Dozens of business funding opportunities are availed to local entrepreneurs every year in the form of startup competitions organized by both local and international organisations. Most are usually meant to fund businesses operating in certain sectors, solving certain problems or serving certain geographic areas. In most of these competitions, the first round consists of written submissions usually in the form of business plans or proposals. These documents are then used to winnow the list of hopefuls down to a group of finalists who then have to battle this final round in the form of short pitches usually lasting between 5 and 10 minutes. This article is written for those who either have or hope to make it to one of these final rounds.
Speak with conviction
When you are pitching you are trying to sell people in on nothing but your vision so you must, at the very least, be convincing that you believe in it yourself. At that point, your business is probably just an idea and most of the sales and growth projections you will be presenting to your audience will be nothing more than wild speculations. Because the presentation time is so short you are unlikely to be called out on each and every one of these (usually) unsupportable assumptions, however lack of conviction during your presentation will draw closer scrutiny to your claims.
You need to engage with your audience, that is why you must avoid spending extended periods of time reading from pieces of paper. If you have to write down any part of your speech make sure you limit this to the main talking points. When reading, you risk sounding mechanical. Memorize your main points instead and make sure you convey your excitement where possible. A dry and dispassionate presentation may give rise to the understandable suspicion that you want the money for personal use.
While it is not possible to maintain eye contact with each and every member of your audience, you should try to momentarily lock eyes with some of the members of the judging panel during your presentation. This will make you appear more confident and there are several studies that suggest that we instinctively distrust people if we suspect that they are trying to avoid eye contact. You will also notice that all this healthy eye contacting does not spare you time to read from your notes.
Research the judging panel if possible
If you are able to get a list of the people who will be on the judging panel, by all means, do so. You can then find out more about them. Some of the information which you may find useful includes their professional backgrounds, their ages and interests. This knowledge can then be used to both tailor your presentation for the panel and adequately prepare for the kind of questions most likely to be asked.
Some pitchers have in the past delivered stellar presentations only to crash and burn during the question and answer stage. By finding out more about the professional backgrounds of the judges you can get a rough idea of the kind of questions you will be subjected to. As an example, someone with an accounting background will ask different questions from someone with an engineering one. If the panel is full of accountants and bankers do not dwell on the technical details but rather on the financial. On the other hand, if it is a mixed one you should try to provide the pertinent information that some will find useful without alienating the rest of the table.
Use slides properly
In most competitions slide shows are either a requirement or a strongly recommended option. It is unfortunate that some contestants make poor use of this otherwise useful presentation tool; while some cobble together bad slideshows at the last minute they are those who over-rely on them to the extent of typing their whole speech into the slides. Remember that even though a slideshow is just a presentation aid you must take your time in creating it and follow a few simple rules.
To begin with, use highly contrasting colours in your slides. Gone may be the days when projectors required a dark room but if your contrast is poor you will have the whole auditorium squinting during your entire time on the stage. Use large text and keep your sentences short. Do not read from your slides. A few brief glances at your slide should be enough to guide your presentation. If you type in all of your oral presentations into the slides you lose your audience’s attention as their eyes will be glued to the screen as they try to read along with you.
You can also use the slides as a friendlier clock to time yourself with. As a rule of thumb, you should spend about a minute on each slide. This means that the number of slides in your presentation should roughly equal the amount of time you have been allocated for your presentation. Slides are a visual medium so if possible use images, illustrations and other graphics rather than text.
Don’t let your clothing distract people from your presentation
A pitch is not the time to be adventurous with your wardrobe. Try to keep it simple and suited for the occasion. Even though a lot of these competitions do not specify dress codes, this does not mean you should go overboard. This advice applies equally well to both genders. While programmers may be understandably enamoured with the stereotypical look of the Silicon Valley founder in a hoodie this may be met with silent disapproval in some circles.
If the judging panel is older or contains people from traditional white-collar industries I would advise you to dress more conservatively. While there may be plenty of guides that exist online on how to dress for success these are usually not worth your effort. Use your good judgement if possible. If in doubt wear your Sunday’s bests.
Try to enjoy yourself
As an entrepreneur, you will have to get comfortable standing in front of people. You will also discover that captive audiences are a rare treat. Unless you are an entertainer or a pastor (or both) you will realise that these pitches are some of the few occasions where people will sit quietly while you explain your plans and ideas. In addition, if you let yourself enjoy your moment on the floor, this will be reflected in your body language and you will come off as more likeable. This may improve your chances even further.