Virtual Pitching Tips: 14 Learnings From a Year of Home Office

Tilman Kemper
Pitching virtually is different than an in-person presentation and sometimes tough. Yet, it’s needed – especially during a global pandemic.

COVID-19 represents one of the biggest threats to many companies over the past decade. The past few weeks have been dominated by cascading news on the developments of the virus and its impact on our work and lives. B2B sales cycles are even longer than usual, consumer behavior has shifted in an instant, public aid for startups is still intransparent, and investors are reluctant to invest, facing uncertainty and scrambling to evaluate the impact on their portfolios. As a result, money has become even more scarce as a resource and many startups are in dire need of cash.

So what do startups do when they want to sell their solutions or get funding?

They pitch.

Many people would argue that a pitch in person is always the most powerful way to convince people but what to do when this is no longer possible? Within two weeks, virtual pitching has become the new normal. Now, it’s more important than ever — and it’s scary because many people feel unprepared.

As a Venture Developer at APX, it’s a part of my work to help our startups improve their pitches. That is why we conduct a weekly format called ‘Pitch Tuesday’ during which the companies pitch in front of a broad audience to receive feedback as well as to improve and eventually excel at public speaking. We held, ironically enough, exactly 100 physical Pitch Tuesdays in our office before we were forced to conduct our 101st Pitch Tuesday fully remote and digital. Apart from a few minor errors, it went well but far from perfect (here’s the recording of the event if you want to see it). Even better though, we were immediately able to see how the format and pitches could be improved. Some improvements are really obvious, others less so. Aside from a reliable internet connection, here are my top virtual pitching tips.

  1. Mic setup. If nothing else, people need to hear you well. Make sure you have a working microphone, no echo, and the right sensitivities to pick up your voice. Most programs and devices let you test your microphone input/output volume. Do it. Nothing is more annoying than sound breaking up due to a faulty mic setup.
  2. 1, 2, TEST. Familiarize yourself with the software used to pitch and present. Whether it is Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, or more niche solutions like StreamYard, there is no excuse to, all of a sudden, struggle to find the screen share button or that you can’t seem to find the right screen to present. In this context, also make sure you give all the necessary permissions to your browser and/or desktop application to allow sound, mic access, and screen access. Lastly, disable desktop notifications to avoid embarrassing messages popping in.
  3. Laptop position matters. People don’t want to see the insides of your nostrils nor do they want to see your face from a 90° angle. How would you talk to another person? At eye-level, and that’s how you should think about your laptop position. I believe this dimension is important enough to add two more points.
  4. Laptop stand. If you have one at your disposal, get it back out from under your desk (I use this one). If you don’t have one, try boxes to create a makeshift stand. An elevated laptop position often enables you to look at your camera in a natural, straight line. It feels a lot more like a real conversation and you don’t have to look up- or downward. By the way, if you are using a smartphone for some reason, you might also choose a tripod
  5. Make eye contact! Easily one of the hardest things to get used to but also one of the most powerful. Oftentimes we tend to look at the video faces of each other. However, this means we don’t look directly in the camera and, thus, don’t make eye contact. Imagine a TV host speaking to you but not looking at you directly. Seems wrong, doesn’t it? Force yourself to look at the camera while you are talking and listening, it will make a huge difference. You can’t seem to do it? Here’s what I did as a quick fix: add two post-it notes next to the camera and have arrows point at it like this — I know it’s beautiful…
  6. Lighting. There are hundreds of tutorials out there on how to achieve the perfect lighting. I’ll not add another to this list. However, here’s what I would say: never sit directly under a light source, ideally position yourself two feet directly opposite of a window or lamp (people swear by LED ring lights) to look flattering, and avoid having a light source directly in your camera as it creates glare.
  7. Consider your background. Try to have a neutral background, avoid wild patterns. The attention should lie on you and your pitch. It can be fun to play around with the Zoom options and suddenly stand in front of the Golden Gate Bridge but it’s likely counter-productive. If creating a neutral background for you is challenging, consider using Microsoft Teams if possible since you can blur out everything around you. One exception to this rule is, of course, if you can go viral instead.
  8. No audience. When you do an ‘analog’ pitch, you receive immediate feedback. You can observe facial expressions change, people falling asleep, and enthusiasm spread. When you do it digitally, you do not. It’s like pitching in a dark room, it’s weird. Still, act like people are responding, maybe even add rhetorical questions as if people were reacting. Great idea, right?
  9. A lot more amplified. I’m going to comment on attention (and lack thereof) in the next point. The digital layer intensifies your story, visuals and overall pitch. Your script matters even more, and remember point 5) on eye contact. In a live crowd, you can only look at one person at a time. Now you can, hypothetically, have eye contact with thousands of viewers.
  10. Attention span. Less is more. This almost deserves its own post; I’ll try to keep it short. People are used to highly stimulating digital content on Instagram, TikTok, Netflix and such. Also, consider TV ads: there isn’t one unnecessary word. Problem, Solution, Product, Opportunity, Team, Call-to-Action. Don’t let the attention span of your audience, no matter whether it’s your next potential investor, customer or broader audience, drop. It’s way too easy for them to switch to another browser tab or open their email client. Every sentence matters so try to be crisp. Having said this, leave enough time for questions. This helps you to include the crowd and keeps the people engaged with your story. We adjusted to this as well. At Pitch Tuesday, we now opt for a 90-second company presentation, rather than 5–8 minutes and take live questions from the chat.
  11. Standing is an option. Depending on the pitching format you may want to consider taking a step back and stand while presenting. This is a good option when you present to a larger crowd because it resembles a real stage pitch even more closely. Be aware that in this case, you would also need to adjust the setup. For personal talks with investors or one-on-one presentations, this feels unnatural.
  12. Don’t move (too much). Especially if you decide to do a standing pitch, don’t wobble back-and-forth and from left to right. Have a firm stand. Maybe even mark your spot on the floor with a little cross made of tape. Of course, you shouldn’t just be frozen in place (use your hands and gestures), however, moving too much will lead to the camera going in- and out-of-focus and tends to feel like you’re uncomfortable or uncertain.
  13. Account for lag. Something unique about going fully digital is your dependence on a solid internet connection. And since we apparently still haven’t figured out how to get this done for everyone, you need to account for lag. What I mean by this is the delay between your input and the output on the other side. For example, if you ask a question, wait slightly longer than you usually would to hear the answer or follow-up.
  14. Record the audience. Here’s a pleasant opportunity: most platforms or streams allow us to record the meeting; I’d recommend you do it each time if (but remember to ask for consent if it is not your own event). It offers you to not only playback your pitch and reflect on it but also to let you record the audiences’ feedback and questions and your respective answer to each. This is super valuable.

One dimension that applies regardless of the pitch format: practice makes perfect. Never has simulating a ‘real-life’ pitch been so easy to replicate. You can literally do it from home. Pitch in front of your laptop. Analyze and dissect your script to the bone. Improve it. Rinse and repeat. While this, unfortunately, doesn’t immediately result in more money on your account, it will certainly increase your chances of raising funds.

Good luck — and make sure to tune in every first Tuesday of the month at 5 pm for the APX Pitch Tuesday if you wanna see how we’re doing it: apx.berlin/pitchtuesday.

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