A Winning 3-Minute Startup Pitch: 9 Things You Should Focus On

Tetiana Horban, CEU iLab

January 10, 2021

“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if an hour, I am ready now,” once the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. 

Preparing a startup pitch, obviously, requires a lot of time. However, a 3-minute pitch, especially when you’re inexperienced, will make it even more challenging to grab the attention of the audience and jury and make them understand what your startup is about. 

To help you get better at preparing startup pitches, we have spoken to some experts and founders who have lots of experience pitching for investors. In this article we will explain to you in every detail how you can go about building a winning 3-minute startup pitch.

Oh yes, and why 3 minutes? Because that's the most popular format that you will encounter!

1. Structure & Content

Online you can find many variations of a startup pitch structure, be hard to find the one that fits you best. We asked Adrienn Olson, communications consultant and CEU iLab mentor, who regularly prepares teams and individuals for pitching for a public. Adrienn suggested the following structure:

1) Greeting – establish contact with the audience

2) Tagline – summarize the essence of your product or service 

3) Problem – present the problem by telling a story that makes it more real and emotional

4) Solution – tell what’s so unique about your solution. Here you can also mention your competition. What are the alternative solutions and why is yours better?

5) Product or service – show how exactly your solution will work, show more visuals and numbers here

6) Unique selling proposition – describe the needs of your target market and how you will address them

7) Business model and revenue generation – how are you going to make it work and how will you generate the revenue (this step is very important if you’re pitching for investors)

8) Results – what have you achieved already? (not necessarily financial results, but anything that might serve as preliminary validation, such as a measurable set of customers or any market feedback)

9) Team – describe the roles people play and why they are the best fit

10) A call for action – what do you want? (if you’re pitching to investors, what is the realistic amount of money you need? If to early adopters of your product or service, what do you want them to do?)

11) Wrap up – make a connection to the story you told at the beginning

12) Thank the audience

A graphic scheme illustrating the steps of a successful 3-minute pitch.

Imagine having to touch upon 10-12 topics in 3 minutes. It's a very hard thing to do. A great 3-minute pitch is almost like a piece of art, therefore, you will really have to take your time to prepare for it. Moreover, if you are really early-stage, it can happen that you don't yet have 100% clear answers for all of the above topics in your head. In this case you will even have to invest some time to find the answers, as these uncertainties might very easily surface during an investor pitch.

Should you include a story in a 3-minute pitch?

Not necessarily. The important thing is that you think about the message you would like to push across. This message can be about your team's competence or motivation, your business model or a life event that kickstarted the idea.

Bence, by contrast, believes that a story can be left out in a 3-minute startup pitch. 

“In three minutes, it's very hard to fit all points of a startup pitch like the story, problem, product, business model, market. If you start explaining everything in detail, by the end, you won't really have any time left to have a call to action, right? So, in three minutes, I would argue that the story is not that important. But if you don't mention how you make money, it's going to be a very rough analysis by the jury. Everyone wants to learn how you are going to make money. You need to have at least an idea of how you will generate revenue. Pinpoint that. What's even more important is that you articulate the message that you want the audience to walk away with. And the fewer messages you have, the better, concentrate on those,” suggests Bence Radák, CEO of Salarify.

A young woman standing on the scene at Central European University pitching her startup idea.

2. Who Should Present?

It is generally believed that the head of the team, the founder/CEO, should do a pitch. But what if he/she has a strong fear of public speaking or is extremely bad at presenting and there’s no time for solid preparation? Can someone else from the team do the pitch? There’s no “yes or no” answer, but here’s what our experts have to say:

Adrienn opines, yes. She believes that a good presenter can be anybody from the team.

“It does not have to be the CEO, whoever can present. But the presentation is very, very important. An open posture towards the audience, eye contact, a good pace of speaking about the point, are all very important. Two things that I would highlight for startups, in particular, is that they have to observe very strict time limits, and that can only happen if they practice their presentation a lot,” says Adrienn. 

Ákos Deliága, founder of Talk-a-Bot agrees with this point: “If it's not the founder or owner, then it can be somebody, who is involved in business development at the startup.” But Ákos warns, if an employee presents, he/she may end up talking about the founders and their visions, and it will not be personal.  “Even in this case, this person [the employee] should tell it as his or her own story while working for this company. For example, their view about why it was important for them to join the vision of the company or founders? That is paramount that you have to be related to the problem and the solution a lot,” says he.

But of course, the best possible option is if the founders themselves present. “Even if one of the founders or any of them are not comfortable giving a presentation, it's still better if they do it. It’s not a good message, especially at an early stage, if you send out someone else from your team to present,” explains Bence.

3. Improvise or Memorize?

So, your job is to pitch your startup in just three minutes. This is indeed very little time to present your team, goals, and achievements. You may end up speaking too fast, hoping to cover all 12 bullet points that we discussed above. You may get too nervous and forget mentioning crucial facts about your project. How to avoid this? 

Memorize. You do have to memorize some of the things you are going to present at the startup pitch event. Now, the question is, won’t it look unnatural? So, maybe it's better to improvise if you’re confident enough? 

Adrienn says, “I would definitely not improvise. What I would suggest is to memorize the first few sentences of the intro, which would get the attention of the audience, and the last few sentences of the pitch to wrap up, so that the pitch doesn't fall off the cliff. It’s not good if the presenter says something flat like, ‘Well, that's all for me,’ or ‘That's about it, thank you for your attention.’ That's not a good way to finish. So, there should be a strong finish that reiterates the great service that the team provides or the great product that they have come up with. As for the middle part, it's enough to just memorize some talking points.”

However, Adrienn does not exclude the possibility to memorize everything verbatim, if the presenter feels more comfortable about it. 

“In either case, even if it's memorized verbatim, or by talking points, it has to be practiced to the extent that they can deliver that pitch within a 3-minute accuracy,” she concludes.

Ákos, who has made hundreds of pitches in his life, used this approach in practice. He says, if you memorize the main points of the pitch, it will help you to tackle stage fright. Ákos says he usually memorizes the start of the pitch, the punchline, the hook to attract the audience, as well as the last sentences, while making the body part more natural.

And you should also remember that the pitch will be followed by Q&A, which means that whoever presents from the company, they have to be absolutely up-to-date about everything related to the company: the business plan, numbers, financial predictions, etc. All these issues might be raised after the pitch.

A middle-aged man standing on the scene with a microphone looking at the audience during the pitching session at Central European University.

4. Time

Sticking to the time limit creates a good impression. Talking too little or for too long will definitely not serve your case. Only practice can help you avoid the embarrassment of not adhering to the time. 

Adrienn says, for longer startup pitches, a 30-second accuracy is crucial. For shorter ones, every 5-10 seconds matter. 

“For a five-minute pitch, I don't suggest it'd be longer than 4 minutes and 30 seconds. And if you end at 4 minutes, that's fine, but it should not be shorter than 4 minutes, and it should not be longer than 4 minutes and 30 seconds. If there is even less time, then it's good for it to be even more accurate. The timing of it is going to be crucial,” she says.

5. The Visuals

Should you prepare a deck (presentation for the pitch) or not? And if yes, how should it look?

“You are usually told if you need to prepare a deck or not. But if there are no rules on that, it’s better to prepare one. In a 3-minute pitch, you won't really need to show too many details, but I usually have a presentation. It's better for me if I can see where I'm at in the presentation. Sometimes you won’t have enough time to talk about some numbers about the market, but in the meantime, the audience and the jury will see them behind you. So, if you can have the slides as a complementary communication channel to your presentation, then I think that's good. It shouldn't be too distracting, though. And it shouldn't be more than three slides,” says Bence.

The importance of social proof

A winning strategy for the visuals is including as much social proof for your company as possible.

What is social proof? Social proof is actually a psychological phenomenon, which means that in situations where people encounter something new, they tend to copy the behavior of others towards that new phenomenon. In case of a startup or a new idea, people in your audience might find it hard to position you and therefore they will look for reinforcement from others. Just think about the restaurant phenomenon: people usually find it more reassuring to eat in restaurants with people in it instead of empty ones.

What can serve as social proof for a startup?

  • number of clients
  • companies that you serve/work with
  • number of followers in social media
  • number of unique visitors on your website
  • awards you have won
  • happy customer testimonials
  • the mentor or incubator you work with
  • statistics that support your point
  • reviews you received

Try to highlight the greatest achievements from your track record and give it a nice visual format in your pitch deck. Elements of social proof will reinforce your message and add a great amount of credibility to your project.

However, always keep in mind that visuals should only serve as an affirmation to your message and not as a distraction. Always synchronize the visuals with your words, so when you practice for your pitch, do it using the presentation.

It is also a great idea to add your name and contact details to the last slide, so that anyone who wants can get in touch with you directly right away.

6. Body Language, Voice & Confidence

If you are dealing with stage anxiety, rest assured that you are not alone. By far, most people find it stressful to talk in front of people. Bence Radák, founder of Salarify, with lots of experience in pitching, also confirms this point: “When I was younger, I thought it was going to be very easy, but it's not, especially if it's a live speech with around 500 people in the room. It's extremely frustrating. You don't really know during the presentation if they like the pitch or not."

Controlling your body language not only can help you deal with the anxiety, and also send positive messages to the audience. It's not a problem if you are not trained in public speaking, still, you can watch some videos of some great speakers to collect ideas about how to use body language which reflects confidence and creates trust. Maybe you could start with Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, J. K. Rowling, author and philantropist, Nick Vujicic, motivational speaker, Scott Harrison, founder of charity:water.

Communication expert Adrienn Olson says it’s much easier to grab the attention of the audience, if we have a confident posture, keep the weight on both feet while standing, open our chest towards the audience or camera, maintain eye contact with people, and speak at a normal pace.

“Confident posture can help you feel more confident at least because it creates a positive feedback loop between us and our audience. The more confident posture will be perceived more positively. We will see more smiles and nods from the audience, sitting down at the edge of their seats, ready to listen to us. And that will feed our confidence even more,” says she.

Adrienn says, all this applies even to online presentations. “That comes across even in Zoom, when we sit up tall, in a confident posture, thus, we send so many positive messages. I really encourage presenters to make sure that they have a confident posture.”

Ákos Deliága, founder of Talk-a-Bot advises paying attention to your voice and tone of speaking: “When rehearsing it’s good to record and listen back. For example, when I speak, I feel like I’m very energetic, but when I listen back, and when I get feedback from people, I realize that I speak monotonously. After some time, even in three minutes, it just gets boring. For this not to happen, you have to practice,” says Ákos.

Humor can help you make the pitch livelier and more engaging. However, you should use it only if you have a good sense of humor and can be natural with jokes. Being sincere, like saying it’s your first (or even hundredth) time on the stage and you feel uncomfortable, can also create empathy and win over the audience. Both humor and sincerity should be natural and used in the right place at the right moment.

7. Technical issues

During your 3-minute startup pitch, any technical difficulties may rise, so it’s better to prepare in advance. It can happen that you will not be the one changing slides, and you can miss your talking point. Your clicker or microphone may stop working on the stage. You have to be ready for any challenge.

“The technology can go wrong, and then it’s about how you react to these situations. People lose time and confidence in such moments. I had three big pitches with technical hiccups, but since I could react to these unforeseen events, I won all three. In one case, the microphone didn't work, it didn't work for anybody. Everybody was struggling and, and I just tried to speak louder with a stronger voice. In another case, the first few presenters had issues with the clicker, and I have my own clicker with me all the time,” shares Ákos his solutions.

Always try to remember that the message you would like to convey to your audience is by far more important then any technical consideration, let it be a great presentation deck, or the comfort of a microphone intensifying your voice. Don't stick to the technicalities, if anything goes wrong, get over it quickly and stick with your message instead.

8. Q&A Session

After the presentation, you will usually have a Q&A session. For a 3-minute startup pitch it will last from two to five minutes but it can even go up to 10 in case if there is a serious interest. It’s not necessarily much time but it can be crucial for your success. How to prepare for the questions?

First, you should learn from others and get to know the rules of the game. Attend some pitch events, this will also be a great learning experience and an opportunity to understand what investors ususally expect from startups - what is too much, what is too little. The questions that come up in the Q&A sessions tend to repeat themselves, so you can even make a collection of these and prepare in advance. You can also find some great collections of such questions online, like this one. You can even prepare some ready-made answers so that you don't even have to think about how to formulate your reply. There should definitely be no space for unexpected questions!

Any preliminary experience about the audience or the jury (if there is any) can also serve as a point of reference. If there is a jury, you should do some desktop research about them to understand their backrounds. This might help you to predict the questions they might ask or give you a chance to amaze them with some background info you read previously. “Go through their LinkedIn, CV, Wikipedia, anything, learn as much as you can about them, and make sure that the examples that you give them during Q&A relate to their background, specifically. That's a great way to impress them,” says Ákos.

9. Rehearsals & Courses

Based on the above, giving a 3-minute pitch is not going to be easy. Without rehearsing you need to be true-born public speaking talent to succeed. When you rehearse, try to recreate the conditions of the real pitch: do your rehearsel with your pitch deck, with a timer and in front of an audience.

“I definitely suggest practicing in front of an audience. I heard about this mirror trick [rehearsing in front of the mirror], I don't think it works, because we are not going to be our own audience. Seeing our own selves has a very different effect from actually having an audience. I do strongly suggest having a mock audience during practices. A stuffed animal does not qualify, and our own mom does not qualify. But just about anyone else we have, like a spouse will qualify, a friend will qualify, a kindly neighbor will qualify, or team members or coworkers, classmates, whatever, whoever will qualify as an audience. And it doesn't have to be a big audience, even just one person or a couple of people will make a difference in how the presenter feels. A recording is a good idea, as it will help you see yourself from a different angle,” says Adrienn. 

Ákos advises not to be afraid of taking public speaking courses. It is not mandatory, but if you feel that you need external help in adjusting your tone of speech, body language, etc., it is a good idea to get professional assistance. 


Before you start preparing a startup pitch, see how others do it to get a rough idea. When working on it, make sure you have a clear structure and mention crucial talking points, such as the problem, your unique solution to it, your audience, your team, how you are going to monetize your product or service, your competitors, and a call to action. Create a succinct deck and practice the entire presentation with a mock audience to meet the time limit, and improve your voice and body language. Finally, do homework on the jury and prepare strong answers to their potential questions. Should you do all this, you got the victory in the bag.

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