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17 simple pieces of advice for anyone going into a pitching competition

Persollo pitching their startup at Sydstart. Photo: Sarah Kimmorley.

Last week I attended Sydstart, a national conference for entrepreneurs and startups run by Freelancer. Part of the two-day event is a pitching competition where concepts and startup ideas are thrown out to the public and, more importantly, to judges, to win the chance to gain valuable mentorship and potential funding. It’s also a great chance to gain exposure.

I had never watched a live pitching competition and all I knew about what made a good pitch was what I have learned from watching TV shows like Shark Tank, and the basic marketing subjects I took at university.

The event itself was not what I had expected. People were churned through the process, an applause by the judges was given when three minutes was reached – regardless of whether the pitch was finished. But what I was most surprised about was the number of simple mistakes by people pitching their product or idea.

Now, I’m not an expert but there are obvious principles: connect with judges, and make sure everyone knows why you’re there and what you want. Errors on these areas could have been attributed to nerves, or the short amount of time allocated, but nevertheless even I – a first-time audience member and novice in the art of pitching perfect – noticed, and cringed over.

So the next time you are pitching your product, or telling a potential investor about your business idea, here are some tips to get the basics right.

1. Spruce up

While you’re not expected to wear a suit — it’s a tech startup event after all — it’s not your average day either. So spruce up and look like you’ve made an effort to be there. Find the sweet spot between smart and casual, and maybe think about wearing something a little colourful. Tip: you want people to remember you.

2. Eye contact is everything

It can be hard to make eye contact when you’re nervous or in front of a large crowd, but it is an important part of non-verbal communication that engages people. Making eye contact with the judges is especially crucial if you want them to not only be drawn in to what you are saying, but buy into it as well.

3. Know your presentation but be natural

There is nothing better than feeling prepared and knowing a presentation off by heart. But there is a difference between that and being over rehearsed. Be comfortable enough to know what it is that you are talking about well enough that you can give a professional presentation in a natural manner.

4. Less is more

A common mistake by people on stage was having too much on a slide so that it was hard to read through all the information, and listen to what they were saying at the same time. Tip: if you chose to use a graph, keep it simple. Don’t fill it with text and make the font a good size and easy to read for those who may be sitting a few rows back (it’s where a potential investor could be sitting).

Also, something to think about is one presenter in particular didn’t even use slides until half way through his talk. This kept the attention on him and what he was saying only. He brought the slides in a back up later on.

5. Please don’t be cliche

When I heard to words like “disruption”, “Uber” or “traction” I immediately cringed. Everyone uses them, and it just puts your idea in the same basket as theirs. Focus on words that are unique to your business and concept.

6. Don’t get distracted

You only get one chance at this. If someone’s phone goes off, or you get the one-minute warning don’t let it steal your attention from their pitch. Often this would happen and the presenter would get flustered or lose their train of thought. Stay on target and finish with a bang.

7. Watch for the judges’ reactions

Not only is this an indication of how your pitch is being received but it’s also an opportunity to interact. Take cues from the judges. Whether it be a laugh or a smile, use it to your advantage to either continue of that line of talking or direct what you’re staying them them with a nod and smile back.

8. Take a moment

Whether it’s a single breath, or a quick pause, take a moment to gather your thoughts and compose yourself to get yourself in the right frame of mind before starting your pitch. Not only does that small moment zone the audience’s attention onto you but in the rushed proceedings it will also get you own the moment.

9. Don’t turn your back on the audience – use the monitor

If there is a smaller screen on the floor in front of you displaying your presentation, as there was at Sydstart, it’s there for a reason – use it! Not only is it distracting to have the presenter turning around and look behind at the larger screen each time but it also breaks the judge’s attention on what is being said.

10. Introduce yourself and your brand name

It may seem like the most basic of advice, but on two separate occasions people forgot to do this. The first time I was left wondering who was just speaking to me and what their relationship to the brand was. And the second involved the judge even asking the pitcher what the name of their product was as they left the stage.


11. Control your breath

If find you’re having to take a bigger breath between sentences than you normally would, you are talking too fast! Not only doesn’t shortness of breath sound bad in a presentation but it also can mean that you may be speaking too fast for your audience to take in what you are saying. Slloooowww dooowwwnn.

12. Have tactics for battling nerves

It is a common reaction to shake or get a quiver in your voice when you are nervous. And while it can be hard to shake no matter how prepared you are, there are ways to make these reactions less obvious to those watching. For instance if you are a woman and you get shaky legs, don’t wear heels. Having your feet firmly planted means you will be less likely to get shaky knees. Whereas if you get a quiver in you voice, talk slower and take deeper breaths. This will also help to reduce your heart rate.

13. Adjust the microphone stand according to your height

While the process is rushed and you only have three minutes, take the time to adjust the microphone stand. The awkward hunch over the mic not only looks uncomfortable it is visually distracting and takes focus away from what you’re saying. Tip: If don’t have time, simply take the mic out of the stand and hold it. Problem solved.

And always use the mic if one is provided. Yelling at the judges won’t win you any points.

14. Don’t pace

Sometimes this how people handle their nerves but it is very distracting during a pitch. If you’re talking, pacing, and pointing to a slide deck all at the same time you’re splitting the audiences attention three ways. Stand tall and proud – and in one spot.

15. Be enthusiastic

When you take the stage, you have three minutes to captivate everyone in the room. Make the most of it. One of the most annoying things I found about some of the pitches was that those pitching their idea didn’t sound excited. There were no inflections in their voice, it was monotonous and seemed the drag on. If you’re passionate about your concept let it shine through your voice. It will get people’s attention and engage their interest.

16. Get the important information out first

Some people pitching their product would spend so much time painting a picture of what they wanted their brand to be and why it is important that they would run out of time at the end and the judges, and the audience, would be left wondering what it is that they wanted. Tip: don’t leave “the ask” for what you need until it’s too late.

17. Don’t walk onto the stage before the other person has exited

Now, you may be eager to get out their and let the world hear about your fantastic idea, but remember to be respectful and courteous of the others participating in the event. Give them their time to shine too.

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