Do you have a brilliant idea for a startup… but the fear of pitching it to an audience holding you back?
This used to be me. Today, I share with you the story of how I overcame my own fears and pitched my idea, and the five tips that will help you nail your pitch at Triangle Startup Weekend: Education.
Startup Weekend: Why I participated
In November 2013, I participated in Triangle Startup Weekend: UNC. At the time, I was looking for a chance to understand how a company is born and thought it would be a good chance to test the waters.
I’m not someone that others would call “shy,” but I’d never pitched an idea in front of an audience before. I’d arrived at the weekend with an idea—but couldn’t bring myself to pitch on Friday night. Instead, I became fascinated with an idea brought forward by Suja Thomas.
Suja’s idea, Mathamagix, sought to engage girls in mathematics through storytelling. We had an incredible team of five, built a great product, and I learned a lot about how a company is born. I fell in love with Startup Weekend.
(Photo: Team Mathamagix at Triangle Startup Weekend: UNC in November 2013. © Jen Riedel)
Five months later, I registered for Triangle Startup Weekend: Makers Edition. I was hooked, and determined to pitch an idea. Here’s how I did it.
Tip #1: Write it down
I had been mulling over an idea for a company for several weeks prior to the event—and I didn’t know if I would have the courage to pitch it.
The morning of the event, I sat at the bar of Cafe de los Muertos sipping on a coffee and scribbling down my pitch on a napkin. I then transferred my notes to my phone. I did all of this just in case the courage to share somehow manifested when I walked into the venue that night.
A few hours later, my feet walked into HQ Raleigh. I met a few folks, make a few great connections, and found a seat as pitches were starting. The line to pitch ideas grew to five, then ten, and then almost two dozen people.
I stopped being able to focus on the pitches on stage. My mind raced, and I began to argue with myself: should I pitch my idea, or not?
I won’t go deep into the process by which I settled on pitching… needless to say, it would have been fitting to have a flower full of petals to assist in making the decision.
So there I am, clutching my iPhone, wondering how I’d be able to fit the whole idea into just 60 seconds. And then I’m in line, and WHAM it’s my turn.
Have you ever had an out-of-body experience? That’s a bit like what I was experiencing. I watched myself take the microphone, look up and out at the crowd, down at my phone. Suddenly, magically, words start to flow out of my mouth.
It was probably the fastest 60 seconds of my life.
In the end, I’d overcome my fears merely by preparing what to say prior to walking on stage. For me, this step was essential. It helped me frame my idea and succinctly present it to the audience. Have an idea? Write it down—even an outline helps.
Tip #2: Tell a personal story
I finished the pitch, thanked the audience, and went to write down my idea on chart paper, and settled in to watch the rest of the participants pitch. A sense of pride and accomplishment accompanied my back to my seat—I’d conquered my fear, the pitch hadn’t flopped, and here I was, with an idea that people liked.
Or so I hoped. When pitches were complete, participants gather to discuss viable ideas. People kept coming up to me and telling me they liked my idea, and that they’d be interested in working on the project over the next 48 hours.
My team shared with me that one of the reasons they wanted to work on my idea was because of the brief story I told during my pitch. I’d shared a personal experience—and an idea on how to solve the challenges I’d faced.
We had a team! We worked incredibly hard to produce our Minimum Viable Product by Sunday afternoon when… I pitched again!
Tip #3: Practice, practice, practice, and then practice
It might seem that five minutes is not that much longer than one minute… but it is an eternity when you’re pitching to judges and an audience. It’s easy to get nervous, so the best thing that you can do is to go into the pitch with a solid plan: what are you communicating, why is your product important, and who is on the team behind the product.
Whether you’re a nervous wreck when speaking in public or not, practicing your pitch out loud will really help the delivery of your idea. I’ve practiced by talking to a wall, staring myself down in a mirror, practicing with a roommate, or sharing with my dog. They’re all great ways to understand how your written words and presentation will play to a live audience.
One of the best things about Startup Weekend is that there are always amazing volunteer coaches that help teams prepare to pitch their idea to the judges—and the audience. I strongly advise teams to schedule blocks of time with these wonderful coaches.
(You can still pitch to your dog, if you’d like!)
Tip #4: Be yourself
One of Startup Weekend’s co-organizers is notorious for “rocking” when speaking in public. It’s not just that he’s nervous, it’s also that he likes to move around. If you’d prefer to walk and talk rather than stand behind the podium, by all means, do it! Be yourself.
You don’t have to use GRE vocabulary or master the thousands of educational acronyms and hashtags that appear on Twitter in order to make a good impression on judges and the audience. No one will remember that you used forty-two four syllable words in your pitch… they’ll remember how passionately you presented your idea and product.
What’s your style? My style was to re-share my personal story, talk about my team, and show lots of visuals to assist. Oh – and we brought props. The audience didn’t remember exactly what I said, but we made sure they could summarize our idea into a Tweet, and that they knew how passionate we were about the concept.
Tip #5: Everyone will support you at Startup Weekend
One of the most inspiring facts about Startup Weekend is that everyone involved enthusiastically supports each other. Volunteers genuinely want to help you on your quest to build a viable product. Coaches take hours out of their weekends to advise you on business modeling, go-to-market strategy, software development, user design issues, and prototyping.
Organizers invest dozens of hours into ensuring that everyone is well fed, well caffeinated, and 100% supported to pursue a startup idea.
(Photo: The idea we pitched at TSW: Maker Edition in April 2014. © Jen Riedel)
Without pitching, I would have never been able to move the idea from just some far off fantasy to a baby step closer to reality. Now, I have pitched at several different entrepreneurship events and plan to share more ideas as they come along.
If you have an idea in the back of your head or scribbled down in a notebook, tucked away somewhere, I encourage you to dust the cobwebs off now and pitch it this weekend at Triangle Startup Weekend: Education.
You can do this. I’ll probably be in line behind you, working through my next great idea.
More resources from Jen on giving great pitches:
This post originally appeared on the Orate blog. Orate (Startup Weekend DC winner) connects event organizers and public speakers, providing access to more opportunities for both with quality & budget in mind.
Pitches are difficult; they take time and effort. However, there are some tricks that anyone can use to make this daunting process easier.
Orate participated in The Startup Factory’s Fall 2014 accelerator, which culminated on November 12 with Pitch Day (also referred to as Demo Day). If you didn’t already know, it is an event where the founders of accelerated companies present on their business to a room of investors, advisors, and media. It’s stressful, and obviously, the stakes are high. (Check out the pitches here.)
We spent three weeks preparing for what we anticipated to be among the most intimidating 8 minutes of our lives. Writing scripts, scrapping them, re-writing scripts, practicing, refining, tweaking.
We practiced alone, in front of the managing partners, our team and the other companies. We worked on the pitch literally every day for three weeks. In that time, some very important lessons surfaced that stood true for myself, as well as the four other founders pitching that day.
- Be yourself. The best presentations were given by every single one of us when we let our guard down a bit and added our own flare to the pitch. Whether that was through facial expressions, changes in tone of voice, or impromptu quips. Doing this not only helps you come across more genuine, but will also makes you feel more comfortable. The #1 piece of advice I’d give to you is to let your personality shine through in your presentation.
- Throw away your script as early as possible. The earlier you toss the script, the less scripted you will sound in the end, and the easier time you’ll have doing #1. This will also help you adjust your presentation to use words and phrases that feel more natural to you, reducing the risk of stumbling over your words come game time. Focus on the message and ideas you want to convey, and remember there are always multiple ways to do that.
- If you make a mistake, nobody will know except you. Nobody else knows what you’re going to say, so if you change a word or skip something, the audience has no idea. Just stay confident and keep going. At one point during my pitch I completely forgot what came next. I simply paused, smiled, and made sure to breathe while I gathered my thoughts. It felt like ages that I was silent up there, but it was actually only a few seconds and nobody even noticed. Fun Challenge: Watch the video of my pitch below, and see if you can figure out where this happened. (Email your answer firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will send you something special if you get it right!)
- Don’t over practice. My best pitches were always the first or second of the day. The other presenters shared a similar experience. One of them told me there was one day he just kept getting worse, but he wanted to keep practicing until he got it right. Eventually he gave up, and it even negatively affected his practice the next day because he was so nervous that he would have a repeat of the day before. The sweet spot seems to be 1-3 times per day.
Want to impress investors with your next pitch? Grab the The Startup Factory’s pitch training deck here!