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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 21, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    The Elevator Pitch

    Michael McAleer

    So what are you up to these days? It’s a simple question, asked of grandchildren the world over. After years of practice we should be well able to explain ourselves in a relatively short and snappy way. Or so you’d think.

    The problem with being a hack these days is that you spend so much time bound to a desk or sitting through supposedly insightful presentations, that are big on Powerpoint but small on detail. Quick snappy opening lines are often followed up with rather ropey explanations of the detail.

    Yet it underlines the power of good presentation skills and how, while avoiding the pitfalls of PR spoof, the art of clarity is so important for any future innovator.

    There’s no escaping the need to stand up and be counted these days. Whether it’s to potential investors or customers – or even a bunch of hacks – there’s an often ignored talent in comprehensively and clearly presenting your ideas. Get it right and the good times may well roll. Get it wrong and a world of bitterness and “what-if” awaits.

    It’s the talent that made Steve Jobs the doyen of the media for his showmanship, but also undoubtedly lured investors to his projects. Meanwhile, the bars of the world are filled with innovators who could have changed the world if only they could better explain the benefits of their big ideas.

    I had the pleasure of judging one of the qualifier rounds for the Thesis in Three competition this week. Organised by Clarity, the SFI-funded centre for sensory web technologies, it’s a prelude to a final event in the Mansion House on November 9th, where finalists from the nation’s third-level research centres will be asked to explain what it is they are up to in three minutes, with the usual presentation crutch of three Powerpoint slides for support.

    For some of us three minutes is an awfully long time to explain that we spend our days typing and staying awake at presentations, but if you’re currently spending your time manipulating thermo-responsive gels or debugging and monitoring wireless sensor networks, then it’s not that easy to boil it down so that people like me can understand. And just for the added challenge, try presenting it in front of your peers in English, when that’s not your native tongue.

    I’m told that the elevator pitch has become a regular feature of research PhDs, much to the chagrin of many of the students, who see their life’s work as more about breakthroughs and solving problems rather than slick presentations. Yet if you want your research to be recognised and appreciated, there’s no reward for hiding it away behind complex jargon or waiting for others to put in the legwork to discover just how great your achievements are.

    The presentations at this week’s event concentrated on the realm of sensors, with several researchers focussing on the environmental area, reflecting perhaps the strong interest from the commercial sector in better sensors to monitor energy usage, pollution, and the like. Similarly there were several presentations on improving internet search and recommendation tools.

    The winners on the night were Steven Bourke, Jogile Kuklyte and Ken Conroy. All three will go on to present at the Mansion House event. They should do well: their projects are interesting, innovative and they explain them with clarity, identifying the problems at present and how their work might resolve them.

    There was an impressive array of talent on display, a demonstration of the innovation in action in our third-level institutions, much of which goes unnoticed by the general public. It’s important for several reasons that this starts to change. First, from an economic point of view, taxpayers need to be aware that their money is being invested in useful and cutting edge developments. Second, the researchers need to be able to get their message across succinctly and capture the attention of the potential investors. Like it or not, at some point a PhD with an ambition to see the research deliver to its potential is going to have to seek support. That means joining in the pitch battles to catch the attention of over-run venture capitalists or angel investors.

    It might seem a distracting sideline to gather in a small room above a Dublin pub and seek to explain what you’re up to in three minutes to the likes of me, but practice makes perfect and the three who go forward have the talent to take their ideas beyond the laboratory and into the real world. I believe one or two of them already have. The Thesis in Three give these Phd students great practice for the future, and that’s partly what education is all about.


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