7 things communicators can learn from ‘Shark Tank’

Why not squeeze in a little professional development the next time you plop down on the couch? The reality show offers timeless communication lessons.

Do you remember when “Survivor” first aired on television?

No one had heard of a reality TV show before, and the idea of watching strangers try to survive on a desert island fascinated us.

Well, here we are 15 years later, surrounded by spinoffs of “The Bachelor” and “The Real Housewives,” and you’d be hard pressed to find a TV channel that doesn’t have a reality show.

Some people see all these shows and lament that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. (Is there even anything to learn on TLC—The Learning Channel—anymore?) Still, a few shows out there can enhance our lives. “Shark Tank” is one of them.

On “Shark Tank,” aspiring entrepreneurs have the opportunity to pitch six “sharks” (self-made multi-millionaire and billionaire business tycoons) and persuade them to invest in their startups. After the pitch, the sharks can ask questions, test the product and, if they feel compelled, make an investment offer.

Because millions of dollars and the potential to transform their lives is on the line, the entrepreneurs must deliver perfect pitches. A winning pitch must be attention-grabbing, concise, persuasive—everything effective communication should be.

So, the next time you plop yourself in front of the TV, invest in your professional development by opting for “Shark Tank.” Here are seven communication lessons the show’s pitches offer:

1. Grab your audience’s attention.

While filming, the sharks see about 10 pitches a day, which takes nearly nine hours to shoot. That’s a long day, and if you’re the unlucky entrepreneur making that 10th pitch, your chances of landing a deal may not look so hot.

Communicators fight a similar battle with their audiences. Whether you write for employees at an organization or a client of a major PR firm, you have to find creative ways to break through the noise and make your message heard.

These resources might help:

Just make sure you’re standing out in a good way. Each episode of “Shark Tank” typically includes at least one horrible pitch that leaves you squirming. Don’t let that be you.

2. Be concise.

One of the sharks, Kevin O’Leary (a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful), wrote an article for The Huffington Post about what he thinks makes a good pitch. One tip was, “You better be able to get your story out in less than 90 seconds, or you can pack your bags, because my money’s already looking somewhere else.”

Yes, it’s harsh, but sometimes we need tough love. Attention spans have dwindled to a mere eight seconds. It doesn’t matter if you have a cute lede and don’t want to cut it—get to the point quickly and clearly, or your readers will move on to something else.

3. Tailor everything to your audience.

When the sharks see a pitch, they want to know two things: What’s in it for them if they invest, and why customers would want to buy the product. The entrepreneurs must provide clear answers to these questions right away, or they risk losing the shark’s attention and investment. They may also lose the attention of all the potential customers watching the show.

Make sure every pitch you send, article you write or speech you give puts the audience first. As tips No. 1 and 2 say, attention spans are short, and time is scarce. Your audience shouldn’t have to dig around for reasons to read your article or buy your product. The value should be clear.

4. Be persuasive.

If you’re on “Shark Tank,” you’re trying to convince people with a lot of money and influence that your business is worth their time and investment. That’s no easy feat.

If you’re a communicator, your task is just as challenging. You have to convince customers that your brand’s product is better than the competitors’ or sway employees that visiting the intranet is going to help them do their jobs better, among myriad other things.

People have limited time and money, so why should they spend those on you? Prove that what you’re asking them to do is worthwhile. The best way to do that is to have an organization, product or initiative that you’re proud to stand behind.

5. Have a story.

One episode featured a woman who pitched a gumbo base in the form of a brick that would allow customers to add their own ingredients to make good gumbo quickly. The woman needed money to get her product into Costco.

The sharks loved the gumbo, but they weren’t convinced they wanted to invest. One by one the sharks dropped out. Finally, the woman revealed some background about herself—because she was trying so hard to invest in and expand her business, she was homeless at the time.

Because her story revealed her dedication to the business, she persuaded two sharks, O’Leary and Lori Greiner, to invest.

Communicators talk about storytelling a lot, but it’s crucial to grabbing attention, persuading people and humanizing organizations. Incorporate stories into as much of your work as possible.

Download this free white paper to learn how to tell compelling stories that navigate through the noise, boost your brand and drive sales.

6. Do your research.

Shark Barbara Corcoran told Business Insider the best pitch she ever heard was from the entrepreneurs behind Cousins Maine Lobster. “They were clear … they were high energy, and they answered every question and objection like geniuses. Genuine, rock-solid and perfect answers,” she said.

It turns out a lot of hard work went into that perfect pitch. The cousins prepared by watching all the previous episodes and learning from the entrepreneurs who had secured investments. They also brainstormed and prepped for every question the sharks might ask.

Put the same hard work into all your communications, whether you’re designing an intranet, writing blog articles or prepping an executive for an interview. Consider every detail. Be a perfectionist. The hard work will show.

7. Always be truthful.

After an entrepreneur makes his or her pitch, the sharks ask follow-up questions that are usually about the numbers. They’ll ask, “Why do you think your business is worth $1 million?” or “What are your profits so far this year, and where do you plan to be by next year?”

If the entrepreneurs don’t answer honestly, they risk losing the investment and alienating someone who could revolutionize their lives.

Being truthful is just as important to communicators. Because there are some slimy spin doctors out there, good PR practitioners must continually prove that they’re honest and not spinning stories to favor big, bad corporations. It’s a fight worth fighting, because one slip-up can do major damage to you and your organization’s reputation.

Plus, nice people just don’t lie.

Do you watch “Shark Tank? What other lessons do you think the pitches provide? Please share in the comments.

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