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Take a Bite Out of This: Communications Lessons You Can Learn from “Shark Tank”

Published on November 29, 2018, at 2:10 p.m.
by Bri Roselius.

Sweaty palms. Dry mouth. Stomach churning. The audience can smell the fear. Seconds inch by at a snail’s pace. Faces blur as the audience becomes a single, monstrous being rooting for your impending failure.

Sound familiar? This is not how public speaking is meant to feel.

Photo via Capstone Agency

Capstone Agency, an award-winning, student-run communications firm at The University of Alabama, recently took part in a pseudo-“Shark Tank” exercise. The task? To convince a panel of four judges on how you plan to improve the agency’s culture.

Pitching teams of two to 10 people presented their revolutionary ideas, which varied from topics geared toward increasing professional development to a two-day “Camp Capstone” bonding event. Each client team that presented reflected varying levels of preparedness, confidence, competency in their idea and seriousness.

The majority of Capstone Agency members are students in UA’s College of Communication and Information Sciences and are pursuing a major in public relations or advertising. Whether these students accept a job in an agency, nonprofit or corporate environment, there is one essential skill that has resounding importance in the PR sphere: pitching.

And no, not just pitching to the media. Anyone can craft a strategic, witty email, but can you pitch yourself?

First impressions are important; the persona in which you present yourself is how your employees and superiors view you and make judgments on your character. Whether you would like to admit it or not, you are pitching yourself every single day: during brainstorming meetings when you present an idea; asking your boss for a raise; chatting with a co-worker in the elevator; how you react when given criticism on an assignment or extra work on a tight deadline.

“We’re all pitching all the time, and knowing how to compel an audience to believe in you and your ideas is an invaluable skill,” said Mark Barry, instructor and director of the advertising creative specialization at The University of Alabama.

If pitching is as essential to PR as Barry believes, then the reality television show “Shark Tank” might just be the ideal show to binge watch.

During each episode of “Shark Tank,” budding entrepreneurs present their ideas to the sharks in the tank — five titans of industry who made their own dreams a reality and turned their ideas into lucrative empires. Since millions of dollars and the potential to transform their lives are on the line, contestants must deliver a perfect pitch. A winning pitch must be attention-grabbing, concise and persuasive — everything effective communication should be. As a communications professional, what lessons can you draw from this show and implement into your own career?

Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Be concise.
Kevin O’Leary, one of the sharks, wrote an article for The Huffington Post about what he thinks makes a good pitch. One tip was, “You better be able to get your story out in less than 90 seconds, or you can pack your bags.”

Ninety seconds can fly by in the blink of an eye. Before entering a business presentation or requesting a raise, ask yourself a question: What am I trying to accomplish in my endeavor?

Lori Bizzoco, PR professional and entrepreneur of not one but two successful businesses, says it all starts with strategy. “If you don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, you’re already off to the wrong start,” she explained. “You must understand the strategy behind your pitch — everything must be thought through: the lede, the subject line, the hook, everything.”

Execution is everything.
Bizzoco worked in the PR industry for over a decade before she pursued entrepreneurship. However, before she held a senior-level position at one of the world’s top PR agencies, Burson-Marsteller, Bizzoco began her career as a door-to-door saleswoman.

“[Working in sales] is how I learned how to pitch. It’s all about presentation: how you speak, how you hold yourself. It’s less about the words and more about the impression you are making towards a complete stranger.”

Photo by Rawpixel via Unsplash

Occasionally, you may come across a tough reporter or crisis situation that seems insurmountable. However, your composure and how you choose to tackle the situation say more about your ability and professionalism than you may believe.

PR is stressful. According to CareerCast, a public relations executive is listed as the eighth most stressful job in the world.

Still worried about your public speaking abilities? You’re not the only one.

“None of us are confident; it’s a practice thing. We’re all scared to swim until we learn how to swim,” said Barry.

So, if you happen to fall in the 74 percent of people who suffer from speech anxiety, practice really does make perfect.

Everyone’s a winner.
Following each Capstone Agency client team’s pitch, the four judges deliberated the fate of the teams’ standings.

The air was stifled with competitiveness.

After announcing who made it to the next round of Shark Tank, the three semi-finalists had 30 seconds to pitch their idea one final time and sway the judges in their favor. A few days later the “Capstone Agency” client team was announced as the winner of Shark Tank.

While each client team may not have had millions of dollars on the line, this activity was excellent practice for personal and professional development.

Pitching is hard. Pitching yourself is harder. And figuring out how to talk about yourself in a way that’s both authentic and successful? Even harder.

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