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Arathi Gnanodayan didn’t sign up for the VCU School of Business Creative Communication Competition with the goal of winning. In fact, days before, she told her parents she would have a busy weekend due to school activities, not a two-day, 24-hour public speaking competition. Yet, when the sun set on Saturday, February 23, the triumphant VCU School of Business sophomore called home and sheepishly explained that she had just earned the competition’s top prize of $1,000 and was one step closer to her personal goal of someday giving her own TED Talk.

Building outstanding communicators

It may seem surprising that a Financial Technology major would have outstanding presenting skills, but that’s precisely the point of the competition, says Tom Casey, a 1992 VCU School of Business graduate and territory manager for Tenable who volunteered to judge the competition. “Some students came up to me after the competition to talk about sales, but just having the confidence to be able to say something in front of a group is a skill that will serve them well, no matter what role they chose for the rest of their lives.”

All students actively pursuing a major or minor at the VCU School of Business were eligible to compete. Competitors were scored on a rubric that assessed: use of story, relevance to audience, organization of presentation and delivery. In additional to Casey, other VCU alumni judges included Jim Beckman, Rick Morrison, Mary Ann Steiner and Marchell Stovall. Competition organizers included Amanda Cullin and nearly a dozen faculty from the VCU School of Business as well as the VCU Department of Theater.

While this was the university’s third annual competition, this year’s event had been redesigned to be more like a hackathon, according to Shannon Mitchell, VCU School of Business associate dean for Undergraduate Studies. “In previous years, students chose their own topics and prepared in advance. This time, they were assigned a topic, given a packet with related research material and assigned a deadline to prepare.” The result was a competition that lived up to the university’s slogan: “Make it real.”

“It felt like something extremely serious – like something from the real world or workplace,” said third-place winner Ilias Anwar. Like many competitors, he had learned of the competition from Brian Pugh, whose “Winning Presentations” class Anwar had taken in the fall. “That class helped me realize public speaking is my true passion,” he said.

He was not alone. According to Mitchell, “Winning Presentations,” first offered in 2014, has become one of the most popular classes at the School of Business. “There’s been a tremendous growth in our graduates’ presenting abilities since then,” she explains.

Like Anwar, Gnanodayan also had taken and excelled in Pugh’s “Winning Presentations” class, yet she arrived on Friday evening with little more than a desire to learn and network. “I thought, ‘Even if I don’t place, I’ll meet other business students and mentors.’”

Already successful as an entrepreneur, Anwar admits that prize money was a factor in his decision to compete. “I’m extremely competitive. If I’m going to take time out of my day to go and compete, I’m going to do the best I can and go for first place. But I also wanted to branch out and try new things”

In the end, he not only earned $500 for third place but an additional $250 “Competitor’s Choice” prize based on votes cast by his fellow competitors. “I saw a lot of great people who I honestly thought did better than me. Everybody had their own unique style – whether it was their enthusiasm or the facts to back up their argument.”

2019 Winners:

1st Place Arathi Gnanodayan
Are student loans a good investment?

2nd Place Kaitlyn Justiano:
Should the minimum wage be increased?

3rd Place (Tie) Ilias Anwar: 
Should college athletes be paid?

3rd Place (Tie) Brett Bowker: 
The Gig Economy: Promosing career or false promise?

Best First Draft Award: Rachel Kaufman
Should net neutrality be restored in the US?

Competitor’s Choice Award: Ilias Anwar
Should college athletes be paid? 


What they learned

Gnanodayan believes her greatest benefit came from the competition’s coaching sessions. “In one of the breakout sessions where we workshopped our presentations, we were advised on how to structure our PowerPoint or visual presentation. When I met with the professor, he explained that I shouldn’t go off the PowerPoint. Instead, the PowerPoint should go off me. In other words, I needed to introduce my slide and then go to the slide.” His advice made a world of difference. “If I have presentations in the future, I will absolutely use that tactic.”

“I couldn’t believe the improvement we saw between Rounds One and Two,” said Mitchell. “These students were focused and on task, taking delivery tips from four people and then implementing that in a span of as little as three minutes. But they did it.”

Moving forward with confidence

Judge Tom Casey was impressed by the caliber of student presentations. “For them to be assigned a topic on a Friday afternoon, and be able to talk about subjects they’d been given just 24 hours earlier with compassion and persuasiveness was impressive.”

For most students, the competition meant facing down anxiety. “Public speaking is nerve racking,” says Anwar. “I saw some people walk over to a corner just to take a time out. The weird thing was, when I got up there, all my nervousness vanished.”

Both Gnanodayan and Anwar intend to highlight their win on their resume. “I think this gives me credibility to speak at other places,” says Anwar.

“I don’t usually put myself out there,” admits Gnanodayan. “I went into it for the experience, but it gave me a lot of confidence as a public speaker. I’ve already told other friends about it and I’m interested in volunteering to help coordinate it next year.” Both students say they will encourage their peers to participate in next year’s competition.

Get involved

For Casey, a member of the School of Business Alumni Society, it was gratifying to volunteer as a judge. “We didn’t have anything like this when I was here,” he laughs. “It was great to see students take advantage of this great learning experience and there was even money involved. Not a bad day’s work for a thousand dollars!”

He also had a message for others in the Richmond business community and his fellow alumni. “If this sounds interesting and you’d like to be a judge or mentor a student, there are a lot of ways to do that.”

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