The Do's and Don'ts of Acing a Pitch Competition

These simple but important pointers will help you shine as you present your business to the judges.

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By Laura Entis

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Earlier this week, startup accelerator Techstars hosted a pitch night at its New York City location. A panel of judges heard pitches from seven founders or founder teams. The judges were Jay Levy, co-founder of Zelkova Ventures; KJ Signh, director of Techstars NYC; Jason Saltzman, co-founder of the co-working space Alley NYC; and Ray Hennessey, Entrepreneur's editorial director.

The presented companies made up a diverse group: There wasn't a clear thread that connected each pitch in terms of industry, and yet listening to them all back-to-back illuminated some universal pointers on the do's and don'ts of mastering a pitch competition.

Here they are:

1. Do work out all technology kinks before presenting

Each presenter or presenting team used a power point slideshow as a complement to their pitch. The best ones were well designed – the founders of monthly coffee subscription service Drift Away Coffee, for example, used a power point that was sleek and informative – but more importantly, they were seamless. When used well, they reinforced the information being verbally conveyed without distracting from it. Unfortunately, multiple presenters ran into technological problems. Slides skipped, or were not arranged in the appropriate order. Not only did these issues distract from the quality of the pitch, but they sucked up precious minutes as presenters' scrambled to fix them on the fly.

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Before presenting, make sure your slideshow and any other technological aids are working properly. Show up at the venue early and ask to do a test run, if possible. The worst thing that can happen is for your otherwise flawless presentation to start or end with a technological hiccup.

2. Don't spotlight a lack of preparation

Because many pitch nights are fairly informal, delivering an excessively buttoned-up presentation can come across as stilted. That said, it's never a good idea to waltz in and advertise that you haven't prepared at all, as one founder did. His presentation, while casual, was going fine until he nonchalantly announced "I had to throw this together last minute, sorry."

This throwaway comment was a doubly misguided: It made him appear unprepared and it showed a lack of respect for the judges' time.

Life happens. Circumstances may arise that prevent you from polishing your presentation as much as you would have liked. But that doesn't mean you should announce your lack of preparedness on stage.

3. Do anticipate the judges' questions, and address them in your presentation

After each pitch, it's typical for the judges to ask each presenter a few questions about his or her company.

During their presentation the co-founders of TripExpert explained that their travel review site differentiates itself from competitors like TripAdvisor by basing its ratings solely on professional reviews, not user-generated ones.

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Typically, the time reserved for post-pitch questions is limited. Don't waste any of it by making the judges inquire about basic information that should have been addressed in the pitch itself, such as relevant growth metrics, market opportunity, margins and competitors in the industry. Try to weave this information into your presentation – not only will it make you look professional, but it will also free up the judges to get more granular with their questions in order to truly evaluate your business and provide constructive feedback.

4. Don't answer a question that hasn't been asked

Getting grilled by the judges right after you've presented can be an understandably disorienting experience. Still, it's important to pay close attention to what's actually being asked: take a moment to digest each question before answering. It's ok to ask a judge for clarification if you're not sure what he or she is getting at. You want to avoid the following situation, in which a founder misinterpreted a question, gave a long-winded answer, only to have the judge re-word his original question. In the end, it was a waste of time and effort for both parties.

5. Do explain, in clear terms, what your company is and the problem it solves

While you're presenting to the judges – men and women who are likely steeped in startup acronyms and business speak – you're also typically presenting for a more general audience of onlookers. Regardless, it's a good idea to address what your company does and the problem it solves in as clear and concise language as possible in your introduction.

That level of clarity is a welcome relief from pitches in which the presenter wraps up his or her spiel, only to be asked by a judge: so what does your company actually do? It sounds ridiculous, but it happens more often than you'd think.

Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Media is an investor and partner with AlleyNYC, a co-working space in New York City.

Related: 4 Insider Tips From VCs

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for's Venture section.

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