Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Writing :: How do entrepreneurs hone their pitches?

Spinuzzi, C., Pogue, G., Nelson, R. S., Thomson, K. S., Lorenzini, F., French, R. A., Burback, S., & Momberger, J. (2015). How do entrepreneurs hone their pitches? Analyzing how pitch presentations develop in a technology commercialization competition. In SIGDOC ’15: Proceedings of the 33rd ACM international conference on Design of communication (pp. 1–11). Limerick: ACM.
Here's another paper from our series on entrepreneurship -- and perhaps another useful lesson in writing.

My collaborators and I have been working on a monster paper that pulls together nine months' worth of qualitative data, covering a full cycle in a pitch competition. With the sheer amount of data available, the task has been daunting, and we have been distracted by quick wins. (I thought we would finish this paper a year earlier, frankly.) So how does one focus oneself on finishing such a large, unwieldy analysis?

One tactic is to break the analysis into small parts and set a deadline for each. And a great way to do that is to submit an abstract to a conference with conference proceedings. It focuses the mind quite effectively.

That's what we did here. I was dreading the task of watching, coding, and analyzing the videos in the pitch competition. So I did the following:

(a) I narrowed the scope of the task, selecting only four of the 25 pitches. The sampling was driven by (i) the available data (some participants declined and others had only partial data); (ii) the ultimate success (two of the selections went on to business development, two didn't); and (iii) type of innovation (I wanted to cover product, process, and principle).

(b) I submitted an abstract to SIGDOC in which I promised that our team would examine those presentations closely.

(c) I made good on that promise by closely analyzing the data. As I knew would happen, the data paraphrasing, coding, and analysis turned out to be fun.

(d) Based on the finished SIGDOC paper, I slotted the analysis of this segment into our monster manuscript.

Let's briefly talk about the word "I" above, because it points to the character of our collaboration. My collaborators collected most of the data and we all discussed how to characterize it. Ultimately, I put together the analysis and draft. Then I presented it to collaborators for an open review period, collecting valuable feedback that I folded back into the document. That's important: we chose to collaborate on a team in which each of us had different kinds of expertise, and although one of us might take the lead at different points, we had to make sure we could synchronize our expertise periodically. The paper was stronger for it.

And, again, the paper has become a building block for a much larger and more intimidating paper. For those readers who are tackling large-scale studies, this is key: break these into smaller tasks, preferably represented by smaller publications. Handling big projects this way has several advantages:

(1) You scope down the larger project and make it manageable.

(2) You get more publications (obviously). This might feel like cheating, but I argue that it's not -- it can be a crucial step, especially because ...

(3) You get periodic outside feedback on each step. For instance, the blind reviewers on this paper could have raised methodological concerns, which we could then address before rolling this segment into the larger paper. (They didn't in this case.)

Once you have assembled a building block like this one, you can cite it in the final paper, pointing people to further methodological details. And that brings me to one other thing.

I know there's a stigma against self-citation. But I have basically ignored it. In fact, I cite myself enough that people tease me about it at conferences. That's fine because I have a specific rationale for it.

Think about it in terms of putting together a coherent argument:

(1) When you write an article, you work on making it coherent through metadiscourse such as forecasting and through repeating certain information at key points in the manuscript. You have to make sure people know how the different parts fit into the larger argument.

(2) When you write a book or dissertation, you follow a similar strategy at a larger scale. For instance, you overview the argument in the introduction and recapitulate it in the conclusion. You establish transitions at the beginning and end of each chapter. And you drop in cross-references: "As we saw in chapter 3..."

(3) When you scale beyond a book to a body of publications that address parts of an overarching argument -- for instance, a set of articles on how innovators learn to be entrepreneurs -- you have to keep that multi-publication argument coherent too. One economical way is to cite your other publications on the same project.

Is that benefit of self-citation worth potential stigma? Weigh carefully, I guess.

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