Viewpoint: Pitching a key skill to succeed in the real world

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IN Malaysia, about 40% of university graduates are unemployed. Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Richard Riot Jaem told the Dewan Rakyat that between 2010 and 2013, the number of unemployed graduates grew 20%, from 42,954 to 52,282.

Many attribute this to a poor command of written as well as spoken English. However, from my experience, it goes beyond scoring an “A” in English or being able to speak or write proper English.

Recently, a Middle Eastern woman named Nina Mufleh was in the limelight when she landed her dream job at Airbnb. Her awesome résumé caught the CEO’s attention. The résumé did not state her degree, but instead, showcased her knowledge of the travel industry, how she could contribute to Airbnb and what she thought the company should do next. Her English was simple, yet, she created a resume that mirrored Airbnb’s website with attractive slides and key bullet points.

After almost 20 years in investment banking, I have come to the conclusion that what makes our graduate unemployable is a lack of pitching skill.

I struggled in my early years in a foreign bank, especially in the demanding debt capital markets. Even with my “As” from a good national school and degree in banking and finance, I was crushed in the real world.

I could write in English, yet, my boss slammed my proposals and inability to pitch! After all, the proposals were meant to sell our products and convince clients to “mandate” us. Working in an international bank allowed me to observe my colleagues who were star presenters as they articulated key points convincingly.

Dealing with foreign nationalities, especially the British and Australians, was another challenge for me. Their tongue-twisting English accent and Aussie twang, coupled with my inferior “colonialism mindset”, made me stammer and fail miserably in communicating with them.

Pitching skill is not just about presentation. Successful pitching goes beyond good communication. It is about presenting with clarity and confidence; preparing slides and proposals that grab one’s attention; being able to engage upward, downward and laterally; and lastly, listening effectively.

Steve Jobs was regarded as one of the best presenters, especially during his pitch to introduce the iPhone and MacBook Air. His style was eye-catching and impressed his audience. Alibaba chairman Jack Ma’s self-taught English may not be top notch but his visionary and passionate speeches attracted a lot of investors to invest in his Alibaba dream.

Pitching will not be effective without the ability to communicate in the language used by the community. English is important as it is the most widely spoken and written language in the business community. In tourism, many business people are learning to speak in Mandarin because of the influx of high-purchasing power Chinese tourists. I would get my children to learn German or Arabic if these languages replace English in the business community!

Our schools need to incorporate pitching skill into the curriculum and there are good resources available. Here’s how to get started:

 

1. Collaborate with global connectivity

Collaboration means working with others who have the expertise rather than relying on one teacher. We must embrace global connectivity or risk remaining as a “jaguh kampung”.

Schools could start a TED-Ed Club. TED-Ed Club is a global organisation with a flexible school-based programme that supports students in discussing, pursuing and presenting their big ideas in the form of short TED-style talks. Most importantly, they connect with other clubs globally.

TED is a non-profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas, usually in short, powerful talks. Started in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converged, today, TED shares ideas from science to business to global issues in more than 100 languages.

Toastmaster International’s Gavel Club, targeted at teenagers, is a good platform to learn face-to-face engagement during public speaking.

 

2. Listening and evaluating

I have attended a few Toastmaster sessions and the most impressive aspect is the evaluation process. A few persons are selected to evaluate the presenters. Participants learn to listen while observing mistakes made by others during these sessions, and thus learn not to repeat them.

Schools could make use of free resources, such as YouTube and TED speeches, to sharpen students’ listening and evaluation skills. For example, a teacher may share a speech by US President Barack Obama and ask students to pick up five key points from it. Then, students could present their findings to their classmates in a straightforward manner or in a more challenging competition-style environment. Students learn to sharpen their listening skills, are exposed to different accents of English speakers, learn to evaluate the content and not be intimidated by speakers from other countries.

 

3. Learn various presentation techniques

We can pick a good presenter who makes an impact due to different techniques of presentation. Students can pick up tips from books, such as The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo. Slideshare, a free online resource, offers presentation techniques and selects the week’s best. Separately, students could get together in groups, and select a topic to prepare and present as part of their project-based learning.

 

4. Practise, practise, practise

The simplest and most basic way to practise is to get students to read aloud in class and encourage them to practise for a few minutes at home every day. Students can present class projects, have a group discussion, or participate in drama classes. Flipped Classroom re-frames the role of teachers and students by allowing students to learn a topic outside the classroom and “teach” other students about it. This role reversals allow teachers and students to engage in more meaningful discussions.

Pitching is a universal skill that is critical to whatever our children choose to do in future. Those with this skill can land their dream job or kick-start a startup by getting funding from investors. Pitching right can mean half of the battle is already won.


Wynce Low is executive director, head of debt obligation and distribution, Southeast Asia, National Bank of Abu Dhabi

This article first appeared in Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on September 14 - 20, 2015.