The Art of the Pitch

It’s rare that a start-up entrepreneur gets the chance to pitch their idea for ten minutes on a reality TV show, and even rarer that they get the chance to pitch in a 30-second “elevator pitch.” But if any of these opportunities do arise, Ash Conway has a piece of advice – first, tell them exactly what you do and what problems you solve.

“First, tell them exactly what you do and what problems you solve.”

“The last thing you want is people thinking ‘what does this business do?’ all the way through your pitch” he says. “You’d be surprised how often that happens. So no matter how long you have, spelling out upfront exactly what your business or idea does is really important.”

The expert pitcher

Conway should know. As founder of web-based beta-testing service Bugwolf, which uses ‘gamification’ – testers competing against each other – to test a company’s website, apps and online products for functional defects prior to market launch, he has made innumerable pitches.

And if pitching were an Olympic event, Conway would be a silver medallist. In November last year, he pitched live before more than 4,000 people in Dublin at the Web Summit technology pitching competition – the world’s largest tech start-up conference – and came runner-up.

The key to successful pitching, he says, is honing the content, and then practising the delivery, relentlessly.

“It’s absolutely vital to have a really good story.”

“It’s absolutely vital to have a really good story. The core structure that I’ve honed over the years is to focus on what we do, why we do what we do, what’s the problem that we’re solving, how do we solve that, and what are the benefits that we deliver to customers,” he says.

Understand your audience

The pitch should be refined into an investor version, and a customer version, he says. “These are different audiences, but a lot of start-ups don’t get that,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff that you’d talk to investors about that you might not necessarily disclose to your clients. A potential client is more interested in seeing what value you can deliver to them. The investors want to get into your financial numbers, your growth and traction statistics, your speed to market, your growth trajectory. It’s important to give the right pitch to the right audience.”

The pitch should be refined into an investor version, and a customer version.

Where the practising comes into it is that pitching, at its essence, is a performance, says Conway. “Nothing beats practice – you can’t do enough of it. Too many people think they can rely on their passion and how great their idea is. But that’s subjective: you’ve got to get that across to your listeners, and practice is how you maximise your chances of doing that. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.”

Public speaking, or conversation?

At the outset, Conway recommends practising your pitch alone out loud, to get the vocal delivery right. “A lot of it is about modulating your voice and being confident. It’s sometimes public speaking, and sometimes conversation, and you’ve got to visualize yourself in front of both a big crowd and a small group, and adapt your style. I actually practise a lot on my own. I stand up and do it out loud, but I also take every chance I can to do the pitch, live, in front of as many people as I can, and get their feedback. I’m constantly looking at ways to tweak it and feedback is essential.”

“It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.”

He recommends being adaptable to any period of time – even a few minutes. “If I only have a few minutes, I pick a midpoint in my pitch deck, a particular slide, so I know whether I have to speed things up or maintain the current pace. I think that’s very important” he says.

And the cliché of the elevator pitch? It can happen, he says. “Having the 30-second elevator pitch in your back pocket for when you bump into someone is great. Being able to articulate that 30-second pitch upfront is important, and it helps you to be more concise when you do have more time” says Conway.