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Arlene Dickinson: pitch tips from a ‘Dragon’

Arlene Dickinson learned early on the powers of persuasion.

As a single mom at twenty-something, lacking education and skills training, she overcame some big barriers to become one of Canada's most high-profile marketing communications entrepreneurs.

Widely known as one of the dragons on CBC's Dragon's Den, Dickinson, 56, is chief executive of Venture Communications. From humble beginnings in Calgary, she has grown the company into a marketing powerhouse for blue-chip companies including Toyota and Cenovus Energy.

But she couldn't do all that without knowing how to persuade herself she could emerge from a dark time early on in life that consisted of many “highs and lows.” Now, Dickinson spends much time helping people understand persuasion's role in being an entrepreneur.

"There's never been a better time to be an entrepreneur than right now," said Dickinson, ahead of delivering two back-to-back speeches in Vancouver on Thursday.

Economic factors, social media and desire by employees to unshackle themselves from corporate culture, among other things, is creating a "perfect storm" of reasons for people to take a leap and try new things.

Given that, more attention needs to paid on small-and medium-sized business. "We tend to downplay it because it's not sexy. They're not the big story, but they're the backbone of the economy," she adds.

A fitting cause as entrepreneurs spend countless hours prepping to pitch and persuade the dragons to buy into their business ideas. (And most viewers know that can be a grueling and demoralizing process)

The following is a condensed and edited version of an interview.

How did persuasion play into your personal life in the context of the tougher times you had early on?

"The more genuine I was able to be in terms of not feeling like I had to pretend I was someone else, the better I was able to develop relationships. That was hard because we always think we have to show up differently depending on who we're speaking to.

Having gone through a period in my life where, whether it was having children, trying to convince myself I was happy when I wasn't or taking on jobs I didn't really want to do, I wasn't being honest with myself in that process. I learned the value of honesty. Not just as it relates to the importance of doing business and, you know, when you shake hands that's the deal. It's also very true in your personal life."

There are still few women in senior positions in Canadian business. Can you speak to that?

"When we look at the stats and see how they haven't changed I think that's because we haven't seen the net result of what happens when a society starts to understand how to integrate women who are the child bearer, caregiver who do have a different career path than men and let them be the best they can be in that context. I think we're about to see a big change, I really do believe that. I hope that."

What is the secret to being an effective influencer and negotiator?

"I think if you're going to be a successful negotiator you have to start from a win-win, a place of what does the other person need from you as much as what you need from them. If you negotiate in good faith in the sense of there are no victors and victims and no people that lose and win, and it's all about finding a path forward where everyone gets what they need out of a relationship then you negotiate well."

The view of Dragon's Den is that it's sometimes ruthless. How does that play into the idea of coming from a win-win and being honest, pure and genuine?

"I don't mean for everything to sound Pollyanna. What I think Dragon's Den has done is it's created a conversation around the dining room table where it's encouraging people to think about exploring their dreams and ideas and business opportunities. I love that people can think about it and talk about it at home. I also love that people talk about the different styles that each of us have, and the different approaches each of us have to negotiation. What you've got is people negotiating differently. Kevin (O'Leary) negotiates differently than I negotiate. Clearly, we negotiate differently. As a result of negotiating differently people can learn the art of negotiation and whether or not they want to do business with the type of person they see on the stage."

Let's turn the tables for a moment. Knowing how harsh the den can be, if you were an entrepreneur coming on the show what are the top things you'd do to pitch your project and sell an idea

Know your dragon
"I would know before I got there who I'd want as a partner because all money is not created equal. If I wanted all of us in there I would make sure it was tuned that way; if just one or two of us I would be ensuring I was formulating what I said to the dragon I wanted to partner with most. I would make sure I knew who I was talking to, I would make sure that I was clear on what was in it for them in terms of understanding what they look for in deals. I would be very clear and passionate about my vision and how I was going to get there with the understanding that I didn't have all the answers."

Don't hide your mistakes
"I would make sure I wasn't trying to hide the stuff I'd done wrong. I wouldn't dwell on it, but if people asked me I wouldn't run from it. I would make sure I'd be able to answer the questions and move on. A lot of people get lost in telling the story in what happened wrong as opposed to what could go right."

Be succinct
"Some of the best pitches I've seen are people very clearly saying I see the opportunity, I understand the market and this is where I need help finding what success looks like for me. It's that ability to articulate under pressure. I would make sure I rehearsed. It's scary right? You're on stage, there's cameras on you, there's five people staring at you. Probably all the best rehearsal goes out the window. We see it because people get nervous. But that's OK. I've never penalized somebody who's come out nervous or they stutter or they miss their cue."

Cash is king
"I certainly wouldn't trivialize and say it's only $50,000 or it's only $200,000. We get that a lot. I'm thinking that's not really a small amount of money. Don't make it sound like it's nothing. And the whole notion of all I need is your Rolodex always is really a bad one. The idea is going to build a business together with the Rolodex. Sell me on the idea first."