Friday, August 15, 2014

Writing :: Making the Pitch

Spinuzzi, C., Nelson, S., Thomson, K.S., Lorenzini, F., French, R.A., Pogue, G., Burback, S.D., & Momberger, J. (2014, in press). Making the pitch: Examining dialogue and revisions in entrepreneurs’ pitch decks. IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication 57(3).
Here's another entry in my series on writing publications. This particular article had a very fast turnaround: we were told in June that if we could revise according to editor comments, it could be published by December. But when we received the proofs, the date said September, and as you can see, the early access version is already up. 

You'll also see that the paper has eight coauthors. I rarely write with teams this big. Although it's rewarding, it's also difficult to manage. But in this case, it was worth it: different members of the team handled collecting, coding, analyzing, access, and the other functions, and all had input into the final article. Special mention goes to Scott Nelson, a graduate student in the English department who open-coded the documents, then flew to South Korea to videorecord pitches and conduct interviews. (Scott's currently working on his dissertation about the pitch and related genres.)

So what can I tell you about the writing process? For me, this was a difficult paper because (a) it put text analysis front and center, and that's not the sort of analysis I usually conduct; (b) it was situated in a complex activity in which I don't have much prior experience; and (c) I had to figure out how to handle the issue of cultural differences.

When in doubt, segment
Re (a), we decided early on to segment our investigation, starting with the vast archives that IC2 keeps of pitch documents. Given our level of expertise, we decided to approach the project inductively, using open coding to investigate a relatively small subset of documents (applications, initial pitch decks, final pitch decks, comments on initial pitch decks, and technology commercialization reports). This analysis really is just the tip of the iceberg, but it provided us with a way to develop our understanding of the activity and the vocabulary we would have to use. In fact, we split this paper twice: once when we realized that we had to narrow the scope to focus on the archives, and again when we further narrowed it to focus on claims and evidence.

This is where the long view is helpful. Yes, I wanted to fold in the totality of our evidence, including observations of the process, observations of pitches, and interviews of multiple players. But there was no practical way to do that within one article. By segmenting the investigation, we could get traction on this piece—while working on other segments in the background.

I've mentioned elsewhere that when you write up research, you have to be conscious of your research arc. That was certainly true here: this segment of the research should constitute just one part of a research arc that encompasses other articles on the same topic.

When the activity is complicated, read and backchannel
The phenomenon we were studying, pitching, is inherently interdisciplinary. So we faced the challenge of trying to learn a little about a lot of different fields and a lot about business pitching. Along the way, we learned a lot about the workarounds and local innovations that make a complex program work. Much of that background knowledge doesn't explicitly make it into the paper, but all of it impacted how we interpreted and coded the data.

Fortunately, we built in feedback mechanisms along the way, from formal surveys to informal face-to-face contacts to member checks. These were vital for getting our arms around what turned out to be an enormous amount of tacit knowledge—not just knowledge about this specific multiyear program, but also knowledge about business, marketing, and hard-to-pin-down concepts such as the value proposition. The last three authors were particularly helpful here, since they were well steeped in this world.

At the same time, to better understand this background, I found myself reading a procession of books and articles on marketing, innovation, diffusion, and related concepts. The books should sound familiar if you've been reading this blog.

When faced with cultural differences, be cautious
The program we investigated attempts to teach small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Korea how to enter global markets, particularly but not exclusively the United States. In practice, this means that an innovator (someone who, say, invents a new technology) needs to learn how to commercialize that technology (i.e., identify a good application for it and a set of stakeholders who require that application) in a different market. As our informants told us, these SMEs face a lot of barriers: How does an innovator learn to be an entrepreneur? How does someone talk to potential stakeholders in another culture? How does someone in a protected "fast follower" economy learn how to address the requirements of a relatively unprotected economy? How does someone whose economy is dominated by a few family corporations (chaebol) get her or his head around an economy with multiple players?

Faced with these questions, it's easy to reduce these questions to "cultural differences," e.g., characterizing the US as a market culture and South Korea as a clan culture (cf. Ouchi). I briefly started down this path before realizing that many of these questions were not related to national culture at all. An innovator in the US, such as a physicist in a university setting, will also have trouble figuring out how to commercialize a technology—and they do, which is why research universities in the US tend to have technology commercialization offices. A "fast follower" economy elsewhere in the world will not share South Korea's cultural milieu, but may face many of the same barriers. And so on.

So, rather than reducing the differences to a vague and overarching culture clash, we focused on the specific issues that we could identify in this particular case.

Making the pitch
One last thing. In writing this paper, we were surprised at how little research there has been into how people develop their pitches. Most of the research we found focused on delivery. So we found ourselves reaching back into the document cycle literature as well as (naturally) the genre assemblage literature to better discuss distributed writing processes.

In doing this, we became sensitive to the fact that we also had to make a pitch—a pitch that identified a research hole and addressed how to fill it. Once we discovered the research hole (the lack of pitch process literature), we couldn't believe how big it was. Now we get to fill it, and this article represents the first shovelful.

Monday, August 11, 2014

(Vote for my SXSWi2015 reading!)

Longtime readers know that I go to SXSW every once in a while. It's a great forum for discussing really interesting developments that affect all of us. For instance, in 2009, I discussed coworking. In 2011, I led a core conversation about distributed work. And in 2014 I talked about how liberal arts matter in a STEM world.

This year, I hope to continue that trend of appearing at SXSW—but this time, I want to read from and discuss my new book. In All Edge, I talk about coworking and distributed work, but also some of the long-term changes in how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate at work.

But to talk about All Edge at SXSWi, I need you to help. Click through to the SXSW Panel Picker and take a look at my entry. If it sounds good, please upvote me!