Three Keys to Winning Pitch Competitions

November 2015

I’ve listened to hundreds of idea pitches. It’s always a lot of fun and it’s great to hear new ideas. I’ve witnessed some of these ideas progress into full-blown startups and some even into very successful businesses.

But I’ve also seen many bad pitches. Pitches that not only have poor quality of the verbal presentation but also have poor content, poor design and poor narrative structure.

So what distinguishes a good pitch from a bad pitch? What advice can entrepreneurs follow in building a great pitch?

By the way, here I’m talking mainly about the short stack variety (there are many great resources regarding the full-blow investor pitch). Idea pitches are usually quick (one to five minutes), often without slides, and usually with a few questions from judges.

Here are my three keys to winning idea pitch competitions:

1. Pitch elements. There are at least six elements to most pitches:

  • the Problem (or unmet need)
  • the Market (including size)
  • the Customer (target)
  • the Innovation (uniqueness)
  • the Solution (specific details)
  • the Value (including monetization strategies).

Start by determining which of these elements you need to include in your pitch and start developing a narrative for them.

2. Pitch design. Next is figuring out the design of the pitch. This might be informed by the rules of the competition and the judging criteria. Pay attention to that as a starting point and then start building your pitch with the following approaches:

  • Element sequence. What is the story you are trying to tell? Does it start with the problem and then proceed to the solution or is the innovation so unique that you will want to lead with that as a strength?
  • Element emphasis: For each pitch element, first determine the length for each and the depth of discussion. This is where you are highlighting your strengths that the judges will remember. You have to decide how long you talk about each element and the depth of detail you go into for each. Finally, you also need to consider if you need to loop back into any elements during your pitch to deliver more clarity. I call these “clarity loops”. For example, you may start by briefly talking about the problem so you can quickly proceed to the great innovation, but then you may need to loop back to the problem in order to provide a more concrete example.
  • Design for great questions. Most competitions allow the judges to ask questions. Design your pitch so you get great questions that help you expand on your narrative so you can emphasize your strengths. Don’t make the judges ask “dumb” questions that you should have answered by having a great pitch design.

3. Pitch visualization. This is tougher (especially with verbal-only pitches) but is key to holding the attention of the audience and helping you to deliver a great pitch. With visualization, you are designing your pitch so that the audience can “see” where you are going. You could start with the big picture problem and then progressively move into more and more detail through the pitch. Or you could start with the detail of the specific solution and then expand into a broader talk of the customer and market opportunity. Maybe you start big with a problem statement, go small with details on your innovation/solution and then end with a big emphasis (“this will change the world for a billion people!”). Developing your craft of storytelling is certainly a key to developing a great pitch.

Every pitch competition is different but the above will give you a solid framework for developing a great pitch and aiming to not only win pitch competitions but to ultimately get you broader interest in your idea and what you need to move it forward.