How to make a great hack day pitch

We’ve been running Hack Days for quite a while now. NHS Hack Day has seen thousands of enthusiastic volunteers through our doors, and hundreds of project pitches.

One of the questions that we get asked a lot, particularly by people who are new to hack days is

What makes a good pitch at a hack day?

… so we thought we’d share a few tips for people coming to hack days on how to make a great hack day pitch

1. Tell a story

People love stories. Pitches with a story in them almost always go down better. So give it colour - explain how your life is broken because of this problem, explain the frustrations of a life without the thing you’re pitching.

Particularly when the person who would benefit is some kind of specialist, most of the people listening to the pitch won’t understand what what life is like for the people that your pitch is about. So help them empathise by telling a story about their experiences.

2. Explain the change you want to see

Hack day projects that capture the imagination are mostly the ones with the potential to make a real impact in the world. That means that when you’re pitching, you should make sure to explain just how the world will be better once you’ve made your project.

Sometimes that’s a bold vision of the future that brings about the end of global capitalism, injustice, hunger, and human suffering generally. More often, it’s a story about how you can help lots of people in a small but meaningful way.

3. Make it achievable

While we’re on the subject of your grand vision for changing the entire world, it’s important to keep in mind that the hack day you’re at probably only lasts a day or two. Once you’ve taken out time for pitches, presentations and lunch, the time you have available for building things is limited.

Because of that, pitches that seem to be too wildly ambitious can be greeted with scepticism - a sense that they’re simply unachievable in the time available. Thankfully, just like the journey of a thousand miles, huge projects can always be broken down into a sequence of smaller ones.

If your idea seems huge and overwhelming, you should still talk about it - because it probably scores big on the “have an impact” scale we were just talking about. But you should also make sure to break off an achievable chunk of it, and explain that this is what you want to build today.

4. Make it clear

You’re only going to have a very short time for your pitch. Probably no more than a couple minutes.

Keep it snappy.

(Note, this section has been heavily edited down in the name of brevity and minimal irony.)

5. Problem first, not solution backwards

The most powerful hack day experiences come from ideas that are genuinely co-created, in response to problems or needs that actually exist in the real world. (Hence starting with the story/impact).

A common pitfall of hack day pitches is to skip right over the process of actually problem solving, and start pitching the detailed solution that first occurred to the person doing the pitching. Unsurprisingly this tends not to excite the creative problem-solvers in the room. (Hint: those are exactly the people you want to be working with )

The two particularly common cases of this are “Let me tell you the specific screens my app will have” and “I have this library/Raspberry Pi/Google Glass… please make it relevant to someone.”

6. Practice

Just like most things in life, pitching is something you can get better at with practice! Luckily, when you arrive at a hack day, you are often sat around in a big room with a bunch of other people who you don’t know, just waiting for something to happen.

Why not say hello to one of them who you don’t know, and ask if you can practice your pitch? Ask for feedback - what did they like about it? Was there anything that wasn’t clear? It’s a good way to make friends in the inevitable down time at the start of the day, and you’ll end up with a better pitch.

For NHS Hack Day, we organise meetups before the event, and invite attendees to come and meet one another. We make sure that we have some hack day veterans on hand, and we give friendly constructive feedback to anyone with a project they want to pitch. We also encourage people to post their ideas to our mailing list.

7. Try to find some collaborators beforehand

We’ve found that as well as helping to polish ideas, sharing your pitch on the mailing list beforehand can result in teams that start to form before the day. It gives potential collaborators a chance to mull the project over in the weeks and days running up to the event, and come with more fully formed ideas.

These teams often work really well together. They come prepared and already excited, and when the time comes to start working, they often have the most structure, and the clearest understanding of what needs to happen. The process of discussing your idea with them will give you a better idea of what excites people about it and make your pitch better.

8. Don’t make it exploitative

Hack days are often attended by volunteers in their free time. They’re a great space for creative collaboration, idea generation, skill sharing, and building communities.

They are not free labour for your startup/church fête/government department.

Ask yourself if this is something that might be interpreted as asking someone to just do free work. If you think it is, consider paying someone to do it instead of pitching at a hack day. If you’re not sure, have a chat with one of the organisers - they’ll normally be happy to give you a steer about what’s appropriate at their particular event.

9. You don’t need a mobile app

Apps. They’re great. But… you almost certainly don’t need one. Pitching “An iPhone app” is a special case of “Don’t come with a solution” from above. But this one comes up a lot.

The percentage of problems to which the best answer is a native phone app is so close to zero as to be indistinguishable. Starting with the problem will make your project better.

Related, you might like to read this blog post from some nice people at the government about why you don’t need an App. Even if you’re not the government, most of that probably still applies.

10. Bonus points if you avoid Hack Day Bingo.

There are some kinds of things that come up quite a lot at hack days. They’re perfectly excellent hack day projects. They tend to be the kind of thing that works well in an environment where you’re trying to ship something in a limited time.

That said, primates are suckers for novelty, so you’re likely to score bonus points with the room (particularly the grizzled hack day veterans) if you come up with something that’s a little bit new. Examples of things that have probably been done at least once before are:

  • Something that hits the Twillio API and phones the judges
  • Taking some data and plotting points on a Google Map
  • Tinder for dogs/asteroids/_____
  • Top Trumps for verses of the bible/DNA/______

(Note: Particular thanks to Alex and Lilly for their additions to this list.)

Enough listing already

So, now you know how to pitch, come join us at the next NHS Hack Day and try it out.

Photo credits: Paul Clarke

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