Teaching Students to Pitch—Not Present

By Martha Rush; Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips from the Front #14

Students develop a lot of bad habits by giving school presentations.

Just a few examples:

 

  • Targeting only one (captive) audience: the teacher
  • Opening with something boring like “Our report is on…”
  • Reciting facts — rather than telling a compelling story
  • Cramming slides too full of words (in a tiny font!)
  • Reading off of slides
  • Trying to “wing it” when they don’t really know it

 

This is partly our fault, as teachers. We assume presenting is something students already know how to do—and we don’t instruct them on how to do it well. 

We also model poor presentation skills when we show students our own PowerPoint presentations packed with dry facts and little energy. 

If we simply assign students to write and present a pitch, we will probably be disappointed and frustrated by what we get from them.

Fortunately, the entrepreneurial setting is the perfect place to address these instructional lapses and teach students how to really engage an audience.

When you’re pitching, you can’t be lackadaisical or complacent. No one wants to fund, support, or recognize a venture if the founders themselves aren’t passionate. 

So help students understand that their words matter, their slide design matters, and their tone and posture matter. It’s not about getting a grade—it’s about knowing your audience and making them believe.

Here are a few tips for helping students create masterful pitches:

#1 Know your audience.

Talk to students about who they are pitching to. The point isn’t to pitch to you, the teacher, but to target a potential investor or customer. What do those people need to hear? What do you want from them? How will you move them from where they are now (Point A) to where you want them (Point B)? Spend time talking about the goal of the pitch before getting into the weeds of writing it.

 

#2 Craft a thoughtful opening gambit.

The first 30 seconds matter. A lot. Unlike your typical classroom situation, no one really has to listen to a venture’s pitch — so students have to work hard to grab the listener’s attention and keep it. Talk to students about opening gambit strategies that work, like factoids, anecdotes and provocation. Then show them examples, like Shark Tank. Insist on a compelling opener before moving on to the rest of the pitch.

 

#3 Tell a story.

Every step of the entrepreneurial process is part of a story — the venture’s story. A good story has a plot, suspense, surprises, humor, a climax and a resolution. If students want the audience to stick with them, they have to build in all of these elements, or as many as possible. Provoke questions in the listener’s mind at the beginning, and satisfy their curiosity with answers in the end. Again, Shark Tank examples are great for demonstrating this.

 

#4 Create compelling slides.

Unfortunately, too many students (and teachers) treat slide design as an afterthought. Explain to students that they can’t simply chop up their written pitch and put the words on slides. They cannot crowd the slides with words at the expense of visuals. And they cannot use internet photos and tired memes in place of their own unique visuals. Tell students to treat their slides as seriously as they treat their own personal appearance. Whatever you “put on” needs to genuinely reflect you, and every detail matters.

 

#5 Practice, practice, practice.

Don’t stand before your audience and read from the slides, a script, or even notes (unless this is a 15-minute pitch). Don’t struggle to get through your pitch, stumbling over words or forgetting key points. The only solution to these problems is to practice — in front of your friends and family, in front of the mirror, in front of your phone’s video camera. The more times you do it, the better it will get. And the better it is, the more confident you will be. 

Our students might not be “naturals” at giving presentations, but once they learn how in the entrepreneurial setting, it’s something that will carry over into all of their classes and their future career. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste.

 

Pro Tips:

  • Break the habit of presenting “to the teacher”
  • Make students work to grab the listener’s attention
  • Help students visualize their stories, not just slap them onto slides

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