After a first round of coaching sessions with the five SXSW Accelerator companies assigned to me, I thought about some general advice on pitches. This particular batch is starting out pretty well, but I still find myself pointing out many of the usual problems that fail to get the message across. There have been millions of words written on pitch presentations and techniques, but nothing beats live coaching to fine tune the process. You can see that vividly in the polish shown by the Longhorn Startup Lab teams as they progress through the semester. We have a TA who is a Ph.D. candidate in communications and, in addition to all the professorial guidance, she can point out the subtleties of overall body language, hand gestures, fidgeting, speech inflection, and other factors that make a lot of difference in connecting with an audience. At the end of the semester, these students are all at the top of their game when it’s time to make a pitch.
The flip side of all that is a set of factors that apply to judging, and I’m addressing those in this post. There are many formats for pitch competitions. For angel groups it’s often pitch to the audience and then go away and let the members decide whether they want to follow up or not. In the larger showcase events like SXSW Accelerator, Launch, and TechCrunch Disrupt, there’s a panel of expert judges on stage to engage in smart Q&A following the presentation. That’s the format I find to be most informative. At SXSW all our finalists except in the music category will give on that Monday 2-minute pitches followed by up to 10 minutes of Q&A, and the judges will pass along their top 3 of the 8 in each category to a Tuesday 5 & 10 format.
The SXSW judges are given a rubric where they vote according to 4 primary assessments:
· Creativity (Originality of idea)
· Potential (Longevity and profitability of idea)
· Functionality (Usability of interface for idea)
· Team / People (Who is your team and how they will make you a success)
They are of course expecting all the basic content about exactly what you do, how you will monetize, etc., but these 4 criteria will separate out the 3 per category that advance Monday and the 1 per category that is the ultimate winner on Tuesday. If you’re the presenter, give some thought to this process from the judges’ point of view. So, if I were a judge, here’s what I might have on my mind:
1. I’m deal weary. I get invited to lots of these events and see large quantities of clever ideas over the course of a year, particularly if I’m a professional VC or recurring angel investor. I’ve been invited to 25 parties each night at SXSW, and, as stimulating as all this is, I may be a bit fatigued from the frenzy. So, when you start your presentation, hit me with something early and hard that captures my attention and holds it for 2 minutes. If you don’t get 100% mindshare, I can easily get more interested in viewing my Twitter feed.
2. Don’t leave any doubt as to exactly what you do, how you’re going to make money, and where you are in the process of your startup. I don’t want to have to ask for the basics that should have been there to begin with.
3. Assume I don’t know personally your market area and use a classic grid or some method to put your company in context. Tell me you’re the Facebook of goldfish, or show me the chart of your competitors where you’re up and to the right, or point out precisely how you are going to kill a particular existing player that I might know about. Convince me that if you are that goldfish deal that you are swimming in a big ocean and not in my 20-gallon living room aquarium.
4. Show me something cool, and be darn sure it works. Don’t attempt any demo technology that is overreaching and might or might not perform. I’m immediately back to Twitter if you get hung up on a video that doesn’t start or if you are trying to connect to the Wi-Fi that is a tenuous commodity at SXSW where 25000+ attendees are each carrying multiple phones and tablets (and maybe concealed weapons, since this is Texas). I’m a smart, tech-savvy guy or gal, but you cannot assume I know the lingo or practices in your space. Show something that I can’t help but “get” on first viewing.
5. Sell me on your team. Have a great conversation with the judges and the general audience that comes across as natural and unscripted, certainly not memorized. Make me think you’re talking directly to me, and keep me engaged. Winners will impress me if you exhibit consistent energy and enthusiasm in your pitch, and I’d welcome hearing your co-founders during Q&A. Listen to a recording of a Lou Holtz locker room speech and make sure you’re up for the big moment. Infect me with your passion for the idea.
6. Look the part. You can see from the photo the 2012 winners on the SXSW Accelerator site that you can win with a suit or with a more typical Austin jeans look. Choose the most telegenic person on your team to lead the presentation, use on-mission accessories if you want (MailChimp hats would qualify), and dress so as not to be distracting to your message. You don’t want me wondering about your fashion when I should be paying attention to your talk. (At Peachtree Software our top 3 execs once worked an exhibit at a show in downtown San Francisco, and we bought 3 matching outfits of madras pants and light blue blazers. I still remember the sweet-looking little old lady observing the 3 of us together outside the venue and saying: “Someone ought to bash your brains out.” Don’t do what we did, please.)
<image of GTO Judge from Wikipedia >