For small, growing companies, it often seems impossible to attract the attention of venture capitalists. That's why many entrepreneurs attend venture-capital forums, at which they have an opportunity to pitch their companies and business strategies to large numbers of prospective investors.

But getting the most value out of a venture-capital forum isn't easy. "They are very competitive, and you've got to figure out how to distinguish yourself from all the other companies that are making presentations, one after another," warns Louise Short, the CEO of Tulsa-based Digital Impact, a $1.4-million developer and publisher of CD-ROM software.

Last autumn Short paid $500 to attend the Oklahoma Investment Forum, an event that was organized by her local chamber of commerce and attended by about 90 potential investors. "I was looking for $1.2 million worth of financing, and I knew that there were very few other ways for me, as the CEO of a two-year-old company, to reach a broad number of people," she recalls. Her advice to other CEOs contemplating attendance:

· Be prepared. "You've got 10 to 15 minutes to give your presentation. You want it to be captivating enough that investors want to visit your booth. I spent months working on my speech, which combined a discussion of our growth, an overview of our industry and hot products, an analysis of our distribution system, and an explanation of our financial needs, with some attention-grabbing visuals," she explains.

To make certain her speech was understandable as well as exciting, she practiced it before company insiders and outsiders and revised her presentation as they suggested. "I have a tendency to get excited when I talk about our company, and sometimes that makes me speak too quickly. I made sure I had that under control before I attended the forum."

· Be different. "You have to find a way to rise above all the other noise that investors have been listening to. After all, they've got so much information to assimilate that after a while, it's only natural for them to start losing interest," she notes. "When I began my speech, I invited everyone to stand up and stretch for a minute or two, just to revive them. And I reminded them that the lunch break wasn't too far away. Then I asked them to give me their attention for just a few minutes. And they did."

· Be patient. Short believes that prospective investors can "smell" financial desperation in entrepreneurs who need money in a hurry -- a real turnoff. "I attended the forum because I wanted to make contacts with venture capitalists before we really needed the money. That would give them time to watch us develop, if they were interested."

Her plan has worked beautifully. Following the lunch break, a number of investors stopped by Digital Impact's booth for conversations that lasted as long as 45 minutes. "I had dinner with one investor that same night, and another came by to visit our office after the forum," she says. Since then, a number of venture-capital firms have remained in touch to, as Short puts it, "see if we can actually achieve some of the results I predicted -- and also to see how we handle problems when they arise. We've been able to build credibility with them because of that longer-term perspective."

With a newly signed international-distribution contract that guarantees $700,000 worth of new sales and awards for her best-selling product, an educational CD-ROM called Ozzie's World, Short believes she is close to proving her company's investment viability as well as its business credibility to the venture-capital community. "Thanks to the forum, we've already laid the groundwork by attracting the attention of potential investors." She believes her company will soon be in a position to negotiate a deal that satisfies its capital needs as well as investors' goals.