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The Art of the Fast Pitch

Written by Mark Watkins
September 18, 2020

No, not softball. Startup pitches.

Last night from midnight to 2am, I listened to eight passionate, innovative teams sharing their journey through the Purple Prize, an indigenous innovation competition in Hawaii where I am a mentor (BTW join us for the finals online!).

Even though it was late, the passion of these innovators meant I never got the least bit sleepy! Purple uses the now-common fast pitch format common to many accelerators – 5 minutes to introduce your company to potential investors and stakeholders. The fast pitch is really an art form – a performance art form. As both a performer and a consumer of this art form, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how to give a great performance. It is a performance, by the way – be yourself, but the “big stage” version of yourself. Passionate and confident. And practice!

Longer than an “elevator pitch”, shorter than a real VC pitch, it’s tricky. In just a few minutes you must concisely explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, why you will be successful, and what you are asking for (and not much else in 4 minutes!).

The first thing is to remember your audience. Assume they know nothing (and about you, it’s true. They know nothing. Assume nothing. Start at the beginning). On a demo day they’re likely to hear 10 of these pitches, or more. They’ve never heard a word about your company before. Their phone will buzz. Their attention will wander. Your internet/zoom will get glitchy at the wrong time. People can only consume so much information in short time. Avoid “cognitive overload” – keep it simple. Less is more. Nuance is not your friend here.

Here’s a formula:

  • Start with a story
  • Use your story to introduce your product. Simply and explicitly.
  • Explain how you make money. Simply and explicitly.
  • Explain how the world will be different when you are successful. Finish strong.

Your presentation should arc from the general down to the specific and back up to the general. Let’s unpack this a bit.

THE STORY

Your very first words need to bind people to you and your mission, and explain what you are up to. People remember stories. Please, read Mike Troiano’s https://entrepreneurship.mit.edu/how-to-tell-your-ventures-story. They won’t remember market positioning or value propositions or any of that other stuff. Tell them a story. They’re looking for a reason to like you. Give it to them. Get their attention with a story, an insight, an experience, a feeling. Don’t waste your first words on anything but your story (don’t make jokes about being last, or explain how nervous you are, or anything else).

I build Bookship, a social reading app. Here’s how I introduce myself and my product. My very first sentences, verbatim.

“Hi, I’m Mark. When my son was 16, I got him a copy of Dune for Christmas. Like most gift books, it sat on the shelf unread for a decade. A few years ago he told me he was going to read it (he’s grown now). I said, “I’ll read it with you”. What followed was a month of genuine engagement with my son. Priceless. I had a similar experience with my daughter shortly thereafter, (different book) and I said to myself, “I’m going to bottle this experience into an app so other people can get that same feeling”. And that’s how Bookship was born. 

Notice: almost nothing about the product or features – it’s about the feeling, the emotion, the experience. Even better, the story is actually true. If you don’t have a good true story, remember Rule 19.

As Simon Sinek says, Start with Why. Your “why” might be a story, or it might be some phenomena or metric that speaks to you. Last night I heard the spark of many interesting stories. But often these sparks were buried in the middle of the presentation. I want to share them (with permission) because the stories are powerful, and to use them to illustrate how to make the most of them – by starting with them.

Sheila at MAGHugs is building a system for teachers to share positive news about things students did with the student and their parents (“I see you. You are valued“). Halfway through her presentation, she showed a slide with metrics illustrating the psychological challenges students face, starting with drop-out rates and culminating with a gut-wrenching statistic that every day 8 students commit suicide. Now I’m paying attention – what can we do to change that awful statistic? I’d advocate a pitch narrative that goes something like this: “Hi, I’m Sheila, and I was an educator for N decades. I can tell you many of our students are in trouble. Did you know that every day ……  so, we’re building a system for positive feedback for every student through virtual hugs.“. That’s a narrative that grabs my attention and no matter what else she says, I’ll remember what she’s trying to do.

Polu Energy is building an innovative new power generation system. After hearing about the extremely powerful scientific team behind the company, and the general approach to the business, around slide 5 I learn that when salt water and fresh water come together, they make electricity. WTF? Really?? I had no idea. I’d suggest that as the opening line. “Hi, I’m Tate. Did you know that when salt water and fresh water come together they make electricity? We found a way to harness that at industrial scale. We’re Polu Energy. Blue energy from water…“.  I immediately get the crazy insight that led to this company. I’ll remember that, and I want to hear more.

Preston & Gabor at Box Farm Labs are building a home hydroponics appliance. A Keurig for plants. Three or four minutes in, I hear that they started with a NASA project to grow plants in space in an automated way for long space voyages. That’s crazy shit. Hit me between the eyes with that in your first sentence. Hi, We’re Preston & Gabor. We learned how to grow plants in space for NASA, and we want to bring that to your kitchen. OK, that sounds pretty cool. Tell me more!

People remember stories. As Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it“.  But don’t belabor it. You don’t need four slides of “why”. You don’t have time. One slide. Less is More.

PRODUCT

Your Story should lead to your product. “Because of X, we built our product Y“.  Explain Y (your product) in two or three sentences. Simple enough a high schooler can understand it. If you sell Carbon Offsets to Hawaii Visitors so local farms can plant food trees, like Kanu Offsets does, tell me that, just that simply, and at the beginning, so I am ready for everything else you tell me. That’s a mission I can get behind.

People can only take in so much – don’t make them work for it. Remember cognitive overload. If you want to give more detail (and you should!), do so – but only after you’ve given me a one sentence summary of what your product does, that I can internalize.

BUSINESS

Explain how you intend to make money. Tell me like I was in high school – simple and straightforward. The fancy term for this is business model. It’s surprising to me how often I hear a pitch where it’s unclear who pays for the product. For example, consider products sold into an educational context – who pays for it? The student? the parent? the teacher? the principle? the school district? Don’t make me guess. If you aren’t sure yet, that’s ok – just say so. But in a short pitch, ambiguity is more your enemy than error. If you are vague, I’ll assume the worst. But if you are precise but wrong, well, no harm no foul. Every startup makes mistakes and learns. Better to present with conviction, while offering up the chance you may learn and change in the future.

CLOSE STRONG.

The arc of your presentation is:

  • here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.
  • Here’s what we do.
  • Here’s how the world will be different when we are successful.

You move from the mission to the product to the business to the vision. General to specific to general.

I’ve seen so many pitches (not last night though!), that end in a morass of details and business plans and profit margins and …. don’t do this. Close strong. Explain how the world will be different when you are successful. Leave me with a clear memory of who you are and what you stand for.

You will face some temptations when you build your pitch:

You will be tempted to tell me everything you know. Don’t. Make sure I get a clear understanding of what you do. The details can follow.

You will be tempted to cram everything onto the slides. Don’t. Complicated diagrams and paragraphs of text in 12pt font will never be understood. You might as well not show them. Big font, simple pictures, simple diagrams. There will be times later to deliver all that wonderful detail and learning you have done. Now’s not the time.

You will be tempted to glam things up – use large words and jargon to make your initiative sound sophisticated, even if it’s straightforward. Don’t. Simplicity is your friend here. Simple is good.

You will be tempted to use metaphors and generalities. Don’t. I love me a good metaphor, but in 4 minutes it’s too easy to be misunderstood, or not understood. Simple and explicit is the ticket.

Close strong. Move me.

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