Thursday, June 23, 2016

Coaching speakers in a "Shark Tank-style" pitch competition: Case study

2015 competitors in APLU's pitch competition
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 compelling case.

APLU tried variations on this approach in 2014 and 2015. In 2014, three universities won $10,000 each for economic engagement programs pitched at the session. In 2015, the stakes were higher, with $165,000 available and $100,000 of that amount going to one university for innovations designed to enhance student success with advising initiatives.

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 approach?

Shari Garmise
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 style.

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 from pitchers?

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?

Garmise: The 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 approaches."

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.