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Startup and Scale-up pitching – 5 errors that kill the pitch

Robert Mollen , Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson (London) LLP
16 Jan, 2018
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Robert P. Mollen, Counsel at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson (London) LLP.

I recently saw upwards of 20 pitches from startups and scale-ups in a single day. Many were effective – but several not so good.

Over the course of the last several years, I’ve probably seen high hundreds, if not thousands, of founder pitches. While the general standard of entrepreneur pitching in the UK and Europe has improved over that period, I remain surprised by the number of entrepreneurs who don’t recognize that pitching is a key business skill. This is not simply a matter of securing investment – pitching is selling, and products and services, no matter how innovative, don’t sell themselves.

I’ve previously written about errors that I see in investor pitch decks and executive summaries, and I regularly work with entrepreneurs to improve their written investor pitch materials. I’ve also written about some special considerations in pitching to US VC’s. This blog, however, is focused on oral pitching.

I’m not an expert in oral presentational skills, but here are five key errors that I see regularly.

1. You don’t let the best pitcher pitch

Selling is a skill. I think just about everyone can get better at doing it, but some of us are always going to be more effective than others.

Founders need to let the best pitcher pitch. That person may not be the CEO, particularly if the CEO has an accent that is difficult for others to follow, is a techie who loves to get buried in the detail, or simply is not comfortable thinking on his or her feet or speaking before a group. Savvy founders put together a team with different skills. One of those is sales ability, and founder/CEO’s should be self-critical in assessing their pitching skills. There is no shame in designating another member of the team to pitch.

2. You don’t tell a story

Pitching is story-telling. Pitches need to have a clear beginning, a middle, and an end. No matter what you are selling, you need for the audience to be engaged in the narrative, to follow its progression, and to understand why they should care.

Part of this is simply communication of key relevant information in a logical and progressive way – what your business or product does, why it is special, what validation you have for your claims (key customers, evidence-based support etc.), how your business model works etc. While this would seem easy, I am astonished to see pitches that fail to meet this minimal standard.

Additionally, though, you need to figure out how to make your presentation resonate with, and be relevant to, your audience – whether that is through one or more case studies, examples, graphics, demonstrations, videos or some other means. For some businesses, it is reasonably obvious what they do and why the audience should care. For many B2B businesses, such as data analytics businesses, however, it can be harder. But in either case, you need to meet this challenge.

If you can manage it, showing is better than telling. For example, a video that shows your product or service in action, or shows customers talking about why they like it, is much more effective than any description from you. A demonstration can be very effective so long as you can present it reliably and are not derailed by local internet or other tech problems. If you are selling a product, have an example available that people can see and touch.

3. You talk at your audience rather than with them

I continue to see pitches that are delivered like a speech. The presenter sounds like he or she is reading from a script. The vocabulary is that of the written word rather than the way people actually talk. Audiences quickly disengage.

Your audience will find your pitch a lot more interesting if you chat with them rather than speechify. And you will find that conversing with your audience, much like you would with a group of friends, is a lot more comfortable as well.

4. You have lots of text-heavy slides, and you read from them

PowerPoint is ubiquitous in pitching, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. If you use slides, though, your oral presentation shouldn’t recapitulate the words on the slide. Rather, the slides should provide a jumping off point for your oral discussion.

Additionally, your slides should be picture and graphics-heavy, and text-light. Pictures and graphics are much more effective than words in communicating key points quickly. Heavy text is distracting – you want your audience to be focused on what you are saying, not what you’ve written on a slide.

However, graphically-busy slides are also a problem. If an audience can’t look at your slide and immediately get the point, you will face the same problem as with heavy text – they will focus on trying to understand the slide, not on what you are saying.

Finally, beware of slide fatigue. There is a temptation with PowerPoint to think that more slides are better. That is rarely the case.

5. You don’t practice

Effective pitching is a learned skill. Like most other skills, it improves substantially with practice.

Entrepreneurs need to practice their pitches – both by themselves and before critical friendly audiences who will provide honest comments. I have worked in pitch training sessions where the differences in both presentational skills and content between the beginning of day one and the end of day two have been like night and day. There are skilled pitch coaches around – they cost money, but you will find that they deliver real value if you can tap their services (individually or as part of a group) at a cost that you can afford.

A pitch needs to be second nature by the time that you deliver it before an investor or commercial audience. You shouldn’t need to think about it – rather, your focus should be on whether your audience is engaged in what you are saying and, if not, what you can do about it. Similarly, if you are taking questions during the pitch, you need to focus on how to respond, without worrying about losing your place in the pitch. Finally, you will be much more relaxed if you are living and breathing your pitch rather than having to recall it.


Promoting your business and products/services effectively is core to your success as an entrepreneur – not an after-thought. You need to approach pitching in the same way as you approach other mission-critical aspects of your business.

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This discussion is not intended to provide legal advice, and no legal or business decision should be based on its contents. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact [email protected].

You will find a listing of Bob’s startup and scale-up blogs on US and international expansion and other startup and scale-up matters here:

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