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5 tricks to give a great pitch

Ludovic Fery

concours pitch
From Ted worldwide conference program to the Australian “Three minute thesis” contest which became the “Ma thèse en 180 secondes” challenge in France, more and more opportunities exist to pitch science.

But pitching isn’t rocket science and, just like any other kind of public talks, the main key to success is preparation. To help you on the way, here are 5 tricks that would work on any audience.

   © Florian Pircher - Pixabay

  • It’s all about sharing ONE idea

Don’t rely to me on this one, but to Chris Anderson, the person in charge of who speaks at TED conferences. He says all great talks have one thing in common: build an idea inside the mind of an audience. And successful speakers usually restrain their talk to only several, if not one, major ideas. “Pick one idea and make it the through-line running through your entire talk so that everything you say links back to it in some way”, advises TED’s curator. This particular thing can prove tricky for scientists, as they rarely have a cursus, nor a research subject, focused on solely one idea. Take this pitch (in French) from a French PhD and entrepreneur, Pauline Eveno, for example:




She won a pitch contest over 10 finalists. Why? Because she made her research work tangible according both to her own history (she’s been passionate about music since childhood) and to a context wider than just her work (music industry can be improved thanks to customisation. She could have lost the thread of her main idea – and her audience at the same time – by getting too specific about her research subject, the very confidential aeroacoustic discipline, but didn’t.


  • Try empathy

“The speakers often forget that any of the terms or concepts they live with are completely unfamiliar to their audiences”, reminds also Chris Anderson. Whatever your research work is, history, economics or the string theory, in the context of a pitch you’ll always be more qualified than your listeners. So make your speech accessible to the largest number: you can start with concepts the audience is probably aware of (for instance societal or ecological challenges) and connecting them somehow to your lab work. Remember that metaphors are a common trick – and a very efficient one when well used - trick in science-related talks. For instance, one TED speaker succeeded to illustrate the complex function of the trending protein CRISPR, by comparing it to a “word processor to edit DNA”. Pictures always work in people’s minds because they give them a chance to get a grip on something they don’t know about and understand, using their own words and representations.  
If you think your research doesn’t transfer well into metaphors, try using empathetic narrative instead. Through the prism of empathy, says The Undercover Recruiter, “you are able to create an emotional connection with your speech and therefore what you say has far more resonance and influence”. Is there something in your course or experience (an anecdote, a famous quote you’re particularly fond of…) you think most people could relate to? If yes, try implementing it in your pitch.


  • Repeat, repeat, repeat…

Speaking in front of an anonymous crowd is stressful enough so you don’t have to stumble on your words on the D-day. Again, the key to success is all but mysterious. You need to rehearse… a lot! And mind not only about what you say, but how you say it: your voice volume, tone and tempo matter as much to seduce an audience as a refined speech. Through repetition, beware of reciting your text too much though. You’re not an actor and any attentive listeners would immediately spot an awkward-sounding intonation or sentence. To avoid sounding like a broken record, do your rehearsals in front of a maximum of people and ask them to give an honest advice afterwards: what sounded unnatural or funny in their ears? Anything in your talk altering the general comprehension of it?... It’s ok to polish your speech several times but don’t become too obsessed with words. Mainly because they won’t necessarily be the precise ones you pronounce the actual day of your pitch and that’s perfectly fine!


  • Be memorable

Only a few weeks before your pitch, and you received your personal invitation and the timetable of the contest. If you made it so far, you surely know what important message you want to share with the audience. Now rocking the stage is your only available option! We already highlighted the importance of building a great speech and rehearsing it. There is another thing great speakers work on to be memorable: it’s called non-verbal communication. In the context of your pitch, which is a short talk with no slide show, non-verbal communication can be of two forms: small breaks in the middle of your speech and body gestures or moves across the stage. A calculated silence at some point of your pitch, for example, would indicate to your audience that you are about to deliver one of your main highlights. Anticipating this kind of breaks is usually for well-trained speakers, like entrepreneurs or theatre persons. But nothing prevents you from training at home! Find pictures or videos of the place of the contest, close your eyes and try to imagine yourself there: picture yourself giving your speech, being smily, moving across the stage, seeing people’s faces agree to what you say… So far so good, no?


The most important thing with non-verbal communication is to keep it genuine. In humans, the hands especially guide our speech in a very natural way. You don’t want to choreograph this to the point it seems hackneyed. Conversely, prepare a minimum to ban all signs of closing or nervousness from the stage (arms-crossing, skipping, untimely eyes-blinking...).


  • Deal with stress

Let’s not lie to each other: you WILL experience stress or anxiety. Maybe even a few days before the actual contest. It’s how humans cope with never-experienced before situations. A pitch contest might be hard to picture if you’re not an entrepreneur or a theater person. But, as a PhD student or an accomplished doctor, you should at least be used to public speaking. Some unexpected free time before you hit the stage? Use it to do some face aerobics (see for instance this tutorial and method 3) to improve your elocution or some diaphragmatic breathing to keep your cardiac rhythm and anxiety at an acceptable level.


Here you go: it’s your turn and you feel an overwhelming rush of adrenalin. To channel it, keep telling yourself you are prepared for this challenge and letting out this very important message for you will be easy. And if by bad luck you trip in the middle of a sentence or suffer a short memory lapse on stage, pause for even a few seconds just to get a grip on yourself and restart where you left off with a full breath capacity. Hopefully you’ll be talented enough so everybody will forget this little snag!

Follow the link to enter the contest : http://intelliagence.fr/Page/DocteurAndCo/Article.aspx?ArticleId=1613