Pitching ain't easy: Robert Neivert of 500 Startups on how to grab & keep your audience's attention


We're thrilled to have the opportunity this week to learn about pitching directly from Robert Neivert, Venture Partner at 500 Startups. Robert is in Taipei for BIG Camp and Mosa Conference, so we got a front-row seat to his Sunday morning workshop on how to deliver a memorable pitch. Here are some key highlights from Robert's talk:

Watch your speed & speak clearly

When faced with a time limit, many founders think they need to compensate by speaking more quickly. This is a mistake. If you speak too quickly, people will miss important points right from the start, and you’ll lose their attention. Being understood is a top priority, so don’t sacrifice clarity for speed.

Talk about what matters first (Hint: It’s not you.)

According to Robert, founders regularly get off on the wrong foot by introducing themselves. Leading with a lengthy self-introduction is a waste of time, as you haven’t caught the audience’s attention yet. Robert explains, “You need to make them care about who you are, and what you do.”

What should you focus on instead? It largely depends on who your audience is. You want to lead with whatever is awesome about what you’re doing, so if your audience is full of industry people (investors, media), you’ll need to reel them in with traction.

If you don’t have traction yet, stick to wowing the audience with your product itself, but Robert cautions that “Unless you’re in a crowd of experts, remember to make your pitch about benefits, not features.” Instead of getting into the tech behind your product or expanding on all its unique features, tell them how the product is going to change their lives. In other words, don’t focus on a 2GHz processor when the real-life benefit is a 3-second load time. Everyone can appreciate the value of saving time, but not everyone understands clock rates.


Have a conversation with your audience

“Make it so that it’s a conversation between people, not you blindly talking to a room,” Robert says. Public speaking isn’t meant to be a broadcast, like many people believe. Instead, it should be treated like a chat with a large group of people. He explains that approaching your pitch this way not only captures the audience’s attention, but also influences your own performance. “When you think of it like a conversation, you naturally start to behave more personably.”

If you’re trying to achieve a truly conversation-like pitch, here are a few thing to note:

  • Maintain good posture. “When you talk, be open and face the crowd,” says Robert. Don’t slouch or keep your hands in your pockets. Use natural hand gestures (rather than obviously rehearsed ones) to convey your energy.
  • Make eye contact. Don’t stare off into a random spot in the back of the room. Look into people’s eyes as you’re talking so they’ll feel you’re speaking directly to them.
  • Rather than “I” or “me,” use “you” or “your” instead. Robert says “Every time the crowd hears this [“you”], the brain reacts differently, and activates self-recognition.” Addressing your audience in this way is more engaging, the way a conversation should be.

“Remember, we are human,” Robert says. Whether you’re pitching to a small group or a large audience, every listener needs to be made to feel like they’re part of the conversation.

Be careful when asking the audience questions

Often, part of having a conversation is asking questions, and this is a common tactic of public speakers. The physical engagement of getting people to raise their hands keeps the audience’s energy up and, from a psychological perspective, makes them more open to whatever you say next. However, asking questions should be treated as a technique requiring extensive practice to pull off well. Here’s what Robert has to say about questioning your audience:

  • Test your questions in advance. Robert advises that you never use a pitch to ask a question for the first time. Before using a question in a pitch, ask people around you, and if you discover that it takes them some time to answer a simple yes or no, your question probably won’t work in front of a group.
  • Don’t ask a question that nobody can raise their hand for. “Ask an easy one that lots of people want to engage in,” he says. This especially goes for niche questions -- if only a small percentage of your audience is likely to fit the question, don’t ask it. Instead of “Who has ever tried investing?” ask “Who wants to be rich?”
  • Avoid downers. You don’t want to introduce negative elements into your pitch. Questions like “Who has ever lost a loved one?” theoretically means a universal yes, but it also puts your audience into a negative state of mind.
  • Ask with energy. “When you want crowd participation, get ready to push energy into your movements,” Robert says. If you sound bored while asking a question, your audience won’t want to engage.
  • Move on if your question flops. “If you ask a dead question, just move on. Don’t keep trying to get them to answer.” You'll eat up your pitch time, and look foolish and unable to read your audience. 

Most important of all: Practice, Practice, Practice

Speaking in front of a group is a nerve-wracking experience, and Robert says that even he still gets nervous in front of crowds despite his years of experience. It takes ongoing practice to know what’s the right thing to say to each crowd and how to recover when things don’t go as planned. Therefore, you should take every single opportunity available to get up in front of people and talk about what you’re doing. Over time, you'll feel more comfortable and start to know what works and what doesn't for each type of audience.  


If you're in Taipei, you can catch Robert and colleague Tristan Pollock this Wednesday at Mosa Conference (Grab your tickets here.). They'll not only be participating in the 1-on-1 investor matching, but also giving a talk: Go BIG, Asian startups! Advanced growth hack-tics from 500 Startups.

You can also follow Robert on Twitter via @rneivert.