Last June, Startup Next held its pitch/demo in San Francisco while the Google Developer conference took place across the street at the Moscone Conference Center. The streets of San Francisco were alive as Google entertained the tech glitterati non-stop, with tech challenges during the day and with killer concerts at night. You simply could not ignore the surrounding excitement. I had scheduled exciting investor meetings solid leading up to the 6:00 p.m., Startup Next pitch/demo, and QuotaDeck had already been admitted to Techstars Boulder for the Fall term. I was on top of the world.

And as a result, I fell on my face during the actual pitch/demo. From issues with the audio and visual equipment to my imperfect slide deck to me stumbling over my words--it was clear I had not prepared adequately. The salesman inside me had convinced the right side of my brain that I was a natural pitchman and that this demo would be a snap. In addition, I assumed that since we had already met our goal of getting into one of the world's top accelerators, and that my competition had not, that we were the ace in the hole. With that mindset we got upstaged by the other companies, who did a banner job.

The audience? Just key Valley influencers like Silicon Valley Bank and Tim Draper. To top it all, when the moderator asked those influencers to shout out their favorite presentations at the end of the demo, no one shouted out, "QuotaDeck!"

After the demo fail, I stood humbled in our booth, fully committed to never stand in front of anyone again without being prepared. Completely prepared. My failure on stage was more than a personal letdown--it was a blow to my whole startup team. Their ace pitchman had been out pitched in front of the very audience we had worked so hard to build trust with. Worst of all, there is no immediate redemption from a bad demo performance. Like an NFL quarterback, the startup pitch front person is only as good as his, or her last game.

"Demo days and short pitches are contrived events with rules and expectations--it's not the way you talk or interact in a real life meeting--but it will get you to the real life meeting," says UP Global's Senior VP of Programs and Products, and Startup Next mentor Dave Parker. "With that in mind, you need to deliver a pitch that checks all of the boxes and sets you apart from other presenters. You may or may not have a better product than the others, but you can always be better prepared than others."

To increase your odds nothing beats hours of pre-pitch preparation with team members and mentors. When you know your material, team confidence builds to fuel a win at the next pitch. Tomorrow, we're pitching at TechStars Boulder. Here's some of our training and preparation strategy:

1. What did I learn from that flubbed pitch? There is no substitute for the practice, energy and time that a pitch deserves. No matter how clever a salesman you are, this isn't a situation to wing it fuelled on enthusiasm. Your audience is too skilled to tolerate a fail and too important to the future of your startup. Make the time to craft your presentation as close to perfect as possible. Get professional help and mentorship. Practice.

2. If you don't deliver with passion and energy, your audience will instead look at their smartphone, watch or smartwatch. As Sally Field put it, "Stand and Deliver." You have to entertain and inform, in a presentation wrapped in a little elusive mysteriousness and a lot of eager confidence. Make audience members you don't know ask questions right away. Even better, engage your audience members early, especially investors, in the months leading up to your pitch. Like the rest of humanity, they like to do business with people they know.

3. Use Apple Keynote, period. Apple products rule. Enough said.

4. In terms of your pitch deck, here are key some pointers from Techstars Managing Director, Nicole Glaros:

  • Don't put your logo on every slide, just the first and last (contact)
  • Don't use bullet points
  • Don't use tons of text
  • Don't use fancy transitions
  • Don't use fancy backgrounds
  • Don't embed live demonstrations of your product/service

5. In my pitch to Techstars tomorrow, it's all on their terms. With everyone following the same ban on industry buzzwords (see the list below), we are forced to create more unique messaging. I may truly believe that QuotaDeck will disrupt the B2B sales marketplace, but that's just as tired of a message as these other verboten clichs:

  • seamless
  • pivot
  • changing the way
  • GenY
  • and we have the right team
  • we have a combined X years of experience
  • flagship
  • disruptive
  • meet Bill
  • let me show you how it works
  • we plan to
  • we are going to build
  • game changer
  • curate
  • paradigm shift

Pitching is a core skill, and one that can be learned. Ultimately it is theater, it's sales, and it's Speech 101. No good actor goes onstage without learning their lines and practicing over and over again until they find the voice of their character. Similarly, you need to find your pitching voice and the only way to get there is to prepare, practice and practice.

6. Bonus tip: Make sure to meet every influencer who is there and remember, the goal of your pitch is to establish interest in follow up meetings.

Published on: Oct 8, 2014