The Art of the Pitch

A diverse audience packed into Brunton Auditorium last Thursday night, as students, faculty, and community members converged for the latest event in the Ron Joyce Speaker Series. This year’s speaker was Dianne Buckner, a television journalist and public speaker, perhaps best known for her role as host of CBC’s Dragons’ Den (though she has also hosted the television show Venture, the radio program As It Happens, has been a CBC Sunday News guest anchor, and a business columnist).

The theme of Buckner’s talk was the Art of the Pitch; the act of creating support for an idea by presenting it in a certain way—an essential entrepreneurial skill. Viewers of Dragons’ Den will be familiar with the idea of pitching a business idea to a group of would-be investors, but the skills involved in making a good pitch are applicable in a variety of situations. For example, many of the skills required for a good pitch are also part of a good job interview.

Having seen hundreds of pitches throughout her career, some successful, some not, Buckner has developed a list of seven essential strategies for the would-be entrepreneur. The first point she discussed was to know the environment you’ll be pitching to.

For this point, Buckner discussed TenTree—an apparel company that plants ten trees for every shirt sold. Their savvy in focusing on sustainability, which is currently popular in the market, led to their success on Dragon’s Den. “It can’t just be what you want, it has be the bigger picture,” says Buckner. “Being aware of what’s going on in the marketplace, what people care about, is key to a successful pitch.”

Buckner also stressed the importance of knowing how to talk your idea up. While stereotypically Canadian modesty can be endearing, Buckner says it is no way to approach a pitch—which is all about selling your ideas. “Find your comfort zone in talking about how great you are,” Buckner said. Entrepreneurs use this skill to make the benefits of their project clear. Sometimes a pitch can be complex and detail-laden, but Buckner said the key is to keep the benefits to your investors clear. Working in television, “They used to ask, ‘What’s the promo?’” said Buckner. “So you had to know how to sell something in fifteen seconds.”

Buckner said it is important to make it about the recipient of the pitch, and know how to appeal to them specifically. “Think ahead: what buttons do I need to press?” said Buckner, using the example of a tea company that gave custom teas to each of the CBC dragons—demonstrating that they’d done their homework.

The most important thing is to tell a story, explained Buckner. She said aspiring entrepreneurs need to create something that will pull the pitch’s recipient in. “So many things in business are about relationships,” said Buckner. “A story tells people about who you are, and shows that you have integrity, or humour, or whatever it is.”

The Speaker Series’ has a business focus, but broadly applicable presentations, like Buckner’s, are prized by the organizers. “In my view, the lessons we learn in one context can transfer over to others,” said Paul Barry, who is acting director of the Ron Joyce Centre and dean of social sciences. “[We] had Amanda Lang two years ago, and Mark Cohon (CFL Commissioner) last year… the theme will change from year to year, but will always be a business theme.”

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