Inspiration, ideas and information to help women build public speaking content, confidence and credibility. Denise Graveline is a Washington, DC-based speaker coach who has coached nearly 200 TEDMED and TEDx speakers--including one of 2016's most popular TED talks. She also has prepared speakers for presentations, testimony, and keynotes. She offers 1:1 coaching and group workshops in public speaking, presentation and media interview skills to both men and women.
One of my more enjoyable assignments the last couple of
years has been coaching higher education executives who were challenged to
present new ideas in a Shark Tank-style pitch competition sponsored by the
Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. These pitches had strict parameters: Five minutes,
with a buzzer going off if you weren't finished timely (which really did happen
to at least one speaker). Performance in front of both a panel of judges and a
live audience of peers from universities around the U.S. Only one
artifact--slide, prop, or one-page handout--permitted. All that, plus making a
The competition included a call for proposals; proposal
review and acceptance; the initial coaching call or workshop; and 1:1 coaching
during the weeks in which presentations were prepared. The actual pitch
sessions took place at APLU's conference in front of an audience of its members
and a panel of independent judges; the judges had five minutes to question each
pitcher after each presentation, and deliberations were done in a separate room
and announced in the same session. Funding for the first pitch was provided by
Lumina Foundation. For the second, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and
the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation joined Lumina.
To prepare, participants had access to my coaching in a
group call in the pilot program, and later a preparatory workshop for the
second pitch competition, to discuss basic pitch approaches. This was followed
by 1:1 coaching to develop their specific five-minute pitches. I asked
my client Shari Garmise, Ph.D., vice president for APLU's Office of Urban
Initiatives to share the thinking behind using this novel public speaking
approach to spur innovation and enliven your organization's conferences.
What prompted this
Garmise: I have
an overall frustration with panels, and was searching for more dynamic ways to
share what's going on at our campuses during our conferences. I'm always on the
hunt for novel ways of thinking about presenting information so it engages
people in new and different ways. So we experimented with it as a pilot first.
A pitch format allowed us to show the information differently. It also gave
people an incentive to try a pitch style by having money at the end of the
process, and allowed me to offer them resources--I didn't want to put anybody
on stage without training and coaching in how to deliver in this particular
Why Shark Tank-style
pitches? Did you think this style would be more difficult for academics?
Garmise: I don't
think the style is easy for anyone. Generally, people struggle to sum up what
they need to say in five minutes, especially people with a teaching background.
It just seemed like it was needed because, the way the world's working, people
in higher education will need to pitch more, and to pitch in different formats:
to foundations, donors, sponsors. Being able to talk differently to different
audiences, and learning new techniques and strategies for doing so, would be
useful to our members. The Shark Tank format is neat and clean. I wanted people
to have a range of ways to communicate. And the higher the risk, the more I
felt training was needed to pull that off.
What did you learn
Garmise: They had
a wide range of experiences. A number of them thanked me for it, and thought it
was good training. Many said it gave them a pitch they could use in different
places. One or two said they wouldn't do this again--in the pitch with the
higher stakes prizes, some were overwhelmed by the pressure, which of course
affects how you do it. In the pilot, with a smaller prize, many participants
liked the experience of practicing their pitch for a national audience and then
taking it home. Another factor in their performance was the differing levels of
support on each participant's campus. The individuals doing the pitches weren't
always representing themselves or projects they directly oversee, and had to
make the case about why the program is important to the university. We had
provosts and high-level executives doing some pitches, and more junior
executives doing others.
What were the
benefits to the coalition and the association?
first pitch was broader in terms of topic, so it became a really unique and
effective way to learn about multiple solutions to the same challenge. It got
people really excited when we did the first one. The audience felt they could
see themselves in the 11 people on the stage, and, after listening to them,
could bring home ideas that were immediately usable. That's a big benefit to
our members, and the format made it fun to watch.
Winner Sona Andrews in action
When the prizes got bigger and the topical scope narrowed,
the impact was different: It was a bigger show, with more visibility. Both
competitions were a significant opportunity for the association to drive home
the importance of the topics being featured--that we, as an association, think
advising matters a lot to student success, for example. That's a different
message than simply saying, "We're looking for innovative
What did you like
about the process?
Garmise: One of
the things I really liked was bringing the six people in the wider competition
for training on the same day and exposing them to each other's ideas. That
could be an enriching approach for people working on the same topic. It created
an interesting network: People who didn't know each other got to spend time
going over each other's ideas in the same space. Most competition is done in
silos: People write proposals in their offices and send them out. We had them
work together, and even though only one or two win, it creates a cohort of
resources that's different from a standard competitive process. That was
especially true in the more focused competition, where the pitchers were all
dealing with the same sticky, important set of issues. Thinking about how you
would structure that over time is interesting. It opens up thought-provoking
questions about using competition to drive things forward. Everyone needs to
get better at this and some are going to get a little money from the process. I
would absolutely do it again.