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Swimming with the sharks: Entrepreneurial lessons from reality TV

3 min read


I must confess to a guilty pleasure — I love the ABC show “Shark Tank,” which gives budding entrepreneurs a chance to realize their dreams with a business deal that could be worth millions.

Though “Shark Tank” is highly entertaining (although, at times, unnecessarily brutal), it’s also quite instructional when it comes to high-stakes presentations. With so much on the line, wannabe entrepreneurs must give the pitch of a lifetime — one that requires them to project confidence, credibility and conviction from start to finish.

Here are five lessons from “Shark Tank” that you can use in your next presentation:

  1. Be shark-centric. Smart entrepreneurs know that their “pitch” is not about their great product; instead, it’s about how the sharks can make money. Rather than making your presentation all about you and your ideas, focus on your audience — what do you need to do to move your listeners to take action or try something new?
  2. Grab their attention. The creative hook that participants use to enthrall the judges fascinates me. One of the most memorable is Steve Gadlin, who sang and danced his way into the hearts of the sharks as he pitched his company, I Want to Draw a Cat for You. While being outrageous may not be your style (or could even be counterproductive, depending on the nature of your message), how you introduce your subject is critical and only effective if it is both attention getting and relevant to your topic.
  3. Make it personal. Entrepreneurs on “Shark Tank” shares personal story about why they developed their product. For example, Travis Perry invented the Chordbuddy to help new guitar players like his daughter avoid frustration. With a great back-story and a stellar product, Perry got attention and the deal he needed to succeed. How can you develop your personal story? Think about how you got started, what hurdles you had to navigate, and what gets you up in the morning to create a compelling narrative.
  4. Get them involved. The sharks love it when entrepreneurs give them a taste of their dessert, a funny hat to wear or a chance to try out the new pogo stick. Think of ways to let your audience experience what you’re talking about firsthand. There are many different ways to involve your listeners beyond looking at a slide or handout: ask a question, solicit volunteers or invite someone to share an example, making your presentation a personal experience for the audience.
  5. End strong. Have you noticed how every “Shark Pitch” ends with a resounding call to action? While some of them may sound hokey, they work. You want to conclude your presentation with the same strength and determination. Consider a closing that refers back to or complements your opener, providing a strong conclusion and leaving no doubt about the purpose of your presentation. In Gadlin’s case, he used his catchy song-and-dance to remind judges of the memorable nature of his business idea.

Though reality TV doesn’t often resemble actual reality, in the case of  “Shark Tank,” there are important takeaways to be had. Consider applying these lessons to boost your confidence, inspire your listeners and exponentially increase your chances for a high-impact presentation.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high-stake presentations. She has more than 25 years of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at her website and blog.