How to Pitch Your Startup Idea: Tips from a Speaking Coach

Pitching your startup idea to venture capitalists and incubators is a high stakes situation — as if public speaking wasn’t already nerve-wracking.

Jill Foster is a speechwriter and delivery coach, as well as the founder of Live Your Talk. She describes what she does as “helping people develop distinct content and voice as public speakers.” Jill has worked with more than one startup founder who’d rather be coding than speaking to a crowd and she has some tips to make the process easier.

How can a startup founder get more comfortable with speaking in general and pitching his or her ideas to investors in particular?

Startup founders are so incredibly busy. There are more options for them and their teams beyond Toastmasters membership (which is great yet also time consuming).

So first, consider forming an informal but committed Q&A counsel with colleagues or trusted peers. On a regular basis, meet up on Google Hangouts or in-person, if possible. Then for 30 minutes, have the group pose rapid fire questions to one person about their expertise or a specific topic. Stand up when answering questions. This creates great experience for asserting ideas in a vulnerable dynamic.

Next I suggest social tech to practice externalizing thought. Download an audio app like AudioBoo or SocialCam (for video) to practice asserting your voice and studying it often. Your content can remain private if you prefer.

And when pitching to VCs — address how the product solves a problem in the first 10 to 20 seconds, ideally in one sentence. Resist getting caught up in features or comparisons to competitors at the start. Include impact and relevant users as much as possible in this initial time frame too. Avoid generalities like ‘Our app builds community.’ Consider instead: ‘Our app uses mobile video and social sharing to unite disconnected voters.’

What are the best techniques for getting big ideas across in a limited amount of time?

Select a singular purpose for any presentation and be able to articulate clearly what that purpose is in one sentence, such as “To educate people on creating social platforms in SE Asia in three main ways.” This clearly defined purpose then guides you, the speaker, to more relevant content decisions and context.

After that, choose one main message to exemplify this purpose, with three scenes to back it up like some level of research, an example, or a pivotal observation. If the presentation includes the features of a product, organize the features in grouped scenes of outcomes or functions: “These three features achieve x; these four features solve x; and all together these seven features make us the favorite in mobile video for our customers.”

Be vigilant on expressing a simplicity of purpose short-term and long-term when pitching.

What are the big problems you see among new speakers, especially those talking about technical topics?

Many speakers, especially startup founders, are so passionate about what they do and what they create. A big problem is assuming passion is enough to transmit ideas well to live-time audiences. Passion is fantastic, human, and still not effective on its own. To impart meaning effectively, passion needs to partner with context and structured thought.

And the number one challenge is this assumption: that an audience retains information at the speed to which a speaker thinks. They do not. Our brains are consciously aware of about 2000 bits of information every second. Speakers must empathize with this reality. As in, speakers are competing with the information echo in the audience’s brains. So tightly defined context, a clear point of view, and prioritized content are critical. An avalanche of data or assertions overwhelms an audience’s chance to absorb.

For ultimate resonance with listeners deselect secondary, less relevant ideas. A speaker ideally should practice discipline in thought and select what’s key for a presentation.

Image by Flickr user Nakeva Corothers

About Thursday Bram

Thursday Bram has been fascinated with technology and business since she was recruited to work with a startup focused on launching rockets into space in high school. She has started her own business, written for sites like CNET and GigaOm, and thought a lot about whether space flight or the web are going to wind up having a bigger impact on the human race.

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