Last weekend I had the absolute pleasure of speaking at Hack@Brookes, a hackathon in the heart of the lovely Oxford Brookes campus. There were many fresh faces taking part in their ever first hackathon, so I wanted to give an insight into the magic of presenting ideas at a hackathon and beyond. These are the thoughts from my talk.
Without a doubt, the single most important ingredient when presenting is confidence – confidence in yourself, in your abilities and in the tech that you’ve created. Just like muscles that grow in strength over time, confidence is something you need to work on. You need to train the muscle over time and practice how you use it. That being said, the most wonderful thing about confidence is that you can fake it. Before you magically acquire the confidence to speak comfortably in front of 100 people, you can just pretend to be confident enough and nobody will know the difference.
My advice for hackathon pitching comes in two parts: first off, how to frame your idea to be both memorable and interesting. The second chunk of advice is about how to speak when you’re on the podium – how to handle your body language and use it to tell your story.
P A R T 1 – framing your idea
We live in an age of information overload where we’re bombarded with input from a million sources every day.
We hear a lot of new ideas. We really don’t like hearing a lot of new ideas.
To stand out, you need to make people listen.
1. Tell us about the problem world
What is the world like where the problem exists?
The thing about having an extraordinary new idea is that not many people have had the same thought yet. With this in mind, it’s important to know that you can’t assume I know that the problem exists. You need to tell me about it and tell me exactly what the world is like. Tell me exactly what’s broken in the world and what you’d like to fix.
2. What’s your mission?
What do you want to do with this product?
What’s the big, beautiful thing that you want to achieve with this product? What’s your moonshot goal? If someone was going to write an article about you, what would you want them to say? Rather than just listing the features of a product, it’s important to capture imagination and tell the story of how much impact your technology could really have.
3. Explain your glorious, wonderful product
What have you built?
This hack of yours has been hand-crafted with a mix of love, caffeine and creativity. You worked damn hard to put it all together and I would love to hear about how you did that.
Tell me about the tech you used and explain it in a way that I’ll understand and respect you for. Tell me how you built it, how you thought about it and how you solved problems.
Tell me about the benefits of the product, not the features. The features will be clear if you frame them as genuine benefits.
Tell me a story. Weave in beautiful bits and details that I’ll remember. Tell me about Kevin who likes long romantic walks to the fridge and why he’ll love the Tinder for Pizza Takeaway that you’ve hacked together.
Be extraordinary. Stand out. Blow some minds.
P A R T 2 – presenting your idea
The best thing you can be is confident
I had the incredible privilege of speaking on the Future of Technology panel at the last CodeFirst:Girls conference. Just after the panel, I was lucky enough to hear an incredible talk by Deborah Francis-White, who shared one of the best analogies I have ever heard: She compares standing in front of a crowd of people to being prey. In this case, the audience is a crowd of hungry, stalking lions who are eyeing the fidgety, nervous springbok of a presenter.
Luckily for us springboks, we can become lions quite easily. All we need to do is act more like a lion and less like a springbok.
Here’s how to act like a lion:
- Make eye contact
This is important. It’s easy to look behind the heads at the back of the room, but its a thousand times better to individually make eye contact with the people in your audience. Look at them while you’re speaking – speak to them.
- Move with purpose
Don’t pace up and down and don’t wave your hands around unnecessarily. Moving too much makes you look nervous. It distracts your audience and detracts from what you’re saying. If you move, do it because it adds value to what you’re saying. Walk towards the audience to engage with them, not side to side because you’re not sure where to stand. Use your hands to make a point – not as something to hide behind.
- Slow down your pace
Speaking too quickly makes you seem unsure about what you’re saying. If you slow down your pace, it automatically adds incredible authority to what you’re saying. Many hackathon pitches are incredibly time limited, but 60 seconds of clear speech is a lot more effective that a flustered 60 second whirlwind of thoughts.
- Stop moving your head
This goes hand in hand with the slower pace. The combination of slow speech and a still head are a match made in heaven. Go find yourself a mirror and say the same sentence twice: first, do it quickly and move your head around. Then, do it with a slower pace and keep your head comfortably still. The difference is incredible – you’ll sound authoritative, as if you know exactly what you’re talking about.
I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: The glue that ties this all together is confidence and the best way to build up confidence is to practice.
Hackathons are the perfect playground to practice your speaking skills – they’re supportive, wonderful communities of people just like you. And today you may be at a hack, but tomorrow you could be nurturing the seedling of your billion dollar company where you would use these skills to pitch an investor, to close your first round of funding, to lead your team.
So go forth and build things, you wonderful, incredible hacker. Enable people. Make things Better. Change the world with your technology and tell us all about it.