Top 10 Tips To Wow An Audience When You Pitch Your Startup

Our co-founder Mike presenting at Finovate

If the Spring is known as wedding season, Fall should be called pitching season. All summer, companies around the world are busy working on the newest product innovation, business development, and fundraising, that they will launch in September or October. Many times, these launches happen at a large industry conference or press events. It’s not very often that you can get so many people gathered in the same room, so it’s vital that you nail your message.

We have presented or exhibited at lot of conferences, talked to a lot of entrepreneurs, picked up a bunch of swag, seen a ton of pitches, given hundreds of elevator pitches. We often get complimented on our pitches, our booth, our events, and I am asked for advice from other entrepreneurs. Coming fresh from our Finovate Best in Show win, I thought I would share some tidbits. Our experience relates to startups and business, however, the advice I am about to give you can be used in any setting, whether it’s business, your personal life, or any creative field.

  1. Tell a story

Compelling storytelling is a true art form but you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg to get the audience on the edge of their seats. Telling a story is effective because while most people may not remember what your company does from a tagline or logo, they will probably remember the story behind why you started the company or the problem you are solving. Interesting stories stick in people’s heads. They are memorable. What is more memorable:

  • “We are a taxi sharing app in France”
  • One night I got stuck at 2am in Paris after a night of partying and couldn’t find a taxi anywhere nearby to take me home. So I had to walk 2 miles through dark alleys and abandoned warehouses to the nearest intersection where I hailed a cab. It was the scariest night of my life. I immediately went home, and said how come Paris doesn’t have a tax hailing app like Uber? Welcome to ParisCabby…

2. Stick to one simple message

In a 10–20 minute presentation or 10 slide deck most humans will probably only take away one thing. This is even more true if you have to sit through dozens of presentations or you look at hundreds of decks. After the presentation most people will probably only write one sentence or word to sum up the demo. This is why I recommend sticking to one message and hammering it home with every point you make. I watch a lot of presentations where inexperienced entrepreneurs get so wrapped up in all the cool stuff they have built, they think they have to tell the audience about every feature or page. It then becomes so convoluted no one even knows what you do. Let me ask you one question, would you rather be remembered for ONE THING, or be remembered for NOTHING?

3. Tailor your pitch to the audience

I recommend keeping one generic pitch deck and one demo that you can make minor tweaks to when needed. Nothing is more annoying than watching a presentation that looks like you made 3 years ago and haven’t spent 30 minutes to update. Although it may seem like common sense, if you want to get the attention of your audience make sure you tailor your presentation to them. If I am a consumer at a consumer tech conference and I don’t think I can use something I am not going to are about the words coming out of your mouth. Conversely, if it’s an enterprise conference and I am a CIO of a Fortune 500 firm, if you don’t explicitly tell me how I can use this product within my organization then I won’t listen.

You can’t assume that the audience is going to know the use case for your product or be able to read between the lines. So explicitly tell them. My product is for you. Here is how you use it. Here is how much money it’s going to make/save you. There are also little things you can do like utilizing the logo of the conference, localizing your pitch (i.e. use the Cubs in your example if you are in Chicago or the Red Sox in Boston), or mentioning that your CTO is from the same town or you are a local favorite headquartered there.

4. Drop some names

Nothing gets an audience’s attention quicker than saying you are backed by the first investors in Facebook, your CEO sold his company to Google, your board is comprised of ex Microsoft execs, your engineering team has computer science degrees from Stanford, and you were on a top 10 list from Forbes. Companies that are able to do this should exploit the hell out of it. I would recommend not going overboard though. I listened to one pitch from a company that had so many brand name people backing it and they mentioned it so many times, that it seemed like this was the USP (ultimate selling proposition) of the product. It was obnoxious and the one thing I took away from it was “well our product sucks or we don’t even know how to build it, but we are well connected and going to rely on throwing around names”. I recommend mentioning it briefly just to catch people’s attention up front, but then moving on to the meat. Use it as a hook, not the substance.

If you don’t have the privilege to name drop think of some other way to show people are rallying behind your company. Really what name dropping accomplishes is showing validation. If all these well known people are getting behind you, surely you must be doing something great. Other ways to accomplish this are through social proof. Maybe you have great customer testimonials, so tell them to the audience. Maybe you have a lot of downloads of your app and didn’t spend any money on acquiring them. Whatever it is, make sure it impresses people from the get go.

5. Don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd

There is a picture hanging in our WeWork that says “Stop tweeting boring sh*t”. I would hang one up next to it that says “Stop pitching boring sh*t”. Fintech isn’t the most exciting field. Conferences are filled with suits from banks and often entrepreneurs make the mistake of trying to fit in with them. When we first started we did the same thing. But we learned a dirty little secret along the way. Don’t you think if these people wanted to do business with another boring guy in a suit they would be going to some 100 yr old firm in Midtown, and not going up a freight elevator to your loft in Flatiron to talk to 3 guys with tats and beards? Financial services firms desperately need to attract younger customers but they don’t know how. That’s the point of having a cool tech startup. We attract younger people who the banks repel. A lot of times big companies only do deals with startups or even acquire them, just to find out what is driving younger adoption.

In a world of 7 billion people it’s only human nature to try and blend into the crowd. No one likes being looked at as being an outcast or different. But in a conference you are often exhibiting or presenting with dozens and sometimes hundreds of others startups. Startups are competitive and entrepreneurs hate to lose. Like any other competitive field, you need to so something to set yourself apart. It’s like utilizing the peacock theory, and being that guy with the pink shirt in a singles bar filled with 50 other PE guys in blue shirts.

At Hedgeable, we have a 6 foot tall hedgehog suit we bring to events that people can get into and take pictures in. We give out hedgehog stuffed animal toys with our logo on them. They are far less expensive than most swag but extremely effective. Why? Because it’s DIFFERENT. In conferences filled with uncreative swag like pens and bottle openers, people pick up the hedgehog, walk around with it, tell their colleagues about it, and by the end, everyone heads straight over to our booth to pick one up, like a venus fly trap. All of our employees have Japanese titles and Japanese characters illustrated on their business cards. We wear funky t-shirts and jeans. Our brochures are always very bright and colorful.

I understand that being really funky isn’t always going to work for your startup. If you are selling some compliance software for Dodd-Frank regulation you probably can’t get too crazy or people will think you are trying too hard to be cool. Whatever you do it will need to gel with your company culture. We are a B2C company and have a wacky culture so it works for us. However, it still doesn’t mean that you should be boring. Think of something fun and creative that people will remember. Potential clients won’t mind if you have a sense of humor.

6. Don’t overly rely on gimmicks

I think it’s a good idea to use a small prop when presenting. Our buddy Hardeep from Motif used a light bulb one time to signify turning an idea into an investment through their platform. At our last Finovate demo we used a $1 dollar bill, a shake shack wrapper, and a metro card to show all the things you couldn’t get access to with a dollar in NYC. I think little things like these work.

What doesn’t work is when you go overboard and try to be too gimmicky. If you aren’t a professional comedian don’t try to pull off a funny skit. Don’t bring out a large prop on stage. It seems too over the top, too desperate. If you have a great product I think this takes away from the quality of what you built and you lose the message. So if you are going to use a visual or a prop keep it simple.

7. Focus on design

I never understood why people spend $10k or $15k to exhibit at a conference but have a terrible looking display because they won’t spend $500 to hire a designer. Design is the most important aspect of a pitch. If you wanted to impress a girl on a first date would you show up your best fitting jeans, a stylish shirt, and italian leather shoes, or a sloppy hoody and sneaks? Design is everything. I recommend having a professional designer do your logo, powerpoint deck, website, business cards, brochures, swag, and pamphlets. I recommend keeping a style guide and color palette to be used for all aspects of your brand. This way, all of your marketing collateral will look uniform, even if different people work on various materials.

8. Bring the energy

Nothing kills a pitch quicker than a founder who is unenthusiastic. If you are not confident, nervous, or just plain don’t want to be there, it will show. You can hear it in your voice and see it in your body language. Startups are all about creative energy. You are supposed to be changing the world. It’s easy for an audience to get behind a founder who is really passionate about what they are doing. Ok, maybe just a notch down from this though:

9. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

Practice in front of your friends or if you have an office get in front of your colleagues. One trick that we do is take a video of our demo and then use that to get the actions and script synced up. Never pitch anything reading off cards. Don’t bring up an iPad for the demo but actually use it to read your whole speech (yes, I’ve seen this one before). I recommend memorizing the beginning and the end of a pitch or a speech, those are the most important parts. The middle most people won’t remember, so as long as you have bullet point talking points, you should be ok just highlighting them and talking through things naturally. Having an entire pitch memorized word for word I find unnatural and robotic. I’d much rather see someone who is confident look like they are engaging with the audience and having a conversation.

10. Build an awesome product

This last one seems obvious, but you can do a lot of work on 1–9 above, and if your product sucks, no one is probably going to care! So don’t spend all of your time on the style, and not the substance. Rarely do startups succeed without really great products, no matter how many magic tricks they try to pull.

Conclusion

If you listen to my advice above I guarantee that you will be well on your way to mesmerizing your audience. You don’t have to be a startup either. You could be presenting a new idea to your boss at a big corporation or making a presentation to your college class. Remember, first impressions count. If the first time they see you on stage or at your booth, you wow them, it will pay dividends in any subsequent interactions.

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