TEDCO celebrates Maryland’s innovation economy with its Entrepreneurs’ Expo, a day-long series of keynotes, breakout sessions, networking and deal making among 700 of Maryland’s entrepreneurs.

Curve Ball. The “Fast Pitch” sessions are among my favorite. This year I moderated a panel of investors who critiqued three minute pitches from ten entrepreneurs randomly selected from a fish bowl of cards. The room was packed and the presenters were given no moment to prepare, if you’re name was called, you’re “on”. And when the buzzer rang, you’re done. There was no Q&A, just feedback. If you could have answered a judge’s concern, too late. No one nailed their shtick, if you spent too much time on the technology, then you got questions on market; if too much on end users, the comments focused on distribution strategy; and almost no one figured out a succinct way to explain their revenue model. So why are these sessions among the most popular at TEDCO’s Expo each year? And beyond entertainment, are they helpful?

With Clarity Comes Traction. Schadenfreude aside, why would anyone put themselves through this exercise or pack the room to watch? In the startup realm, when we think of pitches, we think of countless hours preparing a presentation, timed with a well-honed powerpoint, but that doesn’t match reality. Getting to an investor, a strategic partner, a key customer is like peeling an onion, and if any layer stinks, you’re done. If someone lets you rattle through your presentation uninterrupted, you may have thought it went well, but you died along the way. You could see this play out in the three minutes allotted to each startup. The demeanor of the judges showed in real time how some were lost immediately, while others engaged the panel to the end. What the judges commented on demonstrated which presenter had gained traction and which had lost themselves in some ditch. And while the businesses presented were incredibly varied, those that succeeded told a story, with clarity and cadence, and didn’t view their three minutes as a high school debate session, a punishing effort to pack everything imaginable into the moment.

Not Just for Startups. No one knows when the perfect partner, client, investor or hire is going to materialize. We all climb into metaphorical elevators every day, not understanding whether the “pitch” during any given ride – any given interaction – will profoundly advance our company or our careers. While most of us – me included – think we’re prepared for such moments, few – me included again – are able to make the most of those chance encounters, let alone sense how to effectively advance a promising interaction. As I facilitated TEDCO’s Fast Pitch session, I realized there were common themes to the judge’s comments, no matter whether they were discussing a device, a biotech product, software or a service. These themes began to answer the question of whether the Fast Pitch session is helpful to the presenters and the audience and provided insight on how to advance an interaction beyond those three minutes, but that’s for the next ReSET column.

With more than 25 years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s business practice, advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He chairs the Board of TEDCO and serves on the Boards of the Economic Alliance of Baltimore, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake.