How to Swim With the Sharks

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 14, 2018
howtoswimwiththesharks 0

Each year, more than 40,000 businesses vie for approximately 106 spots on a season of the television show Shark Tank. After nine seasons, four Emmys and hundreds of successful business launches, Shark Tank continues to be one of the most popular shows in the country. You know the format: Contestants pitch in front of a team of millionaires (and one billionaire). For those lucky enough to pitch their wares, the publicity from the show is often more valuable than the investment itself.

Related: The Shark Tank Guide to Surviving the Treacherous Waters of Entrepreneurship

Over the years working as a pitch coach, I’ve had the opportunity to help my clients swim with the Sharks—as well as appearing on Dragon’s Den (that’s Shark Tank in Canada) and Shark Tank Australia.

Pitching your business idea to investors might just be the most difficult communication skill of all. Here are four strategies that can help you pitch like a pro in your next high-stakes presentation:

1. Pick out your Shark.

If you were going on Shark Tank with your idea, who would you favor as an investor? It’s a variation on the theme of “knowing your audience.” Consider who is most likely to support your idea and don’t be afraid to personalize your connection. Thinking your past growth or your forecast is the only reason that someone would invest is a shortsighted approach. If you’ve got a product that’s related to wine, Mr. Wonderful is going to take notice. Got a gadget that could really fly on QVC? Talk to Lori Greiner. Remember this, though: Where you start might not be where you finish, but it’s OK to play favorites!

2. Throw out your first pitch.

As I said in my book, The NEW Elevator Pitch, the best “pitch” isn’t a pitch at all. It’s a conversation. It’s easy to memorize catchy phrases and slogans, but when Mark Cuban wants to get down to business, your mission statement isn’t going to cut it. Q&A is where your pitch really comes to life. Investors are just like you and me: They want a dialogue about what matters most to them. Try to “speechify” these business leaders, and they will quickly let you know that their questions are more important than what you’ve memorized in your script. Your pitch has some impact, but the real presentation is a dialogue. The best communicators can step away from slogans and still have a compelling story.

Related: 10 Ways to Be a Better Communicator

3. Get the votes, get the investment.

Benjamin Graham said that the stock market, in the short run, is a voting machine. In other words, the market shows which firms are popular and unpopular—and that’s true for investors, as well. In front of investors, you will see “pattern-matching” behavior: Products that are somewhat familiar, with an innovative twist, are the pattern that the Sharks (and Dragons) desire. When you get one vote of confidence, a feeding frenzy can begin. And that’s true in traditional meetings with your team, as well. For successful communicators, familiarity is the best approach to novelty. In her book Impossible to Ignore, Carmen Simon explains that the past is most useful when it helps us to predict the future. For a persuasive communication strategy, consider this: Use what’s known to get to what’s new.

4. Keep it simple.

For any high-stakes conversation, the simplest message is the strongest. In front of investors, the most effective pitch is never a history lesson or a “how-to”—that approach is deadly. Say an investor asks, “How does this work?” What they really mean is, “How does this work, to make money for me?” In your presentation, if you’re taking an investor to school, you’ve missed the point. Take them to the bank instead. If your investor is smarter when your pitch is done—but you’re not richer—you’ve made a serious error. And if your pitch is so complicated that you end up saying, You just don’t get it, then that’s exactly what your investor will say to you when you ask for their money!

Leaders can learn a lot from Shark Tank because it’s a great showcase for compelling communication. What can you do to make sure your next presentation is actually a conversation? Consider the questions you’d love to be asked—as well as some of the tough ones you hope to avoid. That might be the best way to swim with the sharks.

                Related: When It Comes to Goals, Don’t Let Perfect Get in the Way of Good

Chris Westfall

Chris Westfall is the U.S. National Elevator Pitch champion. His strategies have helped raise over $50 million for new business ventures worldwide. His next book, Leadership Language, will be released in 2018. More at or on Twitter and YouTube @westfallonline.