Five Lessons From My Shark Tank Appearance I Still Use Five Years Later

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Five years ago today, I was anxiously awaiting the airing of my appearance on ABC’s hit series Shark Tank. My co-founder Kim and I hadn’t seen a final edit of the show — which we filmed several months earlier — and we were hoping for the best while scurrying around, doing lots of last-minute press and putting the finishing touches on a party for a few hundred of our closest friends, clients, and colleagues.

On that April day, my thoughts were mostly focused on the night ahead: What parts of our hour-long conversation with the Sharks would make the roughly eight-minute TV edit? Would our recently-revamped website hold up to the surge of traffic, which we had been told would top one million? What new potential clients might we garner? And, to a lesser degree of importance, would people have a blast at our shark-themed party? 

To mark the occasion, I reflected on some of the strategies I used to prepare for the show’s filming. I still use these all today in my career as a professional keynote and virtual speaker. I hope you’ll find them useful, too… whether you’re preparing for an important Zoom call with colleagues or a primetime TV appearance that will be seen by millions.

1. Be prepared for everything you can…

From the time we received a call from a casting director inviting us to appear on the show, my co-founder and I prepared like crazy. As a superfan of the show, I was familiar with most of the episodes from the first five seasons. Still, I rewatched several as research, just as an athlete reviews game footage before facing an opponent. With the help of a few interns, I put together a very in-depth spreadsheet analyzing data from everyepisode’s contestants, including things like deal value, equity concessions, and even what the founders were wearing (company shirts or business attire?). My co-founder and I also wrote out answers to more than 200 different potential questions, which encompassed the universe of all questions previously asked on the show and dozens we thought could be reasonably posed to us. In short, we felt ready for anything.

I’m still a big believer in the art of preparation today. That’s why, before every keynote speech I deliver, I have multiple calls not only with the executive team of the client hiring me, but with members of the audience who will be in attendance. This research is critical for me to get a great understanding of the organization or association I’m helping. Whether you’re a professional speaker or someone giving a one-off presentation, don’t ever think your advice is so universal that it can help people whose situations you aren’t intimately aware of — get to know the people you’re serving so you can deliver personalized recommendations that lead to measurable results.

2. And chill about everything you can’t.

Although Kim and I thought we had prepared for everything, there were — of course! — things beyond our control. Because our company, ZinePak, worked with celebrities, we were working on getting permissions to include (and even talk about) our products until minutes before we filmed the show. Literally, minutes before! One of the final approvals we were banking on came while we were in hair and makeup. I frantically chased down a producer and said, “We can include this after all! Here’s the email approval from the artist’s personal account!” as we made last-second adjustments to our pitch.

We also had no control on when, or even if, our segment would air on TV. Like most reality shows, Shark Tank routinely films way more than it shows to ensure it can curate the best viewer experiences possible. When we finally did find out we had been slated for air (roughly six months after filming), we were ecstatic! Then, a few days later, our hearts sank: the episode had been bumped for a super-secret Diane Sawyer special. (Which, as it turns out, was her groundbreaking interview where Bruce Jenner announced he was transitioning to a woman.) For about a week, we (and even the show’s producers) were unsure if ABC would reschedule the show or simply scrap it. We were told about how, following the Boston Marathon bombings, an episode had been discarded, never to re-air. The odds were 50/50 that the same would happen to our episode. Luckily, ABC ultimately made the decision to simply air the show an hour later, and the Diane Sawyer lead-in provided a big bump in the ratings. 

In every presentation, there will be things beyond your control. If you’re presenting live, your support screens or microphone may stop working. For virtual meetings, you may lose internet connection or hit other technical snags. Or, your client or boss may say, “Hey, let’s go in a totally different direction!” after weeks of work, forcing you to ditch a well-rehearsed presentation to make up something on the fly. All you can do is control what’s in your control (like having back-up plans for when technology doesn’t cooperate), and roll with what life throws you for the rest of it. Even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment, you’ll get through it… and probably even learn something important in the process (See: 2020 COVID-19 Quarantine).

3. Get SUPER clear on your message

What makes YOU the best you in the world? 

If you don’t understand what special thing you’ve got to offer the world, how in the world will your audience ever understand? This goes not just for presentations, but for anything you do in life. I’m always surprised by how many people who’ve been in sales or marketing for years — or even decades — who can’t tell me why they’re the very best at what they do, and the obvious choice their customer should be making. You’ve got to be able to answer this question before any communication will be effective, whether you’re telling your story on national TV or in an Instagram story. I believe part of why Kim and I received a favorable edit on the show (besides the aforementioned insane level of preparation) is because we knew exactly what story we were telling and why it would resonate.

4. Understand your audience (hint: it’s usually not just one audience!)

When prepping for the show, Kim and I knew we had a few different audiences it was critical we appeal to. Because casting producers approached us for the show after reading about us online, we got to leapfrog the first set of gatekeepers. However, we knew that we weren’t just pitching to five big-shot Sharks on a soundstage: We had to appeal to executives at the production company and ABC (who would ultimately decide if we “made the cut” for an episode), the Sharks (who could make us look foolish if they didn’t “get” our pitch), and, most importantly, the millions of viewers who would see us if we ultimately made it to air.

Before any presentation, think about the various audiences you will be serving, and ask yourself how you can over-deliver to all of them. That’s how you get repeat and referral business, which are the cornerstones of success no matter your industry. Creating superfans — customers who create more customers for you — will make your job more enjoyable, profitable, and sustainable. If you don’t understand the audiences you’re serving, you’ll never be able to connect your story to theirs in a way that resonates.

5. Over-deliver, then nail the follow-up

Going into any presentation environment, try asking yourself, “What is expected of me?” Then ask yourself, “How can I blow those expectations out of the water?”

On Shark Tank, we were pitching a custom packaging company that made collectible items for superfans. Although it wasn’t necessary, we created full-on products focusing on each of the five TV Sharks. Each included dozens of pages of custom editorial and images we put together for that very small audience. There were collectible trading cards, too! Even though no one besides the Sharks and the TV executives watching from the wings ever saw those products, the time and attention to detail spent on them proved that we were the real deal and made a major impression on the Sharks.

Likewise, we put together lots of great, free content on our website for viewers to find when they landed on our page. We knew that, as a B2B company, the vast majority of the viewers of the show wouldn’t ever be in a position to hire us… or maybe even to buy a product of ours from one of our clients. So, we put together lots of fun freebies for fans of the show. We also worked with some of our corporate partners to do fun giveaways on our site. It was a nice surprise-and-delight for the viewers who cared enough to look us up and spend a few minutes learning more.

When you think about a presentation, don’t think of it as a one-time event. Think in terms of Before, During, and After. Obviously, the During is the time you’ll spend in front of the screen or onstage. How can you work with your partners to provide value to your audience before the event? Can you provide free content of some kind to help get your audience excited? And what about after? How are you keeping the excitement going and setting your audience members up for success? One of my favorite “after” strategies is putting together custom workbooks that correspond with my virtual and in-real-life keynotes. That way, no one has to second-guess (or try to remember!) what step comes next in a process I’ve talked about from the stage.

In the five years since our Shark Tank episode’s original airing, it’s been watched by tens of millions of people in more than 100 countries around the globe. And, although appearing on the show meant getting comfortable with a lot of things beyond our control, it was ultimately a fun experience that’s helped expose tons of new people to the concept of superfandom. Never underestimate the power of a platform… and never under prepare for the privilege of being given one, no matter the size.

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