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Perfect pitch: Getting a VC's attention (and dollars)
Expert advice on perfecting your 2-minute spiel

Steve Bruner
April 2000


Elements of the pitch
How you dress
About the author

What do pitching your business to a venture capitalist and stand-up comedy have in common? In both cases, a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered spiel can make or break your career. developerWorks asked veteran comedian Steve Bruner for a quick primer on perfecting that spiel.

The urban legend regarding startups (it's even filtered down to my level and that's saying a lot, considering I'm on AOL) is that you get a 2-minute shot to reveal your plan and why it's good, all in such a way that this venture capitalist that you've jumped into a cab or elevator with one day will write you a check.

You want to win over your audience so that they support your idea with their heart and soul, their mind — and their money. Then you'll be able to use that money to help solve all those problems of mankind (like that pesky student loan), and maybe get yourself a car, and then of course some therapy.

Many times in business you have to construct a very short spiel to pitch your proposal. In L.A., face time is limited, just as it is in Silicon Valley. Producers and venture capitalists have time constraints. So you have to be prepared to take your best shot when you can. You can use a perfect spiel to introduce a longer presentation or sales call — it's not limited to "chance" meetings in cabs and elevators.

A comedian's perfect spiel is that funny routine that has a killer opening, and then keeps rolling just in time to peak a couple of minutes later, with you saying "thank you, good night" and gracefully exiting to the yelling, whistling, and clapping of the audience. To get a similar response from the start-up capital guy, try some of these hints for perfecting your pitch.

Elements of the mercenary pitch
Let's break the pitch down to the basics. It needs, in my order of preference: good material, preparation, and enthusiasm, and  to a lesser degree — talent, good appearance, and luck. Of course, it also helps to have good timing, a good audience, and a good place to perform (like, if you catch somebody on the way out of divorce court, it's a bad time for a business proposal). But while you hope for the best with these last three, the truth is that fate has a cruel and twisted sense of humor. Every good comic knows that some gigs will be in crummy places, and the best way I know to overcome the situation is to accept it and be prepared for it.

1. Material
That's your business, the thing that makes you glow. Make the idea coherent, and make it coherent quick: cut it down to the essentials. A bouquet is nice, a single red rose is better. And it's attention-getting, too: People yell "Fire!" and not, "The house next door seems to be in the middle of burning."

In comedy, the setup is nearly as important as the punch line. Don't reveal the secret first and then keep talking. The punch word (or thought, in your case) is best served at the end. Like a catchy name that distills the idea into one thought. It's like revealing a secret: You don't say, "I'm pregnant." It's much more dramatic when you say: "Guess what?" as this tends to create interest.

Choose your words carefully. In my gig, pickle is funny; peach, not so funny.

Make sure the idea flows, and I don't just mean logically. Say your piece out loud: if you can't speak the words, find new words. Tripping on your tongue is fine in the bar when you are celebrating that the deal has been made, but it's not OK during the sale.

2. Preparation
Prepare what you're going to say — don't wing it! The best comics have a plan, and every great comic I know has a set list (a list of premises or jokes in an order that seems to flow best). Even the acts that look like they are completely improv know where they're heading.

Once you get the material down, and say it out loud, try it in front of your co-workers — but make sure they are able to give (and that you are able to take) criticism. Try it out on your dog, or your friends, and if you don't have any of those, try switching mouthwash.

Also the mirror is your friend. Watch and question your movement and your gestures, and plan your choreography (don't pirouette after you're done). If there's a point to make, don't try to emphasize it with your hands behind your back. Most of my act is standing and talking, but when I move to "act out" a joke, I know where my hand will be and which way I'm going to walk. Videotape the spiel if you can, then watch it and videotape it again to get your moves better and better.

Prepare to "not be thrown off." With me, that knowledge comes from the painful experience of not having been prepared (I didn't have this article you're reading when I was starting), and as a result of trying out the wrong new joke on the wrong new audience. The good part is I'm more prepared now, so if someone heckles, or yells out, I'm well equipped to handle it. To avoid being the target of a virtual tomato, come up with the obscure and not so obscure questions or situations you might face. Come up with a clever (or failing that, succinct) comeback. Do this for all the problems you see in your plan, because the odds are that the VC will see them too. These are smart people. That's why they have the money.

Handling the unexpected
Some things you just can't see coming — try to use them to your advantage anyway. Once a piano behind me came unbolted on a rocky ship. The audience was laughing very hard, but I wasn't saying anything. When I noticed, I had 5 new improv minutes.

In almost any show, I try to include the audience. When I do a corporate show, I find out what they do or make, and come up with some bit on that. On a cruise ship, I make fun of the life boat drill, and they feel I'm part of the team. Which is always better than being an outsider. When I play a Panama Canal cruise, the folks are much older. I make a comment about their skepticism. "Yeah, I know what you're thinking, who wants to laugh at a kid who can't even get the senior citizen discount at Denny's." The point is to include their opinion in such a way that it's got a positive spin.

Remember that persistence is a strong part, if not the key ingredient, of preparation. If you are having trouble coming up with the right pitch, have your whole team write out what it is you're doing, and pick the best of everyone's ideas for the presentation. Don't be afraid to edit: my best jokes have been rewritten 10 times. Remember, keep it to the essentials, and keep it short, because short is sweet. My best advice on how to do this is: Once you have what you're going to say, cross out every third word. You'll find you can live without a few of the "that's" and "I"s and "I think"s and so on. Pick out just the essential words that verbally paint your thoughts the best, and you'll find some of the other words are just in the way. Remember that we write with one vocabulary and speak with another — try to find the best combination of the two.

You have the pitch and the problems down. You've practiced and now you memorize; but don't let it sound like it's memorized. We love it when we think we are the first ones to hear something; we hate to hear a recording.

3. Enthusiasm
I've seen a poor joke get a good response, just because the person delivering it is having a good time. There's something attractive about enthusiasm that is contagious. Some of the best advice I've been given is that if they don't laugh at a joke, move on. The audience doesn't always know when you've blown it. Sure, it will get a laugh when it's an obvious faux pas, and you must acknowledge those, but the smoothest (and luckiest) I've ever been are the times that I sense there's going to be no reaction, and I just go on to the next bit. The audience thought I was just adding color, and the next joke worked fine.

Also, I say things I like to say, things that make me laugh. I have a joke about pickled pigs' feet that I've told 500 times, and it still works well because I like saying "pickled pigs' feet." No matter how the set is going, when I finally get to the part in my act where I say "pickled pigs' feet," I'm all smiles. (I'm smiling now just typing it.) Put in a catch phrase, or a comment that is close to you or your group, just to make yourself feel better: a verbal or mental anchor helps a lot. Keeping it in your mind or putting it in your spiel is something that adds to your confidence, and confidence is as attractive as enthusiasm. If you're not confident and enthusiastic about your idea, your audience won't be, either.

4. Talent
Remember that there are 2 kinds of talent. Some talent we're born with and some we have to work for. I envy the guys who write a perfect joke the first time, or think so fast on their feet that every bit looks polished. I'm not that guy. I'm a pretty good joke writer, but I still have to hone my material. I practice it and I work hard offstage, and then I work harder on the stage part, too. It used to be that I had good material, and poor stage performance. There are many great gag writers who don't want to, or can't quite, perform — and I could have sold the bits to other people. But I wanted to deliver the stuff myself, so I kept working on my strengths (the jokes) and I started building up my weaknesses (the performance).

Work with your strengths. If you're attacking as a team, some of your problems are solved more easily than when it falls on one guy. It's possible that your best idea guy isn't the best one to deliver the pitch. When I wrote for TV, I had a brilliant partner, but when we went to pitch the ideas to the head writer and the producer, I delivered the jokes because I had a stronger comic read. We used to say he was brilliant, and I knew how to type and talk. Look at it as though it were a comedy team: one guy's the comic (pitch man) and the other person is straight man (trouble shooter). Use the talents of the team, or if it's got to be one guy alone giving the whole pitch, use that person's strengths and shore up his weaknesses. Make sure, though, you don't gang up on your audience (oh, like I really feel sorry for the poor venture capitalist).

5. How you dress
Planning everything you can think of includes planning what you wear. You never want to be the only one with a bow tie in the biker bar, yet there's a reason chocolate kisses come in a bright, shiny wrapper: chocolate is good, but it's even better to be able to see it from a distance. A guy once told me I was very funny, but he thought I should wear a better watch. If you wear one, wear a good one. If you are going to make a mistake on how to look, err on the up side. You can always lose a tie, but it's hard to dress up those bib overalls.

This is, of course, easier when you're able to plan the meeting with the VC. But if you're preparing for the ambush, on being at the right place at the right time, you should also be ready when it happens.

So you have your good idea, and you have your presentation prepared. Remember the part about enthusiasm: I know people who have handed out business cards and have gotten the call on this alone. Of course they were prepared, and they had enthusiasm. But they also had one thing more: luck.

6. Luck
There is, unfortunately, no substitute for this, and there's no way to purchase it either. It does exist, but the other elements matter more. That's not to say that luck can't sometimes be the most important thing. Basically, my only suggestion about luck is to pitch your idea on the day you have it.

Then again, if you have good material and a good presentation, and if you can keep up your enthusiasm and your appearance at all times, then luck is something you may already have.

And if so, then don't forget to let me know when you're going public.


About the author
Steve Bruner has been a stand-up comic for 13 years. He has performed and written material for several TV shows, including "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, Fox Television's "Haywire," and the cable channel Showtime. He'll perform anywhere, even in an elevator, but mostly he plays clubs, colleges, corporate events, and cruises.

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Updated: October 27, 2001 (KB)

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