More Lessons from StartUp Pitch Competition

November 20th, 2014

My previous post covered one big lesson from watching a pitch competition; today I cover three additional observations. Watching eleven pitches in a row can be fascinating and a bit excruciating, but being able to compare them side by side in real time can also offer some valuable lessons. Here are a few that I gleaned from watching the Workforce One StartUp Quest competition on Monday.

Make it a conversation and not a commercial. The pitches that sounded canned fell flat. The pitch that I had rated the lowest sounded like it was written by a first-year marketing student being graded based on number of platitudes and buzzwords. The presenter I had rated the highest, as did the judges, spoke directly to the judges, had tons of personality in his voice and face, and sounded like a friend explaining a great business idea.

Don’t overcook the soufflé. Go easy on the emotion. We’re told that people make decisions emotionally and not rationally, and that’s generally true. But we also like to see ourselves as rational decision makers, so when someone makes it too obvious we feel forced into a corner and we react badly to it. For example, one of the pitches played on the love and concern that one has for elderly parents who live alone. The first tug at the heartstrings worked fine, but the second felt a little forced and the third went over the top, to the point that one of the judges commented on it during the Q&A.

Prepare for Q&A as much as for the presentation itself. This is the real main course, because your listeners want to see how well you know your stuff when you’re off-script. First rule: answer the damn question. Second rule, keep your answers short and to the point. One question about the team’s marketing plan turned into an excruciatingly long dissertation on general marketing principles that had the audience looking for a hook. In fairness to the person answering, he was put on the spot by the main presenter, who fielded the question and passed it right to him without warning—which points out the third through fifth rules: anticipate, anticipate, anticipate!

Pushing Only the Right Buttons

November 18th, 2014


elevator keypadHave you ever entered an elevator, in a hurry to get to one of the higher floors, only to find that some prankster has pushed every button? How did it make you feel?

Now, imagine that the roles are reversed: you are that prankster, and your audience is the frustrated person in a hurry to get to their intended destination. That’s what happens in a lot of presentations that I observe.

For example, yesterday I attended the StartUp Quest Pitch Day at the Broward County Performing Arts Center. Eleven teams competed to present their business plans to a panel of judges made up of venture capitalists and other investors. While it’s true that the situation is artificial (there are no actual dollars riding on the outcome—at least not immediately), it was still obvious that most of the speakers were pushing far more buttons than they needed to get to their destinations.

For example, it’s a good idea to begin with a grabber story that engages attention and interest, and personal stories that bring a problem to life are perfect for that. But the problem with personal stories is that you’re tempted to go into much more detail than the audience needs to get the picture, and going on too long can ruin the effect you’re trying to create. Create the effect and move on.

Next, it’s a good idea to show the huge market potential of your product, but we don’t need two minutes of detailed statistics to prove that there’s a lot of money being invested in alternative energy sources or that our population is aging rapidly—everyone gets that. Make the point and move on. If you have a half dozen competitive advantages, don’t spend equal time on each; hit the one or two strongest and move on.

The problem with pushing too many buttons is not just that you take more time than you need, or that you can frustrate listeners, it’s that every time the door opens at the wrong floor you run the risk that riders will get off.

In real situations, such as in a strategic sales presentation, there is even less excuse for pushing too many buttons, because if you’ve researched, prepared and shaped the conditions for success, you should know precisely which button to push for each of the decision makers and important influencers in the room. Anything more than what you need is wasted or worse.

In military tactics it’s a truism that if you try to attack everywhere you won’t be strong anywhere. You need to find the decisive point and concentrate overwhelming force at just that point of attack. So, when you do get to the main point, go for broke. As Churchill said:

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

It’s the same way in persuasive communication, beyond just presentations.

My old swimming coach Jack Nelson was a master of motivation. Read this article in the New York Times to see how he applied his talent to engineer one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. What made him so good was that he knew each of his swimmers intimately; he knew what they would respond to and how they would respond; he knew just which buttons to push and how and when.



Persuasion at its Worst

November 4th, 2014

Not coming soon to a television channel near you

Not coming soon to a television channel near you

I’m going to the polls today holding my nose. After enduring months of attack ads on television and dozens of daily calls to my home phone (thank God for caller ID), it’s impossible to muster any enthusiasm or respect for either candidate for governor, or for anyone else.

Is this the best that today’s persuasive communication can do? Billions of dollars and presumably some of the brightest minds in the business fail to produce a spark of intelligence or positivity. Our political process has devolved: through a process of survival of the nastiest, we’ve gone from the Federalist Papers and the Lincoln Douglas debates to name-calling on TV.

The scary thing is that they tell us they do this because it works. That’s scary because of what it says about us, the voters, more than what it says about them. Are we so shallow that we are susceptible to such superficial arguments? Are we so selfish that we will sell our vote for one narrow interest? Are we so distracted that we can only pay attention for thirty seconds at a time? Have we lost the skills to listen to carefully considered arguments, weigh the evidence, and form reasonable conclusions?

We complain about politicians all the time, but maybe we’re getting exactly what we deserve.


November 3rd, 2014

One of the more gratifying aspects of my job is hearing from former students about how they have used what they have learned, and—even better—how they have been inspired to learn more and improve on their own. So it really made my day recently when David Cheng, Director of Engineering at Qualcomm in Shanghai, wrote to tell me about the progress he has been making in Toastmasters; so much so, that I asked him to write a guest post. I hope David’s post will in turn inspire others to challenge themselves to become better and more confident speakers:

I have always had the problem of speaking on the stage. Off the stage, I could talk easily even with a group of strangers. I didn’t realize the seriousness of this problem until I took Jack’s presentation class. The last task for the training was to prepare a speech to the executives. I picked a topic that I was very familiar with. I thought the 5 minute speech wasn’t going to be too hard.

Surprise! My mind blanked out when I was up there!! At the end of the class, I asked Jack how I could resolve this. He suggested the Toastmasters International. I decided to give it a try.

After surveying a number of clubs, I picked a conveniently located corporate club. The friendly setting really helped to ease the nervousness. However, I still had the problem of speaking out on the stage. It wasn’t until my 8th project in which I partnered with another Toastmaster that I felt like I wasn’t speaking on the stage.

I also didn’t script the talk, but only remembered the key points. From this, I learned that too much pressure and too much worry about being “correct” caused a commotion in my head that I forgot what to say.

In addition, I also found the evaluation role that Toastmasters program was very beneficial to mitigate my problem. It reminded me of Jack’s Precision Questioning class I took some time ago. Picking the good points and bad points of other’s speech required critical thinking. The exercise helped when I did my own speech. It was like reading vs proof-reading. When one presented, everything seemed logical to the speaker but that might not be what the audience perceived. Only when one heightened self-awareness and listened to oneself while speaking would the person be able to refine his or her talk through rehearsal. Being an evaluator helps developing that skill. This is the part that I am working on now.

Eventually, I hope to answer table topic questions with ease. The impromptu speech is very demanding. It requires one to think on his or her feet, organizing what he or she wants to say with supporting material on the spot. It all comes down to practice and preparedness. I have asked many fellow Toastmasters how they do the table topic so well. In fact, they thought about what could be asked before the meeting. Practice does make perfect.

All in all, the whole experience improves my technical skill, personality and point of view. I am a better speaker and thinker, more affable and articulate, and view things with wider mind. I have to thank Jack and the Toastmasters. More to Jack because without his encouragement and trainings, I would not be a successful Toastmaster.