As a pitch coach, I see a lot of startup pitches. Just yesterday I found myself reviewing the pitches of three very different companies. Their target customers, business models & their company life-cycle stages could not be more different. But I found myself making the same comment to all three during our session. In fact it’s a sentiment that I share with almost every founder who I work with on their pitch. “You’ve got the grab and keep audience attention in a pitch; it’s the most important thing.”

The pitch review & coaching sessions that we provide are highly holistic, and the recommendations we provide span a wide breadth of topics including: (1) what content the presenter covers in their pitch, (2) the way in which they present it – their presentation and public speaking skills, (3) the deck design itself, and (4) last but not least the story & flow of the pitch overall. That’s a lot of stuff to cover! This particular comment “You’ve got the grab and keep attention; it’s the most important thing.” is applicable to and has major implications on all four of these areas.

Why You Need your Audience’s Attention

This should kind of be a no brainier. If you want to convey some important, useful, or valuable information to another person–no matter what that information is–you need them to give you their attention. When someone pays attention, they are listening and engaged. They hear what the speaker is saying. They take it to heart, they consider it, they evaluate it. The listener does not think about what they want to have for lunch or what meetings they need to prepare for later in the day, or who is going to be pitching to them next. You need to grab and hold that person’s attention so that the words you say the things you are sharing make it through their ears and into their brain, stored in their memory. Seems easy, but it’s really not.

Why Attention is the Hardest Thing

We’re human. That’s why. I assume your audience is human, right? As a human your audience member has a very complex brain through which they view, perceive, filter, and understand the world. They have an advanced pre-frontal cortex which likes to do detailed analytics and problem solve, but they also have a reptile brain that is emotional, impulsive and doesn’t like complex things. Our brains perceive an insane amount of data each day. Way more than we are conscious of. All the time the brain is trying to decide whether something is important to act on or remember. All day, every day. So we only have a finite amount of of things we can pay attention to at once. And the more we pay attention to one thing over the others, the more we will remember that one thing over others. So as a presenter your job is to grab attention and hold on to it as long as you can.

How to Grab Attention

  1. Tell a story
  2. Make someone relate to what you’re saying personally
  3. Make large, unbelievable statments

How to Keep Attention

  1. Tell a story
  2. Reduce / eliminate distractions
  3. Answer your audience’s questions before they ask them

How Attention Relates to the Pitch

When you pitching your startup, either for funding or to potential clients, you definitely need to grab and hold attention. It is imperative. It is really the first hurdle. Often when putting together thier pitch, founders find themselves working about a lot of things. Perfecting a lot of things. “Am I talking about the right things?” “Have I clearly outlined the market size?” “Am I asking for the right amount of funding?” “Can the investor tell I really know my shit / industry?”

While these are all valuable things to perfect and fine tune in your pitch, they won’t matter unless you first get and keep your audiences attention. That is the first step. The first hurdle you must hit. Many, many founders have a hard time hitting this hurdle in live-presentations.

Attention and the Story / Flow of a Pitch

Did you notice that “tell a story” was #1 in both the how to grab attention and keep attention lists? That’s because storytelling is the absolute best way to engage with an audience and keep their attention. Listing out facts is boring. Telling a story to convey those facts is not. As humans (just checking.. you are still a human right?) we have been telling stories as a way of communicating and distilling and passing on information for eons. You can bet, they told a story while sitting around the very first campfire. A story has an arc to it, a beginning, middle and an end. It gives insight into another life, or relate-ability to my own life. Stories help us empathize.

So a great way to grab attention and keep it during a pitch is to start off with a story. It might be a personal story about how you came up with this concept, it might be a customer story talking about the challenges that your customers face in detail, it might be the story of an industry and how it has changed over time to lead us to today. That story is a spark that we light at the beginning of a pitch, and a thread that you should try to weave throughout it to ensure you are capturing your audience’s attention.

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Attention and your Public Speaking Skills

When you are presenting live, there are A LOT of ways in which your verbal and non verbal actions affect your audience’s attention level.

Some ways you can lose attention

  • Filler Words. “Umm” “Uhh” “Clears throat” We all use filler words, but it is best to avoid them as much as possible. They are very distracting to your audience. What um if I um wrote “um” throughout my blog post as many times as um people say “um” in their pitch? It would be horrible distracting.
  • Nervous Ticks. Shifting you weight, moving your arms around too much, touching your face, neck or hair consistently through a presentation are all nervous ticks. They can be extremely distracting to the subconscious of your audience.

Some ways you can keep audience attention in a pitch

  • Pausing. When you pause after you say a big, powerful or important statement, you will grab their attention and make them think. It gives them space to think and to remember.
  • Be Happy. I know you’re going to be nervous, but don’t sound nervous. It’s hard to listen to someone who is nervous and timid. It is really easy to listen to and care about what someone is saying when they are upbeat, excited, engaged, and interested sounding. We mirror each other. If you sound excited about this your audience will likely be too.

Attention and the Pitch Deck

Why do we have a pitch deck in the first place? What is the point of having a visual aid on the screen behind us as we present? Contrary to how many people use it, this deck is NOT to help you remember what you were going to say. Don’t use it as a crutch. It’s there because as humans we retain and remember more information if we see and hear it at the same time than if we just heard it. And, because “a pictures is speaks a thousand words” and can raise thoughts, feelings and emotions in people instantaneously. So your presentation that you pitch with is for your audience of potential investors or potential customers to better understand what you’ve said and what you’re trying to convey. It is a visual aid. A sure fire way to lose your audience’s attention is by providing a visual aid that distracts them from what you are saying.

Don’t present in front of a wall of text. In fact, in general, reduce text in live presentations as much as you possibly can. When you have a text heavy presentation you make your audience have to choose whether to listen to you or to read your slides. Most do a little of both and remember neither. Don’t do that! Keep your pitch deck visual, lots of imagery, graphics, and limited text. Don’t use distracting animation or transitions unless they are extremely valuable to the depiction of a complex event/action.

“You’re Losing Them!”

Pay attention to your audience as you pitch. (That’s right, it’s your tun to pay attention too!) Watch their body language. They are telling you when you have their attention and when you do not. Is your potential investor alert, sitting forward in his chair and looking at you and possibly taking notes? You’ve got his/her attention. Are they looking down, leaned back, looking out the window at their phone, or have glazed over eyes? You’ve lost them! During the Q&A if you get questions about things you know you covered, it’s because you lost their attention during the presentation at that point. If they ask playful, exploring questions like “Have you thought about this?” Then you know you had their attention.

If it feels like it would be near impossible to watch your audience WHILE you pitch to them, then you likely haven’t practiced your pitch enough. When you’re well practiced, you’ll be be comfortable and loose while pitching it. Loose enough that you can do other things besides try to remember what to say next. If you need help practicing and fine-tuning your pitch to grab and keep audience attention throughout a pitch, I strongly recommend that you sign up for a pitch review / coaching session to fine tune and perfect your pitch.