The memory of my first pitch still haunts my dreams from time to time. I can still remember the four and a half hour train ride from my (then) hometown Innsbruck to Vienna, which I spent preparing for that pitch competition, as if it was yesterday.
Even though I’d already been working on our startup for about two years at that time, I had absolutely no clue what I should talk about in my ‘three minutes of fame’. Countless pieces of paper and hundreds of different concepts later, I delivered what I still consider the worst pitch I’ve ever witnessed.
Somehow, I managed to present for a full ten minutes without being cut off by the moderator – yet I said basically nothing. And I wore a suit. At a startup pitching competition. A full suit!
Fast forward a couple years, and here I am being asked by the nice folks at Pioneers to write a blog post about pitching. How did it come to that?
I’ll make a long story short. Even though we had quite a good run with our startup back then, we eventually pivoted and I took over as Managing Partner of Startup Live, the leading acceleration program for ideation-phase startups in Europe.
I’ve spent the past three years hopping from one startup event to another. By hosting our famous Startup Live programs all over Europe I discovered my passion for public speaking, moderating and mentoring startups.
During this time, I’ve seen over a thousand pitches and perfected the ‘Art of Pitching’ along the way. Now I’d like to share the five most important lessons I’ve learned.
Pitch with purpose
You know those founders who take part in every single startup competition in your region? Every time the chance comes along, he or she grabs a microphone and pitches the same story you’ve heard a thousand times before. You keep asking yourself “why are they still doing this?”.
Unfortunately, many founders don’t have a clear purpose on why they’re pitching in the first place, so they just got out there and do it as often as they can. While this is not completely wrong, it’s kind of like going on a hunt with a minigun, blindly shooting as many bullets as you can, trying to hit anything.
Successful founders, by contrast, operate like sharpshooters. Before they go out on a stage, they always ask themselves the question “Why am I here today? What’s my goal? What do I want to achieve with this pitch?”
Maybe they’re fundraising, thus pitching for investment. Maybe they’re hiring, so they’re pitching to attract talent. Or perhaps they want to sell their product, in which case their pitch is more like a marketing one.
Don’t ever go on a stage just for the sake of pitching. Always think about the purpose of your pitch first and set yourself tangible goals for it.
Start with a BANG
You’ve probably heard this before, but during the first couple of seconds of your pitch the audience will decide, if they continue to listen to you or not. So the first words that come out of your mouth are crucial to the success of your whole pitch.
Still, a lot of founders decide to open with a classic “Hi, my name is Thomas Müller and I am here to present my idea today.” I don’t know about you, but opening lines like that don’t generally grab my attention at all.
If you really want to have people on the edges of their seats, start with something unusual. This could be anything from going on stage wearing a yellow hard-hat at an Industry 4.0 event to turning the lights off and playing ultrasound noises while pitching a gadget for pregnant women.
Another great way to get the attention of the audience early on is by letting them actively participate through asking questions. Just be sure to pick a question where you know you’ll get the answers you need…or have a backup plan.
I once saw a startup where the pitcher started with the question “How many of you have texted while driving a car?”. Only a few hands went up, so he immediately followed that up with “Come on, be honest guys!” Only when almost every hand went up, did he announce that this is exactly the problem his startup was solving.
Talk about relevant stuff
A couple of weeks ago Christoph Schnedlitz, founder of HiMoment, wrote a blogpost where he advised against following a strict pitching structure like problem-solution-market-team-traction- competition-financials.
Even though guidelines like this can greatly help first-time entrepreneurs and pitchers in some respects, I completely agree with him on this when it comes to pitching.
It goes back to step one: having a clear-cut goal for your pitch. Because your pitch can have different goals each and every time you give it, you should also adapt the content accordingly. Investors and VCs are more likely to be interested in the numbers and metrics of your business than different product features. On the other hand, you’d never present a detailed financial plan when your goal is to sell your product to potential customers.
In both cases, though, your job is not to explain every single detail about your business or product. Rather, it’s to raise enough interest to actually achieve the goal you’ve set for yourself.
It’s not about what you want to tell, but what others need to hear.
People want to hear stories
Everybody talks about storytelling and I could probably write a whole essay about it. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just leave you with this clip from one of the best storytellers I’ve ever seen.
If you want to learn anything about storytelling, just watch this video.
Throw out your hook
Imagine you deliver an amazing pitch which is 100% tailored to your audience and aligned with your goals. You could still ruin the whole thing by ending on a vague note like ‘thank you for your attention.’ Don’t assume the people you want something from will automatically know what to do. They won’t.
It’s your job to tell them what you want them to do directly to their face. While doing so, never give them options. If you do, they won’t take any of them.
A couple of years ago I gave pitches in front of 400 students, the ideal target group for our startup back then. I ended each pitch with something like, “If you like what you heard, sign up to our website or subscribe to our newsletter. You can also like us on Facebook or grab a leaflet on your way out. Or simply talk with me later.”
After every pitch we got a handful of new sign-ups to our website, which was obviously our main goal. Sarcastic yay! As soon as I changed it up and simply finished with, “If you want to earn more money during your studies, just sign up to our website here!”, we got about 60 new sign-ups.
So whenever you throw out your hook at the end of your pitch, make sure to be as precise as possible. Give them a benefit and never give them options.
If you want to learn more about the ‘Art of Pitching’ and take your startup to the next level, join one of our upcoming Startup Live programs.