How to Win a Startup Pitch Competition

Win or lose, startup pitch competitions represent a great opportunity for your business to generate buzz, connect with potential mentors and advisors, and even begin the process of securing investors. Pitch competitions can also help you to sharpen and hone your mission, strategy and other key components of your business model. Entrepreneurs would be well advised to approach pitch competitions with these “fringe benefits” in mind.

That said, winning a pitch competition could provide you and your team with a sense of instant validation. Competition is a defining feature of the startup landscape, and you’ll need to exploit whatever advantages you can in order for your business to thrive. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to enter the fray.

Play the game the right way.

What is the format of the competition? How much time will you be allotted? Is your presentation reliant on a single spokesperson, or can it be more free flowing and allow for the articulation of multiple points-of-view? How will the Q&A be handled? On what criteria will the judges be scoring your presentation?

First, make sure you address the main points that are listed on the judges’ scorecard so you can check the boxes on that sheet and then cover the other important areas you want to communicate to the judges. For example, if the judges are grading you on information about your “team” and you don’t talk about your team at all during a pitch, how can they give you anything but a low score? Do you shoot yourself in the foot by not playing the game by their rules?

Make your preparations specific to the competition at hand. Don’t deviate from what’s expected of competitors. Certainly don’t attempt to wrest control of the process from the moderator or judges, or try to slip in content that hasn’t been requested. What’s true of successful test-taking applies: Follow directions, show your work where applicable and don’t try to bend (or break) the rules.

Think outside the PowerPoint box.

We all know brevity is essential to any pitch. PowerPoint is one of those tools that can truly enhance a presentation. Expert users know how to leverage PowerPoint to effectively convey information that doesn’t transmit (or stick) well orally. But how many times have you sat through a presentation in which the speaker simply repeats the information on their PowerPoint slides? Is this really an efficient, or particularly exciting, use of anyone’s time?

Less is more. If your audience is too busy reading the 17 lines of copy on each slide, you’ll distract them from actually listening to the key part of your presentation (that would be you!). If there must be a graphic component to your pitch, be creative with that aspect of the presentation. Remember that PowerPoint slides are visual and, as such, can make an emotional appeal. What if your PowerPoint dispensed with charts, figures and language altogether and instead used simple graphic elements to suggest, illustrate, persuade and inspire? Can you really make an effective argument about how innovative you are if you are trotting out the same kind of presentation these judges have seen time and again.

Consider “the TED talk” model here, and think about the ways in which all five senses, not just the visual, present opportunities to make an impression.

When it comes to defense, don’t be defensive.

In the course of your presentation, you may feel yourself being grilled by the judges. You may even receive some negative feedback. Don’t get rattled, don’t try and dodge the difficult questions and don’t push back (or push back only very gently, focusing on the facts and not your impressions of what you may have just heard). Yes, you want to show you believe in your idea and that you’re committed to it in the face of naysaying. But you also don’t want to portray yourself as inflexible, disingenuous, argumentative or petulant.

Use the Q&A time you have with the judges in a creative way. Yes, answer the questions they ask but make sure you also use that time to communicate information you didn’t get to fully cover in your presentation. Use the standard public relations mentality of ATM: Answer, Transition, Message. Answer the question they ask, transition back to something you want to talk about and then stick the message of your presentation. For example, if a judge asks you whether your technology is scalable, you answer “yes” or “we think so” followed by specifics: “but what we think is an important component of what we’ve seen is having already signed up 100,000 users, and with these three strategic partnerships will add another 500,000, allowing us to prove and showcase the scalability of our product.”

Side tip: Remember the last slide of your presentation is likely going to be up on the screen during the entire Q&A time. Put information on the final slide you believe to be most vital to communicating your company’s offering. If you have the CEOs of Netflix and Apple on your board, leave your team slide as the last slide. If you’re generating substantial revenue and cash flow, show your traction. Too often, we simply put “thank you” or our contact information on the last slide. Don’t squander that space! You need to control the pitch process and make sure you play by the rules, but also give yourself the ability to accomplish your goal of communicating your company to the judges

Accept any criticism offered, even if it isn’t constructive. Besides, it could be that the judges are simply testing your resolve and ability to remain focused. Go with their flow, as it were, while not allowing yourself to become distracted.

Remember that pitching is a performance. In your preparations, rehearse with your team and do some exercises to hone your improvisational skills. Put yourself in the position of a potential judge or have another team member take on that role and grill you on those questions you least anticipate being asked during your presentation’s offensive. Imagine the worst-case scenario for your pitch and see whether, in rehearsal, you can’t overcome or work around it.

Emphasize the “who.”

Of course, the “what” of your business is crucial. You want to make sure anyone walking away from your presentation does so with a firm sense of what your business actually does: the problem you’ll be solving, the essential service you’ll be offering, the unique benefit your customers will enjoy. But remember that you don’t have a monopoly on these aspects of your business model. Assume there are multiple startups out there aiming for exactly the same markets. What differentiates your company from these competitors?

Think of your company’s self in broad terms. “You” are a part of a larger group of mentors, advisors, co-founders and board of directors. The talent you’ve assembled and the “big names” you may have lined up as consultants and angel investors are all an essential part of the “who” of your organization. You can often create more interest, excitement and intrigue around your company if you highlight your team, your mentors, your strategic partners or investors. “You” are here to tell the story of your business. “You” need to communicate the passions that drive your team, the accomplishments to which you can already point, your willingness to be objective and be honest about your strengths and weaknesses and your ability to best represent yourself.

Being personable and charming is never a bad thing. However, these competitions are not popularity contests. Judges are gauging your competence as well as your credibility, and your confidence — how comfortable you are in your professional skin — is an index of that competence.

Give them something to remember you by.

Put yourself in the position of a competition judge for a moment. You’ve just sat through nearly 100 rapid-fire pitches. No matter how extensive your notes, you’re simply not going to remember every single critical detail about what you’ve just seen and heard. Your job as a presenter is to end your presentation with what long-practiced pitchers call a “memory cue.” Is there an anecdote, a joke, a gesture, even a catchphrase that can be the one thing the judges remember about your presentation?

These things may seem inconsequential, but memory does work by association. The simple fact that you relied upon a pithy metaphor to describe how your business will transform the industry could be the difference between your pitch fading into the background and the judges remembering your business’ future potential at all. And don’t be afraid to be literal here. Conclude your presentation with a call to action in which you tell — or better, show — your audience precisely what you want them to remember.

These five ways to tailor your business pitch for the competitive circuit are a proven model that I’ve seen many great entrepreneurs use in the course of my career. In the end, it’s important to learn from your mistakes and learn from those who have gone before you to make sure you put your best foot forward, regardless of your pitch’s audience.

For more information on how to put together knockout pitches, please visit our events page for information on programs, classes and events where you can get direct feedback on how to improve your pitch.

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