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Pitching The Community

Marcus Holmes
Marcus Holmes

I’ve run a few pitch workshops over the last few months, including Open Mic Night this week at Sixty27, and there’s more pitch sessions coming up. So I thought I’d share some of the stuff I’ve learned.

A pitch is a “Persuasive Summary of Your Idea”. That means it is designed to both explain your idea and persuade your audience to a point of view. What point of view depends on what you want to get out of the pitch. So the first thing to do is to define what you want to get out of the pitch. More sales? Investment? Feedback? Involvement? Mostly this will depend on your audience. Are you pitching to customers? or investors? or peers?

Community pitch events are usually to peers (with the odd chance of investor), unless your target market is the community itself. Practising sales pitches to the community when they’re not your customers is not a great use of everyone’s time. You won’t get any sales and you won’t get good feedback. They’re not your target market, so they won’t react like your target market. Pitching is not about spruiking your wares shouty-ad style!

Boring your audience is the worst thing you can do. Worse than insulting them (but don’t do that!). Bored people will start browsing their phones, and the impression that gives to the rest of the audience is that your idea or business is boring. When you hit the Q&A there’s silence and you just die a little inside.

The best way of keeping people interested is to tell them a story. In fact pitches generally work best when they tell a story. In fact, all your marketing works best when it tells a story. I can thoroughly recommend Bernadette Jiwa’s book The Fortune Cookie Principle that explains this better than I ever could.

So your pitch should tell a story about your startup. There are many stories to choose from. I use a mashup of the Lean Canvas and The Pollenizer Universal Pitch Deck to plan mine. The Pollenizer deck contains every point I’ll need to hit in my pitch, and the Lean Canvas gives me a way of relating those back to my business idea.

Pitching The Community

I work out which box I’ll start in (which story I’m telling) and then make sure I’ve covered all the rest of the points. I use the little circles in the boxes to number them in the order I’ll cover them. The only thing to add is the “What we’ll do next is…” point, which always goes at the end and culminates in the Call to Action. Always end a pitch in a Call to Action, and make sure your Call to Action actually asks the audience for something (“thanks for listening, folks, now please head to and get your pet signed up on our beta platform!”, or “we’d love to learn what we don’t know, so please tell us what you hate about the idea”). Too many pitches die off in a “ermm, so yeah, that’s me and my idea”.

If I’m pitching potential customers, then I’d probably tell the Customer Story which is based around the customer’s point of view. It starts with the Customer (Target Market) “Meet Joe. Joe’s a dog. He’s got an affluent lifestyle, probably lives in the city, has a sophisticated taste in dog food and cat poop”. Then the Problem, “But Joe gets really sad when his owner leaves him home alone.” to the Solution “We think Joe needs some company, so we’re building, the social media network for dogs.” and so on. Every point is told from the customer’s point of view, and made relevant to the customer. It’s the Customer’s story.

If I’m pitching investors then I’d probably go with the Opportunity Story, which starts with the opportunity (“Australia has approximately 456,234,864 dogs, and spends $423,456,233,345 on them each year. We think we there’s a gap here”) to Revenue (“we can charge each dog owner $10 a month to provide their pet with a service”) to the Solution (“that service gives their pet a social media network”) to the Problem(“which alleviates pet loneliness and prevents furniture damage”), and so on.

The point is that your pitch needs to be targeted at the audience you’re pitching to. The audience will have a point of view on your idea or business. You need to craft your pitch so it appeals to that point of view. The best way of doing that is to build the story of your idea from that point of view.

My favourite example of a great pitch (I show this to Startup Weekend teams a lot):

Note that he is telling the story of the solution here, he starts with the solution and explains the entire idea from the team’s point of view implementing that solution. It ends leaving the audience on the high note of an actual customer purchase.

Each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning sets the context (“meet Joe”, “there’s X number of Y’s”), then the middle explains the idea (“we’re building X”,”we’ll get to customers via coupons on their pet food”), and then the end, which leaves the audience where you want them (“we’re going to be accepting investment offers for this massive opportunity”, “we invite you to check out and then take this survey about your impressions”, “please vote for us to win this award because as you can see we clearly help people”).

Your mileage may vary, but in a five-minute pitch you probably want to spend one minute on the beginning setting up the context, three minutes on the actual meat of the pitch, and one minute bringing it to a point where you can leave the audience on a high note and ask them for something. If you’re using slides, then probably 10 slides, 3 to frame, 5 to explain, and 2 to conclude.

Which brings us to slides. There’s lots of advice online about slides. The best advice I’ve heard is to do the slides last, rather than first. First work out what you’re going to say, then once you’ve got that down make some slides to support that speech. The slides are supporting material for the speech, not the other way around. The slides have two functions: to provide information that would be too difficult to say, and to provide a visual theme for your speech.

The usual rules apply:

  • Don’t fill the slides with information, because your audience will read the slides instead of listening to you.
  • Don’t put your speech on the slides, because your audience will read it faster than you can say it and then you’ll be boring people telling them things they’ve already read.
  • Don’t look at the slides while you speak. Face your audience and talk to them. Make eye contact, react to their expressions. Make it a dialogue, but one where you’re doing all the talking.
  • If your slide is serving no purpose apart from to remind you about what you’ve got to say next, then either cull it or make it a pretty picture with no words. Slides are not speaker notes.

Talking of Speaker Notes: don’t write them down and read from them. You need to be able to confidently do your pitch from memory. The key to getting this confidence is practice. Claire McGregor during her advice to the RAC Seedspark teams recommended practicing a pitch 30 times, filming yourself every tenth time. That’s great advice. There’s no real upper limit on practice here. Just be careful about memorising it word for word, and then drooling that at the audience in a rythmic monotone because you’re so completely bored of the entire thing. Keep it real.

I’ve coached a fair few people through their pitches over the last few years, at events ranging from Ignition, West Tech Fest, Startup Weekend, SNAP and now Open Mic Night. The best pitches are simple and straightforward, they walk the audience from point to point in a logical progression, confidently telling a story about the subject matter, subtly supported by an elegantly restrained slide deck. Do that.

Talking of Startup Weekend, the next one is open for Early Bird ticket sales. Get yours here or find out more here.

Read more of the latest news from the startup ecosystem here

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Marcus Holmes

Marcus Holmes

Gentleman Technologist and co-founder of Startup News. His vision has made //SN a sustainable media cheerleader for the startup community. Former CEO of Phnom Penh Post, he can be found somewhere in S.E. Asia coding away...
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