In a wonderful session last week we heard a series of elevator pitches from researchers at Cambridge covering everything from stem cell preparation and microstructure modelling all the way to new approaches to refrigeration. And, as is always the case in these sessions, you wonder if this could be the first hint of one of the next big things.
The Visiting Professors of Innovation, Sam Beale, Pieter Knook and Rick Mitchell, (www.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/strategic-themes/inspiring-research-through-industrial-collaboration/raeng-visiting ) provided their critique and coaching – and this blog notes some of the insights that emerged.
Julia Tischler stepped into the difficult role of going first and presented a well-structured business proposition for an automated fluidic stem cell culture system. She covered the problem, the proposition, the economics and the business model and ended with a crystal clear request pitched at candidate investors. By describing the size of the market and then focusing down to the particular problem that she proposes to solve she was able to take the audience with her every step of the way. Her presentation covered off almost all the questions an investor might have. This included the uniqueness of the team and its track record as a robust foundation
Second up was Christine Kienl who, with almost no notice, delivered a pitch that described the clear line of logic between the need for high performance materials in extreme systems like jet engines, the need to understand how the manufacturing approaches affect the microstructures that give these materials their remarkable properties, and the advantages of modelling versus extensive testing. And hence the importance of her research and that of her group in creating tools to predict the influence of manufacturing on end product performance.
The third presenter, Anaid Diaz, embarked on the challenge of pitching her skills for a new position in search of her ideal job. She neatly brought out her areas of greatest interest and enthusiasm, focusing on three clearly defined areas, and via a few key phrases left clues that she really understood her domain – but without loading us with detail. Her enthusiasm shone through and the audience responded.
Is the taxpayer being asked to fund the right thing – a subsidy of energy costs or pursuing a profound change in the way industry works? With a very topical pitch, Lili Jia described how the team with which she works has brought together technologists and economists to work with researchers, designers, policy-makers and the steel industry supply chain to explore ways of reducing energy costs and moving towards the UK’s carbon emission targets.
And finally, in a spontaneous pitch almost completely without preparation, Aditya Chauhan opened up the prospect of massive reduction in the ever-increasing amounts of energy going into cooling. His work has looked at ferroelectrics and solid-state cooling (ferroelectric materials) and he painted a picture of immense potential – but some way off.
And as we discussed the pitches and as the VPIs and the audience fed back their suggestions for improvement I found myself wondering when I would next hear about these people and their initiatives and whether I had, indeed, heard it here first.
So what were some of the messages that emerged about the elevator pitch and ways to do it well?
Firstly, introduce yourself. Make sure the audience gets your name (remember that most famous of introductions – “The name is Bond, James Bond”) so they can contact you later. And think about how you want to grab their attention. Perhaps an interesting factoid? Maybe a question – but beware a question that might lead the audience in the wrong direction if they choose the wrong answer.
Beware claiming too much. Even if your work promises wins across a very wide range of applications beware the temptation to claim them all. The audience will engage more with a plausible story about a focused problem and solution. Start there and widen in a later conversation.
As you go through continue to scatter the little hooks that keeps the audience engaged – maybe another surprising fact or insight. And if you’ve structured your pitch to go from the general to the specific then this is easy to do and you can take them with you every step of the way.
Numbers aren’t the only way to impress – try an anecdote that brings your idea to life, maybe something that the audience can relate to. Perhaps use them to describe the problem; to illustrate the progress you’ve made or perhaps to sell your uniqueness.
Think also about how you’ll address the unasked questions of the doubter – why should I believe this? Where’s the evidence? So provide some supporting evidence along the way – not exhaustive but enough to keep the conversation alive.
As you bring your pitch to a close you might want to think about how far you’ve progressed in your research. Are you at an early stage or perhaps you have a prototype that’s available for demonstration? This is important for people who need to know whether they are joining you for a long haul, or whether you’re well along the way. And what about competitors? If this problem is so big or the idea so good then surely there are some competitors or alternative approaches. If you already know about them then you are yet more compelling and credible.
And finally the ask. If you have a specific proposition and a known audience then this can be very targeted. But even if it isn’t the right audience perhaps they can help you anyway. Could you ask for a reference, perhaps to be put in touch with someone who can help you, give you that next step to pursue your goal? And the bigger the risk you’ve taken with your presentation, the more enthusiastic you’ve been and the more you evidently care then the more sympathetic the audience will be and the more likely they are to give you that helping hand. Whatever it might be.
Then? Practice. Try variants. Experiment to see what works. Then practice some more.
Steel image credit: Alfred T. Palmer, FSA-OWI [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons