How to Pitch Your Hack

Last weekend I had the absolute pleasure of speaking at Hack@Brookes, a hackathon in the heart of the lovely Oxford Brookes campus. There were many fresh faces taking part in their ever first hackathon, so I wanted to give an insight into the magic of presenting ideas at a hackathon and beyond. These are the thoughts from my talk.

Without a doubt, the single most important ingredient when presenting is confidence – confidence in yourself, in your abilities and in the tech that you’ve created. Just like muscles that grow in strength over time, confidence is something you need to work on. You need to train the muscle over time and practice how you use it. That being said, the most wonderful thing about confidence is that you can fake it. Before you magically acquire the confidence to speak comfortably in front of 100 people, you can just pretend to be confident enough and nobody will know the difference.

My advice for hackathon pitching comes in two parts: first off, how to frame your idea to be both memorable and interesting. The second chunk of advice is about how to speak when you’re on the podium – how to handle your body language and use it to tell your story.

P A R T  1framing your idea

We live in an age of information overload where we’re bombarded with input from a million sources every day.

We hear a lot of new ideas. We really don’t like hearing a lot of new ideas.

To stand out, you need to make people listen.

1. Tell us about the problem world
What is the world like where the problem exists?
The thing about having an extraordinary new idea is that not many people have had the same thought yet. With this in mind, it’s important to know that you can’t assume I know that the problem exists. You need to tell me about it and tell me exactly what the world is like. Tell me exactly what’s broken in the world and what you’d like to fix.

2. What’s your mission?
What do you want to do with this product?
What’s the big, beautiful thing that you want to achieve with this product? What’s your moonshot goal? If someone was going to write an article about you, what would you want them to say? Rather than just listing the features of a product, it’s important to capture imagination and tell the story of how much impact your technology could really have.

3. Explain your glorious, wonderful product
What have you built?
This hack of yours has been hand-crafted with a mix of love, caffeine and creativity. You worked damn hard to put it all together and I would love to hear about how you did that.

Tell me about the tech you used and explain it in a way that I’ll understand and respect you for. Tell me how you built it, how you thought about it and how you solved problems.

Tell me about the benefits of the product, not the features. The features will be clear if you frame them as genuine benefits.

Tell me a story. Weave in beautiful bits and details that I’ll remember. Tell me about Kevin who likes long romantic walks to the fridge and why he’ll love the Tinder for Pizza Takeaway that you’ve hacked together.

Be extraordinary. Stand out. Blow some minds.


P A R T  2 – presenting your idea

The best thing you can be is confident

I had the incredible privilege of speaking on the Future of Technology panel at the last CodeFirst:Girls conference. Just after the panel, I was lucky enough to hear an incredible talk by Deborah Francis-White, who shared one of the best analogies I have ever heard: She compares standing in front of a crowd of people to being prey. In this case, the audience is a crowd of hungry, stalking lions who are eyeing the fidgety, nervous springbok of a presenter.

Luckily for us springboks, we can become lions quite easily. All we need to do is act more like a lion and less like a springbok.

Here’s how to act like a lion:

  1. Make eye contact
    This is important. It’s easy to look behind the heads at the back of the room, but its a thousand times better to individually make eye contact with the people in your audience. Look at them while you’re speaking – speak to them.

  2. Move with purpose
    Don’t pace up and down and don’t wave your hands around unnecessarily. Moving too much makes you look nervous. It distracts your audience and detracts from what you’re saying. If you move, do it because it adds value to what you’re saying. Walk towards the audience to engage with them, not side to side because you’re not sure where to stand. Use your hands to make a point – not as something to hide behind.

  3. Slow down your pace
    Speaking too quickly makes you seem unsure about what you’re saying. If you slow down your pace, it automatically adds incredible authority to what you’re saying. Many hackathon pitches are incredibly time limited, but 60 seconds of clear speech is a lot more effective that a flustered 60 second whirlwind of thoughts.

  4. Stop moving your head
    This goes hand in hand with the slower pace. The combination of slow speech and a still head are a match made in heaven. Go find yourself a mirror and say the same sentence twice: first, do it quickly and move your head around. Then, do it with a slower pace and keep your head comfortably still. The difference is incredible – you’ll sound authoritative, as if you know exactly what you’re talking about.

I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: The glue that ties this all together is confidence and the best way to build up confidence is to practice.

Hackathons are the perfect playground to practice your speaking skills – they’re supportive, wonderful communities of people just like you. And today you may be at a hack, but tomorrow you could be nurturing the seedling of your billion dollar company where you would use these skills to pitch an investor, to close your first round of funding, to lead your team.

So go forth and build things, you wonderful, incredible hacker. Enable people. Make things Better. Change the world with your technology and tell us all about it.

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Recommended Reading

I’d like to recommend a book for you, dear reader. It’s not often that I write about the books I’m reading, but when I do you know that they’re good.

The book in question is ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ by Ben Horrowitz.

I’m working hard to prepare myself for future CEO-dom as a step on the path to building an empire, so I’ve found this to be a particularly good read. If you’re really into fiction and you don’t enjoy business books then this might not be such a great fit.

If you share my taste in books then you would be doing yourself an extraordinary favour by giving it a go.

I’ve enjoyed the tangible, thought-provoking ideas about details you wouldn’t think about until you ended up in that situation. I’ve also enjoyed the realism of the book and how it addresses more than just the sunshine and daisies of running a unicorn.

Three points which have stuck in my head now that I’ve finished the book and I can see a great deal of value in the application of these points as a step towards building something incredible:

  1. Articulating the vision
  2. Having the right kind of ambition
  3. The ability to achieve the vision

If short-form content is more of your thing, then I’d like to provide some alternate reading material in the form of a tweet stream. Quite unrelated to Ben’s book, but it resonated with me nonetheless:


Keep doing fantastic things.

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On the value of writing

I’m on a difficult mission which is going to take me an enormous number of hours: I’m trying to improve my writing skills.

Writing is not something I find myself inherently good at, but I do believe it’s a skill that can be learned and mastered. I also think that this is something that deserves the time I’m going to put into it – there is absolutely no denying that writing is a vitally important skill.

Writing is an extraordinary a way to communicate.

It’s this wonderful way of getting thoughts out of my head, onto paper. More than that, it’s a great delivery method for ideas. I’ve got these enormous, complex ideas bubbling around in my head waiting to be smoothly translated into a sharable medium – writing helps me do just that.

It’s how I get my job done.

Writing is undeniably necessary for my job. Through ideation, documentation and the hundred other formats and mediums I use, a large portion of my communication is non-verbal. I need to share my thinking with the people around me in a work environment and writing is often the best way to do that. more

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22 published and 22 drafts

My focus for this week is to work on getting things done. It’s exceptionally easy to add something to a to-do list, but it’s much harder to take it off. In the interest of decreasing the length of my list and increasing the number of mini-fist-pumps that follow task completion, I’ve decided to put some energy into the backlog on my blog.

However, in the process of cleaning up my blog and working through the many drafts, I’ve noticed the ratio between drafts and posted is exactly equal. I find that pretty interesting, but I would also definitely like to fix it. more

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Read Something Every Day

Your day is made up of moments, strung together into the wonderful whirlwind of your life. Some are crazy, some are exciting, some make your toes curl and some make your blood boil. My favourite moments are the quiet ones – the ones where you can just sit down, close your eyes, slow down your breathing and just think…

Other moments aren’t as nice – they’re boring. When you’re waiting for a train to arrive or staring out the window once you finally get on. When you’re trying to convince your brain to go to sleep or when you want to lie in bed for just 5 more minutes. When you’re grabbing a quick sad desk lunch while you scroll through infinite tweets or the flood of engagement announcements on Facebook this week.

There’s a better use of your time. You could be reading something. more

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Products Move Fast and Ideas Spread Quickly

There’s this phenomenon amongst humans where we tend to have the same ideas around the same time, especially in the startup space. This happened even before the internet, where Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both dreamed up the wizardry of calculus, separately. Technically, Leibniz formally published his results first, even though Newton’s papers had already been circulating for some time. The invention of calculus is now credited to both of them. Pretty cool I’d say, and much less of a trainwreck than the unpleasant battle for the telephone patent.

The concept of simultaneous ideas shouldn’t really surprise us since we’re trying to solve big problems that we all deal with, but somehow we can’t help but feel quite offended if someone encroaches on what is clearly our IP. The reality of having a billion dollar idea is that someone else out there has probably just had the same thought. It’s usually not a unique idea because the problem you’re trying to solve on a global scale tends to be quite a global problem.

Since someone else has inevitably already had the same idea, you have to recognise that, accept it and then quickly decide how you’re going to play it: more

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On Startups

Picture yourself at the start of a runway. You know that you need to take off, except you don’t have a plane yet. You’re not even sure what your plane will look like or how it will fly, but you have to build it. That’s part of the race.

You start with little more than two wheels, just to start moving by any means necessary. You add a makeshift body and throw in some wings for good measure. As long as you can push it yourself, for now it’s all that you need to get moving down the runway. You pick up speed. It’s time to improve your wings. Time to add engines. more

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