There’s a few things they don’t tell you about being on The Shark Tank.
One of them is that every pitch on the popular reality business TV show starts with a silent 10 second staring contest. I spent an afternoon talking to a former (winning) contestant from the show, and one of the the insights he shared was that the first moment you walk into “the tank” on the show is highly scripted. The cameras are rolling to capture that perfect one second facial expression that will be edited into the final episode when it aired. To get that split second shot, though, you need to stand motionless (as do the Sharks) for almost ten seconds.
Imagine being an entrepreneur lucky enough to make it onto the show. You have submitted your story. You have shared all your financials. You manage to hone your story, work on your pitch and try to prepare as best you can. Then you walk into the biggest pitch of your life that will be televised to a national audience and you have to just stand there in a real life pit stop for 10 endless seconds.
It may seem like a piece of information useful only if you make it onto the show yourself, but the fact is pitching your business will always include something you can’t predict. And it gets even harder when you know that your pitch is part of a competition and there is money on the line. These days there are plenty of ways to try and get funding for your business. Online platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo promise a worldwide audience through micro-donations from hundreds or thousands of funders, but they are still no substitute for a good old fashioned face to face pitch.
As a former judge for several of these pitch contests (and a very cool new one coming up later this month) – I know there are a few basic principles that winners always follow. Some may seem basic, but it is stunning how often entrepreneurs skip some of them … and as a result their pitches suffer. To help you rise above the noise, here are five basic principles for not just surviving a pitch contest, but also maximizing your chances of winning.
1. Start with reputation.
The less you have to sell yourself, the better. Reputation allows you to establish credibility without wasting too much time in your pitch telling your life story (unless it relates to your product/company of course!). What are the biggest accomplishments that qualify you as an expert in your space? What will earn your audience’s respect? When I pitch, often I will make sure that my introduction or bio includes three facts (which are different for various situations). The three I usually choose are – best selling author of 4 books, TEDx speaker, Professor of Marketing at Georgetown University. This is NOT about having books or being a professor, though. YOU don’t need that. It is about knowing what the most impressive elements of your background are and bringing them up front and center for the people who will be evaluating you and your idea.
2. Use your personality.
Facts and bullet points are great, but it is stories that make emotional connections. Almost every episode of the Shark Tank, there is an example of an investor choosing to either invest or not invest based on how much they have a personal connection with the entrepreneur. Yes, it’s true that more likeable entrepreneurs do get investments more often – but NOT because they are “nice” to everyone. Likeability is not the same thing as being nice. Instead, using your personality means being true to yourself and letting the “real you” into your pitch because people invest in people and ideas.
3. Tailor the message.
Knowing your audience is critical, but it means more than reading their bios. Learn as much as you can about how they think and what they find interesting or don’t. Do they share where they go or what they do through social media? Have they written books or do they share thoughts on a blog or in articles? The more you know about what your reviewers care about, the more you can effectively tailor your message and pitch to be interesting for them.
Don’t use three slides when one will do. Don’t use words if you can use visuals. The more you can simplify, the easier it is to stick in the evaluator’s mind and also use your time effectively. Though this is a principle you’ve likely heard before, the challenge to actually do it well can be a big one … but it’s worth the effort.
5. Take questions.
Decisions are often based based on the strength of your responses to questions that your judges ask. Practice responses to common questions so you can be as prepared as possible. Accept criticism if it is offered without being defensive. And most importantly, answer questions as directly as you can. There is nothing worse than someone who seems like they are trying to avoid questions, or has no idea how to answer them. No matter how good your pitch is, you CAN and will lose if you aren’t able to answer questions effectively.
6. Be concrete.
If there is one common mistake that entrepreneurs make over and over again in the Shark Tank, it is being vague and not having concrete details about their businesses. This may come down to your cost of goods sold, or your margin, or your future strategy. Being concrete about what you share shows that you have thought about the details of your business and your industry, and that you understand what you are asking for.
7. End with a memory cue.
Perhaps the toughest fact about a pitch competition is that you are usually up against lots of competitors in a short timeframe. Speaking as a former judge for several, it can become almost impossible to remember the details about everyone who pitched. That’s why it is so important to offer some type of memory cue to make your presentation stand out. It could be something physical you do, or a story you tell, or literally ending by telling your audience exactly what the one thing that you want them to remember is.
None of the tips above can help you to stand out if you don’t already have a good business and story to tell. But if you do and you’re up against any number of other entrepreneurs also fighting for their own chance to win support through money or resources, focusing on these seven principles can help you to stand out. And perfecting your ability to survive a staring contest if you ever make it onto Shark Tank, of course.