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Students practice entrepreneurial pitches in lifelike one-minute drill scenario at Carrier Dome

October 16, 2008

Margaret Spillett
(315) 443-1069

Margaret Spillett

What if you only had one minute-the length of an elevator ride-to grab the attention of a wealthy investor? Would you be able to sell your idea and get a chance to formally present it to the investor at a later date? Students in the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) course "Information Reporting and Presentation" (IST 444) had the opportunity to hone this skill recently.

With TVs blaring, people chatting, and Dome dogs and drinks being delivered, students pitched an innovative or entrepreneurial idea that related to life at the University to SU Associate Provost Bruce Kingma, who heads the Syracuse Campus-Community Entrepreneurship Initiative (Enitiative) program, and Stacey Keefe, executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship Experiential Learning (ExCEL).

Associate professor Susan Bonzi, director of instructional quality at the iSchool, has taught this popular course for the past eight years. The course delivers practical communications and presentation lessons to about 240 SU students through eight sections a semester. One of the main goals of the course is to help students keep the attention of an audience, as well as draw them to the important aspects of the presentation.

The students were challenged to pitch their ideas during a simulated professional sporting event, while the "boss" figures-Kingma and Keefe-were being served food and drinks in a private box at the Carrier Dome. The real-life scenario-with distractions and conversations, and the time-out clock ticking down-gave students a true test of their persuasion skills.

"It went so fast, and I didn't expect [Keefe] to ask so many questions," says Andrew Kiefer, a senior in the iSchool. He said he covered all the main points of his idea-a wireless technology keychain alert system to replace the "blue light" call box system. "Basically, a student could push a button on the keychain, which would transmit a signal via Air Orange [the wireless network at SU] directly to the Department of Public Safety indicating where the student was on campus and who the student is, because the key fab has the student's ID," he says. "I think I covered the basic points, but it was hard to cover it all and answer her questions. I'm sure this skill will be useful in my career. Actually, in my internship, I would sometimes see the head guy walk through the office, but he'd only be there for like 45 seconds."

That's exactly what Kingma and Bonzi wanted the students to realize through the exercise. "An elevator pitch is a necessary part of an entrepreneur's experience; succinctly telling others what their idea is and why it deserves attention," Kingma says. "We wanted to put an exciting touch to our elevator pitch training by having it take place in a setting that students would be experiencing in their professional life. The 'Dome Speech' is something they will encounter as professionals."

"The average person today is presented with so much information that content often must be presented in a clear and concise form in order to capture another person's attention," Bonzi says. "This is a critical skill-being able to pitch your idea in a very short time to an important person. Students will be pitching in a variety of ways all of their lives-getting someone to notice them so they get a job interview, for example."

Christopher Melis, a junior accounting and finance major in the Whitman School of Management, says he felt well prepared for the exercise, having practiced delivering the pitch five or six times to his roommate. However, he didn't expect Kingma to be distracted by his cell phone or an acquaintance passing by. "I think it went great though," says Melis, who suggested the University launch a series of diversity forums. "I had more to say, but I think I said enough to get my idea across."

This is the first time Bonzi has set a class lesson in a real-life scenario. "We're trying this out to see how students respond to the exercise," she says. "Based on the exercise's success, I imagine we'll continue something like this exercise next semester as well." This class project was made possible, in part, through an Enitiative award. Enitiative is funded by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., focusing on entrepreneurship in the arts, technology, and our neighborhoods. To learn more about Enitiative, visit http://www.entrepreneurship.syr.edu.

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