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Peter Hopwood Startup Pitch Competition
09 September 2016

How to Walk Away a Winner at a Startup Pitch Competition

If you’ve ever hit the stage at a startup pitch competition, you’ll know it ain’t easy. Taking the stage with your startup pitch, as the world awaits your five minutes of fame, trying to desperately walk-away-a-winner and gloriously steal the show! Guess what – it’s easier said than done.

Attending my fair share of startup pitch competitions either as a moderator, host or attendee, I’m constantly fascinated and intrigued when it’s time for the startups to pitch and really show us what they’ve got. A handful will do a reasonably fair job walking away with their heads held high. A few will pull it off and nail it beautifully. But as we see far too often, most will suck miserably.

Admittedly, as a presentation and startup pitch coach I initially hone in on the performance factors which need thought before hitting the stage. Factors which tend to get neglected such as body language, tone of voice, pace, clarity and stage presence.

So, is there really a winning formula? I actually think there is – or at least a number of factors that will certainly increase your chances of success at a pitch competition. Success either with the judges or becoming a favourite among the audience.

Here’s my take with a selection of straight-talking tips I’d like to share with you on how to nail a startup pitch competition.

What’s the big idea?

Let’s start with your idea. If it’s not strong, your market isn’t very wide, you’ve got a fuzzy business model and an unreliable team (if you have a team), what do you think your chances are of persuading judges or investors into to buying into your concept?

Basic fundamentals that should be given immense thought well before hitting the stage. Having these factors covered tells your audience you’re worth listening to and are not just trying to sell something that really isn’t viable. Essential advice for every entrepreneur considering a startup pitch competition.


Your story

An essential element to any great pitch is turning it into a story – just like a movie. You need a damn good intro, appealing hook and an epic finish. Tell an exciting story that brings in the key elements of your product and company. It needs to sound inspiring but at the same time, make sure it’s supported with enough substance. If not, down goes your credibility! Aim to really connect on a human scale to real people.

These are the kind of stories which shake up the room and motivate people to engage. Less numbers and facts. More emotions. Get the audience at the startup pitch competition on your side by making it real and making it personal.

Hit the energy button

At any startup pitch competition, when you’re up there on stage, it’s important to get the judges and audience excited about your idea and what you’re saying. They need to sit up and feel a sense of curiosity as you tell them about your idea. Trust me, it’s impossible to get others excited – if you’re not. Remember, your mood on stage is infectious. Your audience will know straightaway if you’re passionate or not about your startup.

This is it. This is your game-changing five minutes of fame. Believe every word you say and have the facts to back it up when it’s time for the Q&A. Don’t be monotonous, stand out from the rest and bring your energy to the room. Be bold and press that energy button at your startup pitch competition.

Let your personality shine

Figures and facts are great, but at the end of the day, it’s the stories that create emotional connections. You’ve heard this many times before, “people invest in people and ideas“. It’s true that more likeable entrepreneurs often gain more success – but not because they’re always pleasant to everyone. Having a little charm is never a bad thing.

But remember, these startup pitch competitions are no popularity contests. You’re evaluated on your competence, credibility, and your confidence. All these count. Those who insert their real personality into their pitch, letting the judges really get a grasp of who you are and what makes you tick can work wonders.


Fine tune and simplify

Less is more. A phrase you’ve heard millions of times. Squeezing everything you want to say about your startup packed nicely into 10 minutes is a tough call. Trying to do it in just 3 minutes is almost impossible. It takes endless editing and refining, lots of cutting down, having a clear sense of priority, and the skill to move from complex ideas to digestible chunks of information.

Avoid using lots of slides when you only really need a few. Use visuals rather than words. The more you can simplify, the easier it is to get your message to stick. A mighty challenge to get right, but believe me, it’s worth it. You and your startup pitch will benefit tremendously. Those who condense their performance sharing clear, concrete messages at any startup pitch competition will always have the upper hand.

Dress the part

Here’s an interesting one. Some reading this will probably know at least one startup pitch winner wearing nothing more than a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Yes, I’ve seen this many times at startup pitch competitions. Many years ago, someone once told me whenever you want to sell something to someone, also wear a shirt! It’s all about the impression you want to create.

Wearing a shirt, shoes and putting a touch of care into your professional appearance on stage, will create a positive first impression. Although turning up with T-shirt and jeans may be perfectly accepted by many in the startup scene, you’d be surprised how much of what you wear creates an impression of who you are. Stick to professional and you can’t go wrong.


Get straight to the point

If there’s one common no-no that I see startups make time and time again on stage, it’s being vague. Not having straight-talking details about their businesses. Figures, costs, the strategy for the next step – whatever it is, being straightforward about what you say during the startup pitch competition shows you’ve given thought about the details of your business, your industry, and you’ve got a grasp what you are asking for. Get your facts tightly pinned down so you don’t seem like you’re hiding something.

Don’t be defensive

Following your pitch, during the Q&A, you may be in for a real grilling from the judges and often get thrown some negative feedback. What you do, say and how you react in these last few minutes will make or break it – even though you may have had a glorious pitch. Keep cool. Don’t get shaken up, and don’t try to avoid the tricky questions.

Answer questions as directly as you can. Try to give answers that don’t end up giving an impression of someone inflexible, easily distracted, argumentative or irritable. At any stage of the startup pitch competition, it’s important to accept any criticism thrown at you, even if it’s not constructive. Judges may be testing you trying to shake you up and shift your ability to stay focused.

Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to take on the startup pitch competition.


The benefits of entering a startup pitch competition

You may not return home glorious champs running away with the jackpot, but by simply entering a startup pitch competition, you’ll always leave with something.

For many it’s a chance to create buzz and get the word out about their business to a wider audience – especially if the event features a live streaming feed. For others it may connect them with potential advisors and mentors. With a bit of luck it may even open the door to securing investors. These kinds of events also help you to polish and fine-tune your strategy, mission and other essential elements of your business model.

Need direct help with your pitch?

If you’ve got a pitch but not sure of a few things and need some guidance – I can help. Check out Pitch Review and get in touch. I’ll help you polish your performance ready for your startup pitch competition.


So, it’s over to you.

Got any hard-hitting advice to win a startup pitch competition? I’d love to hear your take on the topic.