Four common mistakes when pitching startups onstage

Sushi Suzuki

This is a guest post by Sushi Suzuki.

Sushi is an associate professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, where he teaches design thinking, product innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is also the founder of Kyoto Startup Summer School, Japan’s most intense entrepreneurship program conducted fully in English.

Sushi is an active startup-pitching coach who has helped over one hundred startups around the world improve their presentation, on-stage presence, and delivery.

Sushi was born in Kyoto, Japan but spent over fifteen years in the US and over five in Europe and has traveled to over sixty countries. He holds a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and B.A. in Studio Arts from Rice University.

Photo by Flickr user Roger H. Goun, used under a Creative Commons license

Over the years, I have had the fortune of listening to a lot of startup pitches as well as coaching at some of the biggest events in the world including Slush Tokyo and Techsauce. While the importance of pitches is universally acknowledged, few entrepreneurs seem to take the time to design a compelling presentation. Through my coaching experiences, I realized that there are common mistakes that entrepreneurs often make. Here are four of them.

Mistake 1: Too much information in the slides

The pitch deck has become a ubiquitous tool in the startup world for entrepreneurs to explain their startup via a compact set of slides. Google “startup pitch” and there are countless articles and templates for budding entrepreneurs. However, a pitch deck is drastically different from presentation deck.

Comparison between a pitch deck and a presentation deck (click to enlarge)

First and foremost, the pitch deck is a standalone document. It is almost always sent via e-mail, and the entrepreneur is not there to narrate through the slides. Therefore, all the necessary information needs to be contained within the slides so that the content makes sense to first time readers. A lot of advice online for creating a pitch pertain to the standalone pitch deck. Following these advice, however, will lead to a terrible presentation deck with too much text.

Even if the entrepreneur is not using their pitch deck as a presentation deck, more often than not, the slides will contain too much information for the audience. PowerPoint and other presentation softwares, with their standard templates, lead presenters to create outlines with titles and bullet points. I always tell presenters that they should be the primary focus of the presentation, and the slides are supplemental material. If the slides contain too much information, the audience will shift their attention from listening to the presenter to reading and understanding the slides. The best presenters, such as Steve Jobs, have minimal content on the slides which are there to reinforce the key point being made.

Mistake 2: Not having a strong hook

We live in a world where people have increasingly short attention spans. Everyday, we are bombarded with so much information that we have become very good at tuning out. If an entrepreneur is not able to grab the attention of the audience in the first ten to twenty seconds, they will tune out for the rest of the presentation. Therefore, it is important to have a very strong hook at the beginning to draw the audience in for the rest of the pitch.

There are many ways of designing the hook and it should be different for every startup. Often, the best way is to surprise the audience. This could be done through an unexpected fact about your industry or field or a user story that emotionally draws in the audience. Another way could be to engage the audience by asking them a question or having them relate back to a time. This makes the presentation more personal for the audience. The hook should be unique to every startup, but every startup pitch needs a hook.

The worst way to start a presentation is to spend ten to twenty seconds just introducing yourself and the startup and not starting the presentation. This is especially common in Japanese pitch events where entrepreneurs politely and modestly introduce themselves and thank the audience for being there. This is unnecessary and a waste of time.

Mistake 3: Forgetting the call to action

Small pitch competitions bring together dozens of people. The finals for a large pitch competition can have over a thousand people in the audience including countless VCs and journalists. This exposure is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs, but many forget to be direct.

Call to action is an instruction for the audience that almost always comes at the end of a pitch. This could include statements such as “download our demo today and try Pinchako” or “we are looking to raise $500,000 to enter the European market.” Startups are always looking for something and time on stage is the perfect moment to ask, but many forget to do so.

Mistake 4: Being forgettable

There are many, many startups in the world, and most will fail. This is a fact of life. While there may be exceptions, very rarely do startups succeed by blending in. The goal of a startup is to be exceptional, and this is no different on stage at a pitch competition.

Yet I see so many entrepreneurs trying to follow a template or copy pitches they’ve seen. While there are best practices in designing pitches, following a formula often leads to bland and forgettable pitches. An entrepreneur will give one pitch at a competition, but judges sit through a dozen of more, and most will be forgotten by the end of the day.

There is no magic formula for uniqueness. I’ve seen founders rapping, dressing up in ninja costumes , and taking the audience through an emotional journey through a life of a young Indian mother. Every startup is different, and like the hook, there should be a unique angle for every startup to be memorable.

Presenting is one of those things that seem easy but is difficult to do well. Startup pitches are extremely challenging because of short duration and high intensity. There is very little room for mistakes and very little time to recover. I have seen founders with great ideas flounder on stage and fail to get their point across. I have also seen pitches executed perfectly even if the underlying idea seemed pedestrian.

Creating a great pitch is no different from creating a company or a product. It takes thought, planning, practice, and lots of failures. If you are preparing to pitch, in addition to avoiding the four common mistakes above, my advice is to think through what you want to communicate with your pitch and design your presentation accordingly. Don’t start by stitching together information you have in a haphazard way. Also, I highly suggest prototyping and testing. Gather friends and family, ideally people who do not know much about your startup, and try your pitch. See how much they understood about your idea, and if your point is coming through. They say, “practice makes perfect,” and this is very true about startup pitching.

If you are interested in this subject matter, I recently published the book “Riveting: Startup Pitches that Persuade from Storytelling to Design.” In the book I cover the various aspects of an onstage startup pitch including structure, delivery, and modes of presentation. The book contains pointers to many examples and borrows inspiration from fields such as graphic design and advertising. It is now available on paperback and ebook from all Amazon marketplaces ( Japan / US ).