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In today’s innovation-driven environment, everyone from executives to event organizers can appreciate novel ways of moving ideas closer to impact. From external sites like Kickstarter to internal “idea marketplaces” where employees can upvote their favorites, there are myriad ways of evaluating lots of ideas.

What if you want to deeply explore only a few ideas, in a way that idea authors can interact with a panel of experts?  You might want to consider a “Pitch Panel” format where creators offer their ideas to a panel of experts.  In return, the experts offer advice and perhaps a prize.  The TV shows “Shark Tank” or “Dragon’s Den are popular examples of a Pitch Panel.

Unlike many panels, there are quite a few moving parts to this type of format, so I asked Raoul Encinas, Founder of PhosLabs and coordinator of the PHX Street Pitch, to help identify the key components.

1. Objectives.  Why are you having this Pitch Panel?  What are the objectives?  In our case, our intention was to bring more attention to Arizona Early Stage Start Up companies, while also building up the public speaking skills of Arizona-based founders.

2. Format.  This is the tricky part and you really need to think this through.  In our case, we decided

  • To have an EmCee (a bit of a different role from panel moderator) kick off the event, provide end-to-end continuity for the event, and handle closing announcements.
  • Each pitcher was given exactly 5 minutes to present their idea.  Some Pitch Panels leave it up to the pitcher to decide (like Shark Tank). Others will give them a slide deck template to follow.  We decided to do something a bit different, leveraging the “ignite style” talk format: We gave them 20 slides of their choosing – and the slides would advance every 15 seconds, automatically! This forced the pitchers to get creative AND we knew that we would stay on time!
  • Q&A.  Obviously, there are going to be some questions – either from the panelists, the audience or both.  We decided to limit the questioning to the expert panel, but I love the idea of crowdsourcing the questions from the audience!
  • On-the-spot feedback.  Decide if the panelists should give feedback right after the pitch.  We opted not to provide feedback due to the lack of time.  But each pitcher was contacted by one of the panelists and given specific feedback a few days after.  Many of the pitchers were complimented or coached on:
    1. Clarity of message
    2. Their personal story as to why their idea was important to them and necessary to bring forth into the world
    3. Explanation of the business case and projections
    4. Call to action and how they will use the prize (money)

3. Deliberations.  Determine how the “winner(s)” will be decided (if there even is one!)

  • If the panel judges the winner – will they do that in full view and/or hearing of the audience?  Or will they adjourn to an adjoining space to deliberate?  Make sure the panelists are in agreement on the process/methodology  to decide the winner.  We threw ours in a room and they struggled for over half the time we had designated.
  • If the audience judges the winner, you can go by the loudest cheers or take a vote using a crowdsourcing technology.
  • Encinas says, “Energy escapes the room when the judges escape the room.”  If there is going to be lag time between the last pitch and the announcement of the winner, then you want to fill that time with something interesting and entertaining.  We filled the time with three high-schoolers who were sharing their start up story – with no intention to pitch the panel.

4. Date and Location.  Select a date and location that aligns with your objectives.  We wanted lots of visibility for early stage start ups, so we held this in conjunction with PHX Startup Week and Small Business Appreciation Day. We also held this on a main street in downtown PHX (ergo the name, “Street Pitch.”)  We literally closed down the street, brought in furniture, carpeting, and staging to make it special.

5. Pitchers.  You’ll receive far more applications than you will have room (or time) for.  Identify ahead of time just how many applications you will approve.  We decided on ten pitches at 5 minutes a piece.  That’s almost an hour  – not including the front and back end of the panel.  Any more would have been way too long.

6. Application Process.  Decide how people will submit their applications. Determine the criteria you will use to narrow down the field.  How will you inform those who were selected as well as those who were not?  Are you going to provide any feedback (or not)?

7. Panelists.  Decide and invite who will be the experts who will listen to the pitches, ask questions, and judge the winner(s).  Keep in mind, as busy executives, they “don’t have an appetite to come early,” says Encinas.  You’ll need to communicate the panel logistics, evaluation criteria and the process to come to agreement.  We had three panelists who also determined the winner and the first runner-up.

8. Prize.  If there is a “winner,” determine the “prize” to be won, and make sure you understand the legal implications of this. We had applicants sign a waiver as a condition of participating in the process. Legal disclaimer: Consult your attorney for compliance to rules and regulations when raising money.

9. Coaching.  Since many of our early start-up pitchers were fairly young and relatively inexperienced when it came to pitching their idea (especially using a 5 minute IGNITE process!), we mandated a two hour “Speaker Bootcamp” as well as optional personal coaching (that’s where I came in.  I coached three of the pitchers through the gauntlet!)

Pitch panels are a tremendous amount of work to organize, yet a ton of fun to watch the creative minds at work!

Related Articles:

27 Popular Panel Discussion Formats

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF | Master, professional panel moderator, and high stakes meeting facilitator is on a quest to make all panel discussions lively and informative. Check out her free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Photo by Matteo Modica on Unsplash

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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