Having the opportunity to pitch your business or product can be equal parts exhilarating and nerve-wracking. Whether you’re experienced at giving high-stakes presentations or a first-time entrepreneur pitching a startup, you cannot underestimate the value of proper preparation.
My colleague Helene Bumbalo and I were recently invited to advise entrepreneurial teams pitching their business ideas on Demo Day for the Duke Law Tech Lab (DLTL). As Managing Director of the Duke Law Tech Lab, Kelli Raker, describes it: “Demo Day is a wonderful culmination of our program: the founders get to showcase their product, receive feedback from the audience and judges, network with legal tech leaders, and enjoy celebrating their hard work. While pitching can be nerve-wracking, it is also a rewarding experience—and a critical one to growing their business and building a name for themselves.”
The 2019 Cohort:
- Sam Tate and Mike Lotz, Civvis (Raleigh, NC)
- Sonja Ebron and Debra Slone, Courtroom5 (Durham, NC)
- Yousef Kassim, Easy Expunctions (San Antonio, TX)
- Paul Kang, FastVisa (Dallas, TX)
- Kevin Gillespie and Katia Alcantar, Text A Lawyer (Portland, OR)
We worked with these teams for six weeks on everything from their core message to delivery to telling their authentic stories. After they presented their pitches in front of an audience and judges, we asked participants to share their biggest takeaways. Below are insights and pro tips gleaned from their responses.
- Recognize the Pitch will Evolve
When presenters started preparing their pitches, they reported feeling nervous, overwhelmed, and unprepared. But each one trusted in the process and came to see how constructively their presentations evolved over the course of their preparation.
Always keep in mind when preparing for a big sales pitch or business presentation, the point is to say something meaningful. There is a lot you could say. But you want to avoid overwhelming the audience with complex information. Rather than trying to squeeze in as much information as you can, focus instead on leaving them with something to hang onto—something they can easily recall and more importantly, repeat to others. This is your core message.
The theme of this accelerator program was access to legal services. Each founder emphasized how their product was a pathway to increasing access to justice. Their pitches evolved as they crafted their core messages (those 10 words or less that summarized the essence of the presentation). Below are the core messages developed for Demo Day:
- Civvis: “Connects consumers to trusted legal solutions.”
- Courtroom5: “Provides access to justice for those who can’t afford a lawyer.”
- Easy Expunctions: “Provides individuals a clear path to a clear record.”
- FastVisa: “Bringing sanity back to the immigration process.”
- Text A Lawyer: The right lawyer; right now.”
PRO TIP: These entrepreneurs were relentless about honing and testing their messages, asking themselves, “At the end of my talk, I want my audience to describe my company as __________________ [fill-in-the-blank].” That fill-in-the blank answer became their core message.
- Keep the Pitch Clear & Simple
Often the most difficult part of creating a business presentation is stating the key points as clearly and simply as possible. As an expert in your field, you know much more than you could possibly explain to an audience in a six-minute pitch. What is important is to connect technical terms and complex concepts to more familiar ideas for the audience.
For example, one of the participants developed a software platform that simplified an overly complicated process that used antiquated technology. Instead of spending a lot of time delineating all the technical problems, he put up a slide with arrows going everywhere and simply said, “The current process looks like this. What a mess!”
PRO TIP: The most effective presenters strip away the jargon, industry lingo, and acronyms. They deliver meaningful information using simple, understandable language the leaves little room for misinterpretation.
- Your Delivery Matters
Beyond getting the content of your presentation right, you also need to deliver it well. Many presenters think they need to completely memorize their pitches in order to nail the delivery. Actually though, having your presentation memorized is not required. What matters is being able to deliver it with confidence. Rehearsing will help you feel comfortable enough to get those points across and “make friends with your audience,” as one participant put it.
Nearly all of the DLTL founders pointed to the value of practice and rehearsal in their survey responses: “Nothing beats practicing the pitch. Learn the story well enough to tell it in your sleep.” In particular, being able to practice in the room the morning of Demo Day really helped.
PRO TIP: Here’s a rule of thumb: a presentation that’s “done” on paper is probably about 70% done in reality. On average, it takes five focused practice sessions to really seal the deal, especially when it comes to high-stakes presentations. Don’t be surprised if the first three times you say it out loud you find yourself editing the story. It’s only when you say it out loud that you find out what works and what doesn’t, what trips you up and what truly resonates. Chris Andersen, Head of TED advises speakers to rehearse their talk until they can let their personality shine through.
- It’s All About the Story (Story Wins!)
The winner of the grand prize for DLTL’s Demo Day this year was Sonja Ebron, an entrepreneur from Durham, NC pitching her company, Courtroom5. Courtroom5 is a platform that empowers individuals representing themselves in court. But what made Sonja’s pitch standout was her authentic storytelling.
Sonja Ebron and her co-founder Debra Slone were once victims of a racketeering scheme. Because they were unable to afford to hire a lawyer, they represented themselves in court and lost. Their experience led them to become experts in civil law and to design this platform to help others in similar situations represent themselves for a cost well below what a lawyer would charge.
PRO TIP: As Esther Choy, author of Let the Story Do the Work advises, “You don’t have to be a superhero to tell a story.” For these DLTL entrepreneurs, simply sharing the origin of their companies made the pivotal difference. If you find yourself in a similar position, ask:
- Why do I do what I do?
- How did I begin?
- What happened that prompted or motivated me?
Also, keep in mind that getting to your deep story or your “why” can take time. You may have to be relentless in your questioning to peel back the layers and recall the “spark” that got you started. Once you find it, though, your pitch will really resonate.
If you have a high-stakes presentation or big business pitch coming up, giving yourself plenty of time for preparation is key. Remember that it’s natural for your pitch to evolve. Ask yourself the right questions to get to your core message, then work on your delivery and telling your story as much as possible. The strongest business pitch is the most memorable (in a good way)!