As I write this now, I’m packing for my 40th hackathon. That’s a lot of snacks, a ton of sleepless nights, and hundreds of pitches and demos watched.
Pitches are one of the hardest parts of any hackathon, and one of the most important. As if putting together a prototype in 24 hours wasn’t hard enough, someone on the team has the unlucky job to explain what you’ve done to the judges in just 2 minutes. 120 seconds. That’s all you get.
Before all of this, way back when I was just graduated from college, I was a speechwriter. So you would think the best tips I’ve learned about how to speak would come from polished professionals, practicing and honing their stump speeches on the road. You’d be dead wrong.
The best public speaking I’ve seen has been at hackathons.
This list is a compilation of the skills I believe you need to master to take your good pitch into a winning pitch at a hackathon. And it just so happens that if you master these, it will turn you into a pretty amazing public speaker.
Step One: Be Passionate
The more you show (authentically) how excited you are about what you’re talking about, the more excited the audience will be. The converse is also true: the less excited you are to talk about something, the more bored your audience is going to get. Duh.
You chose to work on your hack for a reason — remind yourself right from the beginning why you dedicated your weekend to it. That alone will carry your pitch far.
Step Two: Know Who is Pitching
It happens at every hackathon I’ve ever been to. The coding is done, the pitches are coming up. Suddenly the team members look (past the Red Bull-strewn table) at each other and says “so, were you going to pitch or…”
You would never wait until the last minute to figure out who was going to write your back-end code or do the design work. So why would you wait to figure out who was pitching? Setting the responsibility from the beginning helps to prepare that person for the next step.
Step Three: Think About the Pitch Early
The earlier you begin to think about your pitch, the better. It’s so easy to get wrapped up at a hack that before you know it it’s time to stand up in front of the judges. If you know you’re pitching, make sure you have a pen and paper handy to write down ideas as they come up.
True Story: A few years ago, at a hackathon in London, a team was busy coding when at 3am a member of their team stopped and said “You know what we’re really working on here?” He went on to deliver a short, impassioned talk on how their project could make a real change to disenfranchised youths across the country. He then wrote a few notes down on a napkin and went right back to coding.
Jump to 1:30pm on Sunday and the team was frantically tearing their table apart looking for said napkin. If you know you’re pitching, make sure you keep track of your notes too.
Step Four: Rest Up
Perhaps the most controversial step. Most people still think of hackathons as pushing their bodies and their minds to see how far they can go.
Trust me, after forty hackathons you start to look for ways to work smarter not harder.
Hackathons aren’t marathons, they’re relay races. Each member of the team has a different role to play throughout the event. As the pitcher, it’s not your job to carry the team through the overnight shift. But it IS your job to sprint them through to the finish line. Getting just 2–3 hours of rest (sometimes all you need is a quiet corner and some good headphones to disconnect) will help your brain shut off and will make all the difference in the world for the pitch.
Step Five: The Golden Points
There’s so much you can try and cram into a hackathon pitch. But the AngelHack rule is no more than two minutes. How in the world can you pitch something in just that period of time?
The best pitches tend to have a flow to them. And after studying a couple hundred pitches, here’s the best way to break it down:
- 30 Second on the problem you’re trying to solve and the solution you’ve built
- 1 minute on the demo (the most important part of a hackathon)
- 30 seconds on the next steps
The great thing about this format? You can use it after the hackathon ends. 30 seconds is how long an elevator pitch should be, and that’s your first 30 seconds.
Step Six: The Importance of Next Steps
The most common questions I hear judges ask are always around the same thing: marketability. And whether the exact question is on market size or competitive landscape it almost always stumps the presenter. Hackers spend so much of their time (rightly so) thinking about the tech of their build. But one bad answer to just one question is enough to throw off an entire pitch.
The truth is, it only takes about 20–40 minutes to not just have an answer, but an amazing one. The most powerful pitch I’ve ever heard was accomplished using this time frame. Waiting around 20 minutes for a chance to pitch her idea to the room and gather a team around her, a woman in Seattle decided to do some research while she was in line. That research transformed what would have been a standard pitch into something much more powerful.
“The beauty industry is a 36 billion dollar a year industry that has yet to be disrupted. I want to change that. Will you join me?”
Rewrite that same pitch in your head without the number. It doesn’t work.
Step Seven: Don’t Memorize — Use Guideposts
You would think memorizing something that’s only two minutes long would be relatively easy. You would be wrong.
Memorization takes time and energy, both of which are extremely lacking at the end of a long hackathon. Instead, use a trick public speakers have been using for millenia: guideposts, essentially bullet points for the mind.
Your brain is very very smart. And every time you tell a story (and a pitch is really just another story) it creates a mental road. You don’t memorize every stone in the road, you memorize the turns. And guideposts remind you to take those turns.
Instead of trying to memorize every word just take the time to memorize the phrases or ideas that transition you into something new. That’s Point A. Your brain will fill in the points in between Point A and Point B for you.
Sounds crazy, but it really is as simple as that.
Step Eight: Do Two Things At Once, This Is A Hackathon...
How many hackathons have you been to where someone was pitching and they were explaining what a login screen does? If you’re demo’ing something, you’re going to end up showing something that’s self explanatory.
Instead of explaining it, try to use that time to talk about something you can’t see: your incredible back-end integration, or your forward-thinking monetization strategy. Humans (and Judges) learn auditorily and visually — if you explain one concept and show another and they’ll understand both.
Or, just don’t build a login screen in your hack. Awkward moment solved.
Step Nine: Anticipate Questions
This is the hardest step to learn. If you can determine what kinds of questions the judges will ask in advance, you can take advantage of the extra time. The easiest way to do this is have your team sit you down and ask you questions. But the best way to do this is to find another team nearby you can pitch to and vice versa. These gals and guys will be hearing your idea for the first time, just like the judges. And the questions they’ll be asking are often the same the judges will ask.
This let’s you prepare as much as possible for the questions the judges ask. Write them down, revisit them as much as you revisit your pitch, and you’ll create some killer answers to hard questions.
Step Ten: Practice
To practice a pitch, you have to hear the sound of your voice. Practicing in your head never works, because your brain will jump from idea to idea without fully connecting topics. When you walk on stage your mental roadmap will fail you.
There’s always your team to pitch to, or another team. But even walking into a corner and listening to the sound of your voice reverberating off a wall is enough to help take a good pitch to a winning pitch.
And that’s it. Go forth and conquer your next hackathon demo. You’re welcome in advance for that sweet, sweet prize money.