Learning the art of the pitch at MIT
It was pitch time for mechanical engineering students at MIT. But there were no hoodies to be found, no technical sermons to sit through.
Instead, a new breed of geek stepped out onto largest stage at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, undergraduates in sleek suits, radiating the confidence of seasoned TED-presenters, as they told carefully crafted stories about the products their teams had developed in class.
The three-hour show mimicked professional product launches — think Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad — and came complete with a live band, elaborate stage props, and lighting worthy of a pop concert.
“Imagining yourself up on that stage is central to being a good engineer today,” said Warren Seering, a veteran MIT mechanical engineering professor. “You may not bring a rock band to your meeting with a venture capitalist, but you need to be able to explain and defend your ideas.”
The show and the semester of learning that proceeds it each year represent a shift for engineering education at MIT. In the innovation economy, the selling of ideas is just as relevant to success as the next scientific discovery. So MIT invests heavily in the one mechanical engineering class that teaches students how to take a big idea to a big stage.
“It is not that pitching and being confident about your work was ever not important,” Seering said. “Just that we didn’t see it as our responsibility to teach it.”
The driving force behind the class, known on campus by its listing number, 2.009, is David Wallace. When Wallace took over the class in 1995, “most of the designing happened on paper,” he said.
“In the class I created, all the learning is fit into this process of how you make a product in the real world, with engineers and designers and business people all working together,” said Wallace. “This includes an intense focus on details, collaboration across disciplines, and it all comes together in the final product launch.”
The final presentations from students in the class have become something of an annual event in Cambridge and in tech circles beyond Boston. More than 1,000 fans watched the live video stream of the latest product pitches, tuning in from San Francisco, Atlanta, and elsewhere.
The latest round of pitches included one for Koach, a punching bag that allows boxers to “compete without fighting.” The training bag is equipped with sensors that register the impact of each hit and compare the scores to those of other boxers.
And there was one for Origin, a GPS wristband that promises to “help skiers find their friends on the slopes” in areas where there is no phone signal.
“It is quite mind-blowing to see the students’ hard work condensed into these presentations, from the design solution they worked out to the sharp storytelling on what their product is about,” said Jeff Senez of Boston-based Atlas Devices, who helped one of the teams.
Senez is one of about 40 industry mentors — executives from such companies as Athenahealth and Cooper Perkins — who support the students on a weekly basis during the term. Each team of roughly two dozen students has $6,500 to spend on their inventions (paid for by sponsors.)
Among the tricks students learned for their launches: Prepare a compelling story that explains why people need your product. Keep slides simple and direct. Don’t gesture around with the remote control. If possible, present what your product does live; if your product measures the heat in a horse’s leg, get a horse on stage.
“We threw food at a speaker during a rehearsal, turned on a boom box, cracked jokes,” said Ron Rosenberg, who two years ago presented a lightweight camping stove billed as “the MacBook air of camping stoves” and was a teaching assistant for the class last fall.
“It taught us how to listen to our inner voice. No matter what happens, you keep going,” he said.
Rosenberg admitted that he thought he was a pretty good speaker going in, but when he got up in front of that large audience, he briefly forgot everything, including his name. “This course gave me enormous confidence,” he said. “I now know I can present anything, anywhere.”
Teams are often seen at 3 a.m. tinkering away on their prototypes in a workshop and writing business plans or rehearsing presentations over the weekend. Still, they say they love it.
“This class exceeded all my expectations,” said Georgia Van de Zande, who worked on the Origin wristband. A shy and inexperienced speaker, she especially appreciated the three hours of communications training required each week.
“So many times people with brilliant ideas don’t get recognized,” she said, “and people with mediocre ideas but great presentation skills get heard.”