Systems Innovation Phase 3 - Activate

Convene & Compete

Open innovation competitions often revolve around the art of storytelling. While strong communication skills are associated with leadership, they are particularly crucial for innovators.

Challenge competitions must consider storytelling at two levels:

  • The story about the competition – why it matters, why people should be involved, what the impact and outcomes are.
  • The stories about the participant innovations – their impact, who they support, and why they matter.

It’s common knowledge that stories are more engaging than presentations or lengthy reports. However, the value of storytelling extends beyond simply keeping an audience entertained. Stories activate neural networks involved in meaning-making, so a story is more powerful than presenting facts alone. Stories can transport the audience, increasing the likelihood of accepting the presenter’s message and inspiring action.

While open innovation showcases or pitch sessions may initially focus on the competition and the prize, it’s essential to recognize these sessions as opportunities for participants to transform their communication with donors, investors, policymakers, partners, and other stakeholders. The true impact of these sessions goes beyond fundraising success in the competition itself. They should change how participants engage people in their work, enabling them to create lasting connections and generate support.

While storytelling is crucial, a great pitch does not automatically equal the most impactful innovation! During the Challenge Design in Phase 2, you may have selected multiple points to assess progress or evaluate outcomes related to the design and testing of solutions during the challenge. Challenge organizers or external judges can weigh these elements against the pitch presentation to choose a final winner. 

When designing an external-facing event for your competition, consider these elements:

Consider the motivation for different types of attendees to participate in your event. What value can they gain from attending? What actions do you want them to take? How do you want them to feel during and after the event? Apply your human-centered design skills to create an event that meets their needs and aspirations.

Develop a clear and engaging format for the participants to share their stories. Train them in storytelling and provide examples of great storytelling techniques. Help them refine their presentations to communicate their ideas effectively and capture the audience’s attention.

Even though a presentation may only last a few minutes, participants need to create multiple drafts, seek feedback, and practice their delivery. Succinct and impactful communications require preparation and practice. Consider offering additional training and specific giving feedback on public speaking skills such as tone, volume, body language, etc.

Establish transparent judging criteria that align with the goals of your competition. Given the in-depth work of systems change, you likely want to include more than a pitch or storytelling as part of the scoring for the challenge. 

Select a diverse panel of judges with expertise in relevant fields who can provide valuable insights and ensure fair evaluations. Ideally, involve judges from the network engaged in system mapping and defining the challenge. Provide orientation or training for judges, especially if your competition incorporates nontraditional elements related to systems change or systems-informed solutions.

Plan to engage the audience during the competition. Encourage participation through Q&A sessions, live polling, or interactive voting and commenting mechanisms. Create an atmosphere that fosters enthusiasm, interaction, and support for the participants.

Plan dedicated networking sessions or breaks where participants, judges, and audience members can connect and exchange ideas. Build on the community and collaboration established during Phase 1. Consider incorporating structured and semi-structured activities to facilitate meaningful connections among attendees.

Besides the monetary awards and prizes communicated in Phase 2, explore non-monetary incentives and recognition you can provide participants. Leverage the high-profile nature of the event to attract attention from key stakeholders and even the media, showcasing the participants and their solutions.

Revisit your recruitment and marketing strategy from earlier phases and develop a comprehensive marketing and communication plan to promote the pitch competition. Utilize various channels, such as social media, newsletters, industry publications, and relevant networks. Highlight the unique benefits and aspects of the competition to attract participants and generate excitement.

Open innovation competitions can be one of the few routes for innovators to raise funds. Yet many innovators are rejecting poorly planned and executed competitions. As innovators Amanda Levinson and Natasha Fredius wrote in SSIR:

“At the end of 2020, we decided to stop entering contests and pitch competitions. Despite the reality that they are one of the most accessible ways to get your company in front of potential investors, we were disillusioned with these events … They offer, at best, a pittance in prize money compared to the investment they put into event management, communications, and printing oversized checks for photo opps. And why were we competing with other impact founders for tiny cash prizes or the vague promise of “mentorship” and connections?”

What they suggest in place of competitions echos AI4R’s learnings around funding collaboration: 

We need to invest in multisector, holistic solutions. Let’s bring together entrepreneurs with promising solutions, give them a few million dollars, and encourage them to work collaboratively. Let’s ditch funding “contests” and set up collaboratives, with investors funding partnerships to solve urgent problems. Let’s demand that people directly affected by the problem be involved in the design of the solution from start to finish. Let’s compensate all “finalists” for their time and energy with cash.”

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Decisions that will set your direction

  • What is the event’s value proposition for different types of attendees? Why should people show up?
  • How will you structure the format for participants to guide their storytelling during the event?
  • What additional support and capacity-building opportunities will you provide? Will there be public speaking training, graphic design assistance, or other forms of support for visuals?
  • Competitions are often high-profile events. How can you leverage the attention generated to support your participants, even the non-winners?
  • Considering the limited attention and energy of audience members and judges, will you need multiple rounds or days for judging if there is a large group of participants or finalists? Will you consider breaking the presentations into separate rooms or sessions?

People you will need to find your way

  • Expertise in Storytelling and Public Speaking

Engage communications professionals and veterans of previous competitions to create your pitch format, training curriculum, and practice sessions.

  • Coaches & Mentors

Often, your longer-term coaches and mentors can provide valuable feedback on the first attempts at storytelling.

  • Judges

You’ll need a select group of judges with appropriate sector or technical expertise and familiarity with your systems approach. Consider non-traditional formats for judging, too, such as inviting people impacted by the problem to choose winners or letting the participants choose the winner as peers.

  • Event Planners

Even a simple event has many moving parts. You’ll likely need professional event planning and execution support.

  • Communications Specialist

Rely on the communications specialist to support event promotion and media.

  • Strong MCs and Facilitators

Don’t forget to identify charismatic and skilled MCs and facilitators to create and maintain positive energy and tone throughout the event.

Review your plan for these critical elements

  • Have you arranged dedicated time and structure for participants to work on multiple drafts of their pitch with a coach?
  • Have you scheduled time for participants to practice their pitches with each other and provide peer feedback?
  • Do you plan to summarize and provide feedback from the judges to all participants?
  • Have you considered organizing a debrief session for non-winners (if desired) to provide support and gather their feedback?
  • Have you developed a detailed run of the show to ensure a well-structured and smooth-flowing event?
  • Have you created a guide for judges and conducted an orientation session to familiarize them with the competition and their roles?
  • Have you communicated the rules and guidelines to participants well in advance, including any props, slides, or supporting materials restrictions?
  • Have you assembled a competent event support team to handle various aspects of the event, such as registration, technical support, timekeeping, and overall coordination?
  • Have you assigned clear responsibilities and provided guidelines to team members to ensure seamless execution of the event?

See the warning signs first

  • Use external judges and short-term mentors with caution. Make sure coaches and challenge managers can moderate outlier or irrelevant feedback.
  • Beware of sharing feedback with a judgemental or overly critical tone. Be sure to communicate with judges and any advisors what the type and tone for feedback should be.
  • Don’t skip the dry run! A dry run on the stage, camera, etc., is vital! Don’t skip this step. The participants will do ten times better if they can practice on stage.

These resources can help you on your journey

Check out these resources to create impactful storytelling frameworks and training materials for innovators:

You can use this interactive Mural template to plan your showcase and competition event: Human-Centered Event Design Mural (GKI’s Accelerating Innovation for Resilience Bangladesh)

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