How Pyramid Building with Spaghetti and Marshmallows is Perfect for the Art of Pitching.

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Hollywood actor Will Smith’s eyes widened, mesmerised by the entrepreneur facing him. Forty seconds, that’s all. Forty seconds to win over an A-lister, and wait for it, $10,000. That’s $250 a second. Not bad for a day’s work. More of that in a moment.

In the meantime if you can avoid slipping a marshmallow in your mouth when no one’s looking the key is to imagine yourself a modern day André Waterkey who was behind The Atomium in Brussels.

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The task was to build the tallest structure in 15 minutes from spaghetti and marshmallows — a feat of ingenuity, teamwork, fun and creativity.

Several groups, around eight people to a team, got stuck in and the anticipated results varied — a makeshift Eiffel Tower whose issue was staying up, to a cuboid that stayed down.

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The winner came in just over two feet. But, if the imaginary lattice bonds between fluffy gelatine sweets were temporary, the bonds created between members was anything but.

These were proto journalists and storytellers on a three-day retreat in Wales, Gregynog to be precise, a fifteenth century mansion rebuilt in the 1800s, nestling between sprawling manicured lawns and the Welsh wild.

This “lego with linguine” shared the retreat’s billing with the balloon debate where contestants imagine themselves in a hot air balloon facing the prospect of being tossed out a mile high, unless they can persuade the audience to keep them. Such games were the glue for something else.

Within three days they would kick of the process for their year-long pitch dissertation. That process starts with a pitch, in which students must have a feel of their work outputted on one of four forms: radio, TV, multimedia or academic. It’s a blend of academic rigour and journalistic enterprise. The project must bear the hallmark of a viable research question and the story the values and currency of a timely feature.

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The process started long before with lectures, guidance, and tutorials. It’s then ratcheted up a level and boiled down to a few moments when students mock pitch to each other, attend workshop surgeries, and then prep for their 60 seconds.

Pitching is the art of the sell and succinct storytelling towards a bigger project. There exist a river of books about the subject, such as Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal by Oren Klaff and Angela Hatton’ s Definitive Business Pitch: How to Make the Best Pitches, Proposals And Presentations

Whilst it’s been a practice as old as the hills, in the digital world it came into it own in the dotcom boom of 2000. A sixty second successful pitch was the difference between that angel investment or back to the laptop. Traditionally pitching in academia was confined to a limited number of courses, however in today’s digital market it’s a skill everyone should master.

In pitching an idea, “what’s the one thing you’d like to accomplish, if you could?” underpins the limited time you have with an audience. The “if you could” depends on several variables, such as time, resources and knowledge, and whether it’s truly doable.

In the dotcom world there were Amazons (the forest), Snowflakes and the Killer idea — a concept transferable to academia — and no one has a monopoly on killer ideas. Cross reference, Zuckerberg and Gates who both ditched university to work on their ideas.

The Amazon is an the epic in which you can easily miss the trees from the woods. Unless you have the stamina, wild dreams, and time, avoid it. The Snowflake gets its name seeing snow for the first time, when the person standing next to you is nonplussed. It’s been done before many times and it’ll be difficult to bring something new to the table. Then the killer idea — a pitch that hits the sweet point. It appears new, eminently contained, current and doable. It exists because of a stroke of genius or that enough background work has eliminated Amazons and SnowFlakes.

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Will Smith, has been promoting his new film Gemini Man. Last month, however, at a Conference in San Francisco , four entrepreneurs were given the chance to pitch to the actor about their businesses.

The victor was 30-year old Kofi Frimpong whose confident delivery belied months of perfecting his pitch. A former Princeton undergrad, he won a couple of pitching rounds for his ideas when he was 22-years old and now runs a start-up Socionado in Los Angeles, which connect freelancers with a business.

The patterning to his approach, seems consistent with several successful pitching crafts and the approach to organising a successful powerpoint deck. Before you continue reading this, see if you can spot the characteristics. It may appear formulaic but the heavy lifting comes in simplifying the idea.

It goes like this.

  1. Start of with framing a significant change or shift that’s occurring creating a reason that should concern the listener. It can be couched as a stat in a question.
  2. Present how the shift that is a problem could be addressed. (This is akin to the lit review)
  3. For researchers, here’s next where you pose your research question. The research question needs to be containable.
  4. Say how might you go about examining/ solving this problem/ researching question (this is the Meth + results in 2/3 sentences).
  5. Kofi finishes with a thank you and how excited he is. It’s an example of the Peak-end rule that states that we tend to remember the best or worst parts of a pitch and the end. Therefore how you finish a pitch can create powerful memorable impressions.

Sure you’ll allowed to feel nervous, but preparation is important. Steve Jobs was known for his hours of prep for a product launch.

In his book Zero to One, Notes on Start ups or how to build the future. Serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel with Blake Masters writes about lessons entrepreneurs learned after the 2000 dotcom crash which hold today.

  1. In your project look to mapping small incremental ideas. Don’t expect to slay the project in one go and avoid Amazon ideas.
  2. Be lean, which means be prepared to be agile. Build in contingencies in your workflow. If this doesn’t work, what next will I do?
  3. Base your idea on exemplars — a swot analysis will reveal whether you have a competitive advantage. So research the idea before it’s pitched.
  4. In dotcom world it’s about focusing on product rather than sales, translating that to pitching requires understanding the audience likely to engage with the idea, rather than an onus on rhetorical persuasion to push through the idea. In design terms this is design thinking, where each part of the journey involves a feedback loop with receivers of your work.

In the second semester in Emerging Journalism, we’ll be applying parallel principles to the creation of journalistic prototypes created by you. In the meantime happy researching.

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Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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