Judging a Pitch Competition? Here’s What You Should Know

May 12, 2017 | By Liz Anderson, Director of Engagement

Since joining Georgetown University, I’ve had the unique privilege and responsibility of being a judge at a number of social enterprise pitch competitions, contests, and hackathons. While the formats and topics can vary wildly from pitch to pitch, I’ve found six guiding questions and principles that apply each time. Here are a few tips to consider when judging your next pitch competition:

Does the Idea Solve a Real Problem?

It saddens me to recall the beautifully designed apps and products I’ve seen presented by students at pitches that do not actually solve a real (or relevant) problem. Does the world really need a solution that reduces the condensation on your Starbucks mocha iced frap, or optimizes your Tinder profile? Probably not. The first two questions that I ask myself in assessing any idea, product or service are: (1) does this idea address a real, tangible problem that more than 10 people experience; and (2) does the proposed solution accurately address the problem in question? If the pitch doesn’t meet those two expectations, no matter how beautiful or elegant the solution, it’s unfortunately a pass.

Be Clear on the Judging Criteria

Every hackathon and pitch competition will have its own rubric and set of criteria for evaluating contestants. For well-organized events, as a judge you will receive a scorecard that outlines the qualities to consider, along with a relevant scoring weight. However, there will likely be a time when a scorecard or an evaluation sheet isn’t provided. In these instances, make sure that you and the other judges clarify the judging criteria and how each should be weighted. As outcomes vary widely from the event organizers’ weighting, it is imperative to ensure clarity in the process.

It’s About Signal, Not Noise

Whenever I’ve served as a judge, I’ve always felt the anxiety to “look smart,” perhaps by having a provocative question, an insightful analysis, or a witty repartee at the ready. The truth is, sometimes I don’t have anything of value to add — but I do so anyway for the sake of appearances. I’ve learned though, just like in daily conversation, that if you don’t have anything meaningful to add, it’s perfectly all right not to say anything in that moment. As a judge, it’s your responsibility to provide meaningful direction, and to probe for a greater truth or increased clarity; and above all, to actively listen and seek to understand. Its really not about us — it’s about the contestants and the pitches themselves. It’s about signal, not noise.

Did They Co-Create the Product or Service with Their Intended User?

Although user research is a basic and foundational principle of product development, it’s frightening how often I’ve seen this critical element passed over in some feverish race to build something “cool.” When I ask “what insights did you draw from your user research, and how were those incorporated into the design,” I’ve been met with blank stares on more than one occasion. Solving problems and creating solutions requires an understanding of the end user and leveraging their participation in addressing a challenge. Co-create solutions, don’t impose them.

They Can’t Go Over Everything

Remember that the contestants are under considerable time constraints, with pitches typically limited to three to five minutes for most competitions. In that time, contestants have to clearly and succinctly describe their concept, while also covering all of the various criteria for evaluation, according to the scorecard for that particular competition. So unless it’s a glaring omission like the target audience served or the revenue model, resist the urge to lead with, “why didn’t you spend time reviewing your approach to [blank],” and instead, just ask your question directly.

Be a Mentor First

When you’re asked to be a judge for a competition, the time you spend outside the pitch with the contestants can be even more important than the time you spend judging. No matter how busy you are, make yourself available to every contestant (within reason of course). Offer to host a follow-up brainstorming session to refine their concepts, or connect them with other mentors. If the rules allow, provide feedback to contestants that didn’t make it to the final round, to explain how they might improve for the future. Remember, you’ve been given the privilege to make an assessment on the outcome of a competition, and at times even people’s futures and livelihoods, so pay it back with meaningful mentorship, guidance and support.