Getting Started is Easy

Boot Camp: Advice For Pitch Competitions

Several entrepreneurs geared up to make their pitches during the Kuzneski Innovation Cup.

KIG’s resident funny girl added some color to a recent virtual Boot Camp workshop through the University of Pittsburgh’s Big Idea Center in the best way she knows how: with a few humorous stories. 

Laurie Kuzneski, Director of Client Development at KIG, and President Andy Kuzneski are the sponsors of the Kuzneski Innovation Cup, a competition for Pitt students that awards a total of $25,000 to the entrepreneur(s) who are judged to have the best ideas or innovations. Some of the students who participated in the Boot Camp will be competing in the sixth annual Innovation Cup next month.  

This year, the process will look somewhat different, as the competition will focus on students with ideas still in their infancy, rather than those who are involved in a more established company. The change helped attract a record 18 applicants.  

Now in her third year teaching this session, Laurie offered advice on storytelling and how to pitch ideas: 

Know your audience, and be relatable. 

Your product pitch should be at least somewhat different depending on the audience, said Laurie, who is also an advisor and mentor to startup companies throughout western Pennsylvania. 

“Having your story tailored to who you’re talking to is really important. If you’re talking to your peers, you’re going to talk to them one way. If you’re speaking to professors, you’re going to speak to them another way. If you’re speaking to investors, you’re again going to talk to them in a different way than with other folks. You want to make sure you’re making yourself relatable to your audience,” she said. 

“And if you’re not sure who your audience is going to be, make sure you know your story well enough that you can pivot it slightly so you can relate to whoever is in your audience.” 

Laurie relayed a personal story about when she tripped and dislocated shoulder. Just how she managed to hurt herself and how much pain she was in differed depending on who she was telling: her mother, friends, children, even the ER doctor. While she didn’t want to worry her kids (pain level: no problem!), she wanted to make sure she got the proper meds at the hospital (pain level: unbearable!)

Use clear language.

“It’s on you to make sure the other person understands. Make sure when you’re giving your pitch, you’re not using jargon, or what we call ‘MBA speak.’ Make sure people understand it and they can relate to it.” 

For example, Laurie once sat through a pitch for a product for women with menopause, but the presenter didn’t make it relatable to the men in the audience. 

“If the person presenting had said, ‘picture laying on the face of the sun. How hot would that be? That’s what a woman feels like if she’s having a hot flash.’ Then maybe they would have gotten it,” she quipped. “If an investor doesn’t understand what you’re talking about, they’re not going to write a check. No one wants to support something they don’t understand.”   

Make sure your story is true. 

Some people don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, but “you don’t want to lose credibility,” she said. When pitching an idea, “don’t blatantly make something up, because it can really cause issues for your trustworthiness.  

You must believe it yourself. 

If you don’t believe in the product or idea yourself, it’s going to be difficult to convince someone else to believe in it, Laurie says. “That’s something that’s really important. When you’re standing up there and explaining how you see this working, it’s your reputation, your word.” 

One young man who asked Laurie to invest in his product literally cried after confiding in her he didn’t think his invention would actually fly after spending $75,000 from another investor. Needless to say, Laurie turned him down -- but not without a sympathetic hug!   

Have a back story.

This includes talking about how you started, how you got to where you are, and how you came up with the idea: “Having a back story draws people in and makes them understand where you’re coming from when you’re making your pitch. It can really make a difference,” Laurie said. 

Some other advice when approaching a potential investor: 

  • Have a good grasp of what problem you are solving and how you are going to go about solving it. Think about what kind of information you have that validates your idea. “If you are sure you want to ask for money, do it confidently. And you explain what is so great about your company,” she says. 
  • Investors want to know to know if an entrepreneur has skin in the game. As an investor, “you’re betting on the horse (company) and the jockey (entrepreneur).” Is that entrepreneur the right person to drive this, and do they have a good team behind them? Are they willing to do what it takes to get the business off the ground? Are the financials realistic?  
  • Don’t demonstrate a product in front of an investor in case it fails. Instead, use a video demonstration. That was advice she offered a presenter once whose invention literally fell apart during the demo.  

Laurie used humor to prove the point that a story can help people remember you, and what you have to say, and make you more relatable to your audience. 

Other Boot Camp speakers covered topics such as market analysis and research, resources and revenue model, customer discovery, problems and stakeholders, solutions and benefits, competition and differentiation, and delivering a pitch. 

It took quite a while, but Andy and Laurie, with the help of the Big Ideas Center, narrowed the applicants to a field of seven contestants, who will pitch their ideas to the Kuzneskis -- and several other judges. Then, after some more careful consideration, they will reveal who is worthy of the $25,000 prize! 


Jason Levan

Jason Levan joined Kuzneski Insurance Group in 2021 as Director of Communications and Content after his first career as a newspaper reporter and editor. In Act II, he oversees the content marketing for the company, with the goal of making the insurance world easier to understand and navigate for our clients. When he’s not at work, you can often find him “banging and clanging” in the gym, or spending time with his family.

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