From the Field: The Perfect Pitch

Amy Eisman

How to avoid the dreaded blank stare during a live presentation. ‘Good ideas die all the time,’ one expert reminds us.

From the Field

What makes a compelling, memorable presentation? What will make investors sit up and take notice?

Most experts say the first thing a startup presenter should do is tell a good story. You have to be engaging, even entertaining, explains Tom Davidson, former senior director of PBS Digital, now in product development at Gannett.

Executive coach and author Peggy Klaus calls that “painting images about how this product or company could impact the audience.”

Klaus, president of Klaus & Associates, has seen thousands of presentations — from executives and entrepreneurs, to private bankers and nonprofits. She tells clients to keep the audience in mind by embracing fictional radio station WIFT-FM — where the call letters stand for what’s in it for them?

“Most people who start a speech or presentation think about what I want to say, what is my point,” Klaus says. “That is a narcissistic way of looking at it. What are their goals and objectives?”

Insiders admit the soul of a good pitch presentation is really common sense. Don’t dare read your slides. Be confident and concise. And of course practice, practice, practice.

“People think they can wing it because they’ve been verbal since 18 months,” Klaus says. “This results in a terrible meltdown situation.”

Below, the experts weigh in on the perfect pitch:

Your parents were right.

“Maintain eye contact with your audience,” says Jan Schaffer, who has funded 220 media entrepreneurship and innovation projects as Executive Director of  J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. “Walk around. Be at ease. Show some personality without being obnoxious.”

They were right about this, too.

Introduce yourself, says Schaffer, who teaches media entrepreneurship at American University and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Don’t forget to tell your listeners who you are. Your audience won’t always be classmates.

Be armed.

Have one or two sentences that show that you, as the founder, have a firm grasp of the opportunity, says Ju-Don Marshall Roberts, startup advisor and coach and now Chief Content Officer for WFAE.FM. Convey enough passion to show you are the one to pull this off.

Davidson emphasizes that you simply can’t let the investors, humans like the rest of us, get distracted. If you don’t know an answer, tell them an exact time you will get back to them with the response.

Define your opportunity.

Will the market sustain the product? Have you explained how your idea is different from a similar one?  “Good ideas die all the time,” Roberts says.

Equally critical: Convince funders that this is a business, not a hobby, Schaffer says.

Bring a solid team.

“I’ve seen a lot of pitches where you think, ‘This is a great idea, I wish someone else was doing it,’” Roberts says.

Memorize your pitch and don’t read your deck.

“Likewise, don’t read from your laptop or cell phone,” Schaffer says.

Klaus has seen so many presentations that a question about biggest mistakes momentarily stumped her. “There are so many. Where do I begin?”

She identifies some of the top presentation mistakes as using jargon, causing death by PowerPoint, speaking longer than seven minutes before interacting with the audience, and being condescending or arrogant.

Klaus also warns against promising future results and cautions that conditional language is preferred. “With our numbers, we see a future where we can … “

Klaus warns that young people’s nerves often get the best of them. They end up talking quickly or speaking with an upward inflection (making statements sound like questions). They fidget. They twist their hair. They slap their thighs.

Klaus says young presenters have a particular challenge that interferes with the enthusiasm our experts say is critical. “A lot of young people feel if they show passion and excitement they will come off as too exuberant or too young,” says the author of  Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It. “It is actually the inverse — that young people feel, ‘If I am really serious, they will think I am really smart.'”

In the end, make a video of yourself while practicing your pitch. Yes, we know you hate seeing yourself perform. But if even you can’t stand watching you, why should an investor have to listen?

For examples and pitching resources, see this chapter.[1]

Amy Eisman is director of media entrepreneurship at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.  An innovator in journalism education and consultant, she held previous editing positions at AOL, USA Today, USA Weekend, and others. She is a former Fulbright lecturer and chairs the MJ Bear Fellowship Committee for ONA. Reach her on Twitter at @aeisman

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  1. CJ Cornell, "Startup Funding: Why Funding," Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship, https://press.rebus.community/media-innovation-and-entrepreneurship/chapter/section-2-why-funding/.

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From the Field: The Perfect Pitch by Amy Eisman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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