A rough guide to pitching for awards

Chris Horn, chair of the final judging panel for this year's Irish Times’ Innovation Awards, offers insight into strategies to stand out

After several years chairing the The Irish Times Innovation Awards final judging round, a few tips for pitching your bright idea become evident.

These awards are now well-established in the national business calendar. This year, 85 entrants qualified to undergo the first-round judging process. From this cohort, three finalists were ultimately shortlisted in each of five categories: IT and Fintech; Life Sciences and Healthcare; Manufacturing and Design; New Frontiers; and Sustainability.

This year I had the honour of once more chairing the final judging panel, with six other colleagues. Each of the finalists submitted a written entry, in a standard format prescribed beforehand by The Irish Times. These submissions were sent to us well in advance of the actual final judging day.

On the day itself, each of the three finalists in each of the five categories were given a 15-minute opportunity to present to us and take any questions. Between each category, we took a few minutes to individually score the three presentations and to consult with each other on our views. At the end of the day, we reviewed our deliberations and selected the category winners and overall champion.

For us as judges, the day was thus quite intense with back-to-back short presentations and discussion sessions. It was, of course, important that we maintained our own standards throughout the day, and so interview each finalist at the end of the afternoon with as much energy as we did in the first morning sessions. Coffee, tea and the occasional ardent debate between us helped to keep up the adrenaline levels.

For the finalists, the experience was naturally a little daunting, but nevertheless I trust a positive experience. As each entrant was strictly limited to a seven- or eight-minute presentation, followed by just a six- or seven-minute question-and-answer session with the judging panel, careful time planning was prudent.

Single presenter

Personally, I found those entrants who limited themselves to just a single presenter rather than having several people present were more effective. Having three or more speakers squashed into such a short time slot can be a challenge.

Demeanour is so important. Business passion and empathy are infectious, and the more successful presenters were able to liberally insert vignettes about their customers’ reactions to their innovation. In some cases, we were shown customer feedback via very short, cogent video clips, which are easy to capture with smartphones.

In thankfully a small number cases, the videos which were shown to us added little further information to what we already knew. They simply regurgitated content which had already been presented to us earlier in the session. I can recall an experienced professor advising me as a junior university lecturer to always tell my students what I was about to tell them, then to go ahead and tell them, and then finally to tell them what I had just told them. However, in a 15-minute competitive presentation to experienced judges, such reinforcement-style teaching is likely to create the wrong impression. Videos which repeated what had already been said added little value and wasted time.

Repetitive content appeared to us in another more subtle way during the judging process. In one or two of the written submissions circulated to us in advance, it became obvious that substance of the material had been previously used as entries to other competitions. While this is hardly surprising given hard-pressed executive teams, nevertheless some reasonable effort might have been made to address the specific theme of the Innovation Awards. A generic and reusable submission may be an acceptable foundation for an entry. Nevertheless, it will score weakly if it is not particularly aligned to the specific objectives of an awards process, in identifying the impact of an innovative initiative on a commercial business.

Physical presence

For almost every entrant, their physical presence with us in the judging room brought their entry to life, and clarified any uncertainty we had when reading their written entry in advance. The opportunity to interact and discuss the merits of each innovation quickly overcame any misunderstandings and doubts arising from a considered reading of any entry. In quite a few cases, the presentation completely transformed, in a very positive sense, some of our preconceived categorisation of the submission concerned. Clearly, the written entry could only be an approximate guide to the real insights and ingenuity of the contestant when we were able to discuss in person.

The national – and international – recognition attached to winning is invaluable, not least in the subsequent profiling gained through features in this media outlet.

I have been involved as a judge in several of these annual awards. Each year, it becomes more challenging to separate the category winners from their peers, and the overall winner across the categories. What distinguishes the winners are the passion of the delivery and the enthusiasm of their customer stories.

The 15 finalists have each been profiled in The Irish Times in recent weeks. So we're looking forward to November 20th when the winners will be announced. And an overall winner is named.