How to dominate Demo Day

Part 3 of my mini-series on startup accelerators. (See: Part One, Part Two)

So, you’ve picked the best startup accelerator for you and survived the first months of the program. Now you feel your eyes wandering towards the finish line, and that big Demo Day presentation looming large.

If you’re like me, public speaking is an unnatural experience. Add the fact that you need to summarize your entire startup and vision into 2-5 minutes, and the stress quickly builds up.

How do you calm your nerves, hone that story, and shine in front of a packed audience of investors and press? Here are seven factors that helped our team win over the audience at the Rock Health Demo Day and propel LabDoor to a successful seed round:

Own your call-to-action

If you’re lucky (and good), the audience will remember only one thing about your pitch. Are you looking for a key investor, customer, or hire? When you’re writing your pitch, sculpt the entire story around a targeted call-to-action to this person.

Don’t be the company that ends their pitch by saying “please come talk to us after the event.” Challenge the audience to do something. Bribe them with a free coupon to try your product. Give investors a one-week window to get into your seed round. Be memorable and actionable.

Focus on design

The majority of the audience will have never heard of you or your product. For better or worse, they will use your presentation design as a heuristic to judge your product quality.

This makes sense. Great design is now essential to product development. The new generation of billion-dollar startups, like Tumblr and Fab, has simple, beautiful, intuitive design at their core. Make sure you leave a good impression with your slides.

I can’t take any credit for LabDoor’s success in this area, which should be attributed to my co-founder Rafael Ferreira. If you don’t have an all-star designer on your team, keep your slides simple and intuitive. Think Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone. Minimize text, use a simple background, and limit yourself to one message per slide.

And don’t use video clips. They are distracting, and they break.

Work a real crowd

A wise mentor once told me “the first five times you give any speech, you’ll be terrible.” That’s because there’s so much more to public speaking than the words and slides. If you don’t interact with the crowd and feed off its energy, your message will fall flat.

Find a group of strangers willing to listen to your early pitches. Sign up for Startup Digest, and be on the lookout for public entrepreneur meetups and pitch events. Volunteer to speak at a local high school or college. Work on your new material in low-pressure situations, and you’ll feel much more comfortable when D-Day comes around.

Drop the mic (literally)

You have your speech memorized. Now it’s time to practice making a mistake. It sounds crazy, but something always goes wrong in the real pitch. The slides get out of order. The clicker runs out of batteries. You trip and fall on your way to the stage. Even seemingly good things can throw you off your game. I’ve seen speakers get completely flustered when the audience laughs at one of their jokes. They practiced the speech a hundred times without the laugh, and the three-second pause throws them off their rhythm.

So I practiced dropping my mic or clicker, picking it up, composing myself, and getting back on track with the pitch. I also had a teammate start me on a random slide, and then let me try to finish the presentation from there. I practiced with and without slides. I practiced facing a brick wall. Anything to throw me off my game. Most people in the audience won’t even notice if you get stuck for a second. Learn to relax and get back on track smoothly, and you’ll be fine.

Get in the zone

On the morning of the big day, try to get to the event location as early as possible. Keep the whole day free of work and distractions – it will be hard to concentrate on anything else anyways. Walk on stage and get comfortable with the environment. Run through your pitch once or twice, but don’t obsess over it. You’ve practiced hundreds of times for this moment. You are ready.

Drop the mic (figuratively)

I’ve seen this happen over and over again. Entrepreneurs stress about Demo Day for weeks or months. They make mistakes at every pitch practice. And then, magically, they have the best pitch of their lives on the big stage. There’s something special about walking onto the stage with the bright lights on you and darkness over the audience that brings the best out of people. It’s your big moment – go out there and crush it.

Follow up immediately

The best Demo Day pitch in the world means nothing if you don’t close the deal. Identify your top targets, and track them down. Use your team to your advantage here – divide and conquer, starting in the lobby of the event. Timing is essential. Excitement will be high on Demo Day, but it’s up to you to keep up the momentum in the following days and weeks. Close your seed round. Win over that big customer. Keep building.

Note: This post initially appeared at VentureBeat.com.