Professional Tips for Success in Pitch Competitions

There are more pitch contests in New Orleans these days than you’d find at a Major League Baseball tryout, which makes it a challenge for startups or early stage entrepreneurs (or even established enterprises launching new products or services) to keep up.

But what separates the winning pitches from the also-rans? I asked a pair of coaching professionals who have guided previous entrants to success for their opinions.

1. Tailor to fit.

“The first and most important thing is to know your audience,” said Maureen Huguley, who helps entrepreneurs prepare for all kinds of business presentations. “Understand who you are speaking to and tailor your presentation to them.”

2. Don’t let your duds distract.

Dressing appropriately is also important, said Huguley, who recommends against flashing a bunch of tattoos in a formal business setting. “Your physical appearance can prevent your audience from listening to you.”

3. Practice makes perfect.

Huguley and Daniel Applewhite, director of programs at Propeller, both emphasized the importance of practicing your pitch.

“Whatever your time limit is for your pitch, get it to where you can do it with 15 seconds to spare,” Applewhite advised, as this gives contestants a little wiggle room to make sure their grand pitch finale doesn’t get cut off.

“Speak your presentation into a cell phone, then play it back and listen to it,” Huguley recommended. “Even get a little audience together and get their feedback. More rehearsals make you more comfortable.”

4. Know thyself, and adjust as needed.

Applewhite urged competitors to avoid personal and speech mannerisms that can be off-putting, like pacing the stage or ending sentences in ways that make them sound like questions. And then there’s the dreaded “um.”

“Say ‘um’ 100 times out loud before you go on stage,” he advised; this gets them out of your system, and should you relapse during your pitch, you are more likely to notice and stop doing it.

5. Remember paragraph writing in school?

In terms of content, Huguley stressed following a basic outline, with opening, body and close.

“You should always begin with something to capture the audience’s attention – a fact, an image, a statistic, a quick story. Then you follow the traditional approach of telling them what you’re going to tell them, telling them, and telling them what you just told them.”

6. Clutter free is the way to be.

Brief and simple is important.

“The judges don’t need to know everything about your widget, just enough to want to know more,” she added. ‘I don’t need to know how a Styrofoam cup works, just that it keeps hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold.”

Other tips she offered including avoiding jargon – “And if you simply have to use it, explain it and provide context” – and as may be appropriate, adding a little humor to your spiel.

7. Make sure the dollars make sense.

Applewhite made a key point regarding the financial component of the pitch.

“Make sure your ask is compelling and appropriate. If the prize is $10,000 and you need $4 million to launch, you’re not likely to get the $10,000. But if you can tell me specifically what you are going to do with the prize amount, describe some tangible way you are going to benefit from it and have an impact with it, then I am interested.”

8. Think beyond the grand prize.

Participating in pitch contests has benefits beyond the possible monetary rewards. People in the audience may hear your pitch and be interested in supporting you even if you don’t win. Reactions you get to your pitch may help you improve your presentation in other settings. Simply speaking in public, especially with something at stake, is always a good exercise.

Still, no matter how many participation trophies are handed out to kids these days, there’s nothing like winning, especially when there’s money up for grabs.

The key to success in one word? Preparation.

As Huguley concluded, “Ninety percent of how your presentation goes is determined before you step on stage.”

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.