? It’s hard to cater to a mixed room, but the more you know about your audience and the panel, the better.

Is it primarily investors? Industry leaders? Are you aiming for investments? Intros? Potential collaborators? The more you focus on your goal, the more finely tuned your message will be.

Be a great date

I always tell my clients that an initial investor meeting is like a first date. And much like a first date, if you start talking about your entire dating history and your philosophy on child rearing, you probably won’t make it to a second date.

This is more like speed dating, that ungodly event where you have ten mini-dates in one evening and walk away thinking that a convent is not looking so bad. Make it fun and interesting. Your goal is to get a second date, not to try to fill your time slot with inane chatter.

And a good date doesn’t talk too much about themselves, so unless you or your team have significant achievements, just say enough to establish your credibility and leave the CVs at home.

Up close and personal

Though you might be working with a big room, you want everyone in it to feel like they’re having an intimate conversation with you. Start off presenting the problem you are solving with a story, either your own personal story that led you to the “aha” moment of founding your company or the story of someone close to you that inspired this crazy journey.

Bottom line: You want people feeling the pain, nodding in agreement, and even a few “amen, hallelujas.” The more the audience understands the problem, the more enraptured they become.

No technobabble

Once you’ve got the audience relating to your story, move into explaining your fabulous solution, but speak in a language that everyone sitting in the room will understand.

Don’t assume that everyone is familiar with your field. Even if your solution seems ever so simple and clear to you, if you lose your audience to jargon and complexities, you will hear a lot of chair-shifting and see a lot of heads bobbing down to their mobiles — and not to take notes! Simple is smart!

Show, don’t tell

The sooner you let them see the product, the faster they will understand it and want to get it for themselves.

Whether it’s a short film (no more than a minute, and 30 seconds is even better), a few screen shots, or some wacky demo (and I’ve seen some doozies; one company with an app to measure air pressure in tires brought a mini Jeep in to test it on! Believe me, nobody forgot them!), find a way to show people what you’re doing rather than just telling them about it.

You can talk about it till the cows come home and not achieve the effect that a cool one-minute demo can have.

Not business as usual

When presenting the business side of your venture, please save the spreadsheets for due diligence. For now, there are just three main things to focus on:

  • Differentiation What sets you apart? Please don’t take this time to bash the competition! Instead, try showing it visually with a tool like Gartner’s Magic Quadrant.
  • Monetization In short, how ya gonna make money, and how ya gonna get those clients?
  • Opportunization Yes I made that word up. But show how you have a huge market and stellar timing for this.

After that smattering of business teasers, if they want to know more, there’s always Q&A, networking — and of course, the elusive second date!

Dial up the charm

This is not the time for wallflowering. If you aren’t excited about your story, why should they be?

Bump up your enthusiasm at least 25 percent. What you can do is rehearse, either in front of colleagues or a video camera, and go completely over the top. Watch the Home Shopping Network for good examples.

You may feel like a cheesy car salesman, but what seems like showboating to you will read to your audience as charm and personality. Most likely, you will get feedback that you are a lot more engaging and fun than usual. And that will win you points.

Look as good as you sound

This isn’t about your own personal appearance as much as it is about your slide deck. It pains me to no end when I see a company with an amazing-looking product and cruddy-looking slides.

Your slides are your calling card. It is the audience’s first peek in to your world, and there’s no second chance for a first impression.

Make them mostly visual. Overloading on words steals the focus from you. Invest in someone to do the graphics; you can always use someone from Elance or 99designs if you are strapped for cash. Better yet, if you have a UI/UX expert working on your product, give them the slides, pay them for an extra hour, and have them work their magic.


And once you’ve ditched your pitch and transformed it into a kick-butt story, practice it until you know it so well you could recite it in your sleep, but keep it fresh and fun. And get up there and give the show of a lifetime!

RELATED: Need to pitch to investors? Here are five tips to get you started.

Donna Abraham has worked globally for nearly a decade with Fortune 500 companies and startups in the consumer Internet, software, bio-medical, and semiconductor sectors. She has consulted and trained clients on behalf of Boyer Communications Group in more than 30 countries, helping them create, edit, and deliver verbal and written presentations, pitches, and messages.


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