A Tail of Romance and Elevator Pitches

He turned and looked at me again with an expression of confusion and disbelief. “What now?” I thought to myself. I reached out and took the crumpled piece of paper from his hand, then smoothed it out to ensure I wouldn’t skip over any key letters or words. I read it silently to myself, twice. Was he being framed? Was I being framed? Was this all part of some twisted conspiracy that my “friends” at Startup Institute had concocted to send me spiraling into full-on dementia? If so, it was working. It all began about 30 minutes prior as I kicked off my “Wicked Sweet Pitch Workshop” that I’ve hosted now for SI students in both Chicago and London. The workshop prepares the students to deliver their one-minute “hire me” elevator pitches at the TalentExpo event that concludes each 8-week program. Standing out in front of dozens of employers is undoubtedly important, so I help the students craft their unique stories and share them with confidence.

On this occasion, surrounded by the gloss and enthusiasm of Startup Institute’s new Chicago space, things had started as normal. I’d introduced myself and shared some tips with the students on how to shake their presentation nerves. Then, to help them do just that, I’d launched into my signature improvised pitch game – Magic Hat.

Magic with Elevator Pitches-

The rules of the game are quite simple. Everyone writes down a funny or weird business idea on a piece of paper, folds it up, and puts it in the hat. Then, one-by-one people come up to the front of the room, pull out an idea, and convincingly pitch the idea to the group – no matter how ridiculous it may be. That’s why the hat is magic, because you never know what obscure treasures are going to come out of it. Besides being pretty fun, I play Magic Hat with the students because it’s great practice for speaking off the cuff and getting over presentation butterflies.

The first couple of students had given their impromptu pitches, and slowly but surely the comfort level was building in the room. I asked who wanted to go next, and a confident hand shot in the air. The victim sauntered up to the hat and rummaged around for a few seconds before pulling out the scrunched up paper that housed his destiny (at least for the next couple of minutes). He surveyed the scribbled writing and asked if he could pick again because the idea was very similar to the last one pitched.

Insanity Ensues- 

“Really?” I exclaimed in a surprised tone. Having played the game a hundred or so times before, I knew that duplicate ideas were rare. I took the piece of paper from him and examined it myself to make sure he wasn’t just trying to get out of having to pitch a tough suggestion. “Tinder for dogs,” it read.

“Wow, that is just like the last one. What are the odds? Go ahead and pick another one.”

We all had a good chuckle about it. The last idea pitched was “Grindr for dogs.” I started to wonder if the students had just gone down the list of dating apps and added “for dogs” at the end. Would “OkCupid for dogs” be next? I also started to wonder why the students were so fixated on the topic of canine cavorting, but decided not to push the issue. It was time to squash more butterflies.

So there I stood, off to the side, as the student rummaged once more for his ticket to pitch glory. This time, when his eyes met the words written before him, he remained completely silent. While before he had flashed a big grin at the silliness of the situation, now his face was pale and void of emotion. I knew immediately that this time it was serious.

I reluctantly accepted the paper from his outstretched hand, and within seconds I could feel my entire world turning upside down. The rambunctious crowd had simmered down to mere whispers in anticipation of the fresh fruit our enigmatic hat would bear. I crept forward to face the students from the front of the room and, slowly, read the topic aloud. 

“Tinder for cats.”

The room erupted in laughter, but I couldn’t help but revisit the concerning thought that had occupied my mind just moments before. Why had we left the realm of puppy love, only to move into frisky feline frolicking? I started to realize that the real animals were not the poor creatures mentioned on the crinkled bits of paper, but rather the gaggle of rabid beasts seated before me. I could no longer hold back my feelings.

“What’s WRONG with you guys!?” I shouted as I threw the paper in the air and attempted to flee the scene. I knew that for this situation to occur it could only signal one thing: the end of the world. And I had to get out of there, fast.

But I stayed. I took several deep breaths, and quickly checked my pants to make sure I hadn’t wet myself during the laughter-fueled kerfuffle. I was dry. I was okay.

Pitch Perfect-

As the shock of the situation wore off, and the ground beneath me remained intact, I began to come to terms with the fact that the world was not in fact ending. Rather, I thought, perhaps the hat was magic after all. No one had lunged forward to claim responsibility for the ideas that set off this unfathomable fusion of dating and domestic animals. What else, therefore, could explain the event if not for pure, unadulterated magic? 

Regardless of its cause, I knew it was a moment to be cherished. We had all just been lucky enough to witness one of life’s many miracles – something we would look back upon fondly and giggle about with friends-- and later, the students all crushed their elevator pitches at the TalentExpo. I know that I, for one, will never look at a pet the same way again.

Siôn Owen is a Startup Institute Instructor in Chicago and Ringmaster at Pitch Circus, a communication consultancy for bold thinkers. Siôn’s mission in life is to kill boring presentations before they kill us first. He specializes in teaching entrepreneurs how to get more creative and persuasive with their pitches to help their big ideas stick.

Photo credit: Lisa Larrson via Flickr cc