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Best practices for making your Call for Code submission stand out

To those of you who have already joined the Call for Code Education Innovation Case Competition*, thank you for your participation. As current university students, the world needs your expertise, empathy, and unique perspective to design technological solutions that address the challenge of making quality education a right for all – not a privilege.

As you form your team and start to work through your solution ideas, it’s great to keep the competition submission requirements in mind to be sure you are preparing your materials accordingly (Once logged into the competition site, look under “Insights and Resources” so see the requirements). Based on past Call for Code team experiences, we’ve gathered some best practices and tips to help you present your solution so that it’s clear and engaging.

Consider how to best tell your story

Before you start building the individual files you will need to submit, your team should take a step back and consider the overarching story you need to tell to get others excited about your solution. You could just simply list the components of your solution in your video, pitch presentation, and solution flow diagram, but that approach is not likely to hold anyone’s interest for very long. Remember: you will need to convince the competition judges that your solution, above the rest, is impactful, well designed, feasible, and innovative. Put together a plan for how you will use storytelling throughout your materials to appeal to the judges and set your solution apart from your competition.

So why should you care about storytelling? First, “compelling storytelling” is part of the judging criteria for the competition. Judges will consider how well your submission materials articulate the problem, the target users and their experience, and how the technological solution would address the problem. They’ll also be looking at how relatable and engaging your solution story is.

But let’s look beyond the competition criteria and dig into why compelling storytelling is important when you have a new idea to share with the world. Let’s examine how good storytelling can help your solution stand out.

Take your audience on a journey.

Good storytelling can be the thing that makes your proposal compel others to take action. Ask yourself:

  • What does this solution have to offer the world?
  • What does my audience think they know about this issue/audience/technology currently?
  • What do I want them to realize after they’ve heard my story? The audience wants to understand your work. Think about how you can move them from what they believe to what you want them to understand about your solution.

Louis Richardson coaches corporate teams on storytelling skills for business. Take a few minutes to listen to him speak about this journey: Belief vs buy (2:42).

Learn what makes a great story.

Judges are people too, and all human beings respond to great stories. So what makes a great story? Great stories engage the audience at an emotional level by:

  • informing and inspiring.
  • being unique and memorable.
  • painting a relatable picture.
  • portraying your passion, research, and expertise.
  • helping them empathize with the real people at the center of the story.
  • bringing new insight or value into their lives.
  • making them feel something.

Students studying while wearing masks

Take a few more minutes to listen to Louis Richardson talk about why story matters (6:45).

Introduce your story.

Your story is a powerful part of your purpose. Your own narrative and experiences can help reach those with similar or shared experiences, inspiring them to become champions for your cause or idea. When you talk about the issue your solution addresses, you might start with a personal story from someone on your team, or a “story of self.” Your story can provide context to demonstrate why you have been called to a particular issue. This can be a powerful way to introduce the problem you are trying to solve, especially if you can include how it has impacted you personally.

Understand and address your target community.

Center the heart of your story around the real people and communities that your solution is designed to help. To do this well, first you need to clearly understand and empathize with that audience yourself. Personal insights into a community’s issues can also help you design effective solutions that are specific and applicable to the needs of that community. In turn, this can result in a project with greater impact and longevity.

Whatever community your work aims to assist, do your research to get to know it well, even if you are already part of that group. If you can, meet with individuals who will be impacted by and benefit from your project. Listen actively to what they have to say. Build rapport with the individuals you want to work with and be as transparent about your intentions and plans as possible. Don’t be offended if your proposed assistance is initially critiqued or refused. Take the time to learn why. This feedback may inform adjustments you should make to your proposed solution. Engaging and collaborating with people in the community can also make it easier to develop productive partnerships, build trust, and maintain motivation when the project becomes challenging.

When your solution is focused on truly helping people in your target community, it becomes easier to tell a relatable, human story about your idea.

Include key pieces in your story.

When you’re putting together the story of your solution, there are some critical elements you want to be sure to include:

  • Clearly map your solution to a real problem. Make sure your submission materials describe the real-world education problem your solution is meant to solve. Judges will consider your technical solution’s effectiveness at addressing the issue you’ve identified, so make it very clear what the thematic problem is, how it’s significant, and why your technological solution is an effective and appropriate remedy.
  • Cover how your solution could help real people. Can you tell your story from the point of view of the students or educators you hope to help? What daily struggles are they facing? What would using your solution look and feel like for them? Including their point of view will help your audience empathize with the solution you’re proposing.
  • Make it clear how your solution is innovative and unique. You have limited time to make your submission stand out, so think about what makes it distinctive. Your solution will be scored in part on its innovation and originality in creating a unique approach to solving an issue in education. Assume other teams may be working on a similar solution. Be clear on how you differentiate your work from others. One way to do this is to be very specific. Don’t pitch your work as something all-encompassing, generic, or broad, like “A Platform for Educational Access.” Instead, focus on how well you are solving the specific problem that you identified in a complete, creative, effective, and usable manner.
  • Provide a clear explanation of the included IBM and other technologies. Demonstrate the part that technology plays in helping real people and addressing real challenges. How does your unique technological approach solve the problem in a novel way?

Listen to presentation design expert Nancy Duarte explain the secret structure to successfully present your idea (18:01).

Competition participants will have access to a live webinar event on storytelling best practices on November 4, 2021. University students who meet all eligibility requirements* can register for the competition to attend.

Now that you are thinking about the story your team wants to tell, let’s look at how you can apply that story across your required submission elements.

Create an engaging video pitch

As part of your submission, your team will need to record and submit a short video pitch for your project. This video should not be longer than three minutes. Be sure to use this limited time wisely.

Be creative! A compelling submission video is the most powerful way to get your idea across quickly and make an impression on the judges. This is also a great format to tell the story from the perspective of your target learners or educators to make the challenge relatable.

Your team should invest the time necessary to put your three-minute video together and create something engaging and high-quality. Use visuals such as photos, live video, your flow diagram, or other illustrations wherever possible, instead of just text. Prepare notes or a script for what you want to say in any narration, and rehearse to make sure the teammate recording any voice-over is comfortable covering the narration in the allotted three minutes.

Student team working on computers

Want to learn how to make your visuals a memorable part of your presentation. Watch How to avoid death By PowerPoint (20:31).

Here’s a suggested timeline for putting together a great three-minute video submission:

  • 45 seconds: What is the problem that you are trying to solve? For which impacted people? How have you solved it?
  • 90 seconds: Demonstrate the user experience and proposed technology of your solution.
  • 45 seconds: Provide a vision for how your solution can make a measurable impact on people’s lives. It’s important to give a technical overview of the solution, but don’t go too deep. Leave the deep-dive information and full details for your pitch presentation file and solution flow diagram. Use the video to summarize your project in a way that all audiences can understand.

Example submission videos

Check out a few examples of great submission videos from past Call for Code initiatives:

Prepare your pitch presentation file

The pitch slide presentation file is where you can include the most detail to tell the complete story of your solution. While you can include as many slides as needed, the materials should be clear and succinct. It’s best not to include extra content.

Your pitch presentation file should at a minimum include:

  • the audience you are targeting with the solution.
  • the specific problem aligned to the theme that you are trying to solve.
  • any supporting data points or statistics on the issue from your research, with sources.
  • a description of your solution, including the user experience.
  • included technology and how it would be applied, including at least one IBM solution.
  • any expected outcomes you believe the solution might bring about.
  • how you anticipate measuring success.

You can also briefly introduce your team and highlight where you are each from and your areas of study.

Build your solution flow diagram

The solution flow diagram required as part of your submission should illustrate the steps of the user experience, as well as the technologies included in the solution and where they fit in. Label each part of the diagram clearly. It is recommended to number each section and include a numbered list of descriptions alongside the diagram.

Use whatever tools you have available to create your flow diagram. Free online tools exist, and the same software you used to create your pitch slide presentation file probably has flowchart drawing tools. Have an illustrator on the team? You can draw the diagram and take a picture. Just make sure the labels are descriptive and legible.

Example solution flow diagram

Here’s an example solution flow diagram from a Call for Code tech-for-good solution: Flow of user interaction with cloud and external services

A Watson Assistant chatbot that answers questions about COVID-19 through Slack: 1. The user invokes a COVID-19 Slack integration chatbot app and asks a question. 2. The Slack app calls Watson Assistant service hosted in IBM Cloud. 3. Watson Assistant uses natural language understanding and machine learning to extract entities and intents of the user question. 4. The COVID-19 FAQ is sourced from trusted CDC data. 5. Watson Assistant invokes an OpenWhisk open source-powered IBM Cloud Function. 6. IBM Cloud Function calls Watson Discovery service running in IBM Cloud. 7. Watson Discovery scans news articles and responds with relevant articles. 8. Watson Assistant invokes an OpenWhisk open source-powered IBM Cloud Function. 9. IBM Cloud Function calls the COVID-19 API to get statistics. 10. Watson Assistant replies to the Slack app. 11. The Slack app displays the chat answer to the user.

Bring the pieces together

Be sure to weave a consistent story across all of your submission materials, and be ready to complete and submit all elements.

*In order to participate in this competition, you must meet all eligibility criteria.

Beyond the competition

The grand prize team in the Call for Code Education Innovation Case Competition will be invited by the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) to participate in their year-round program that supports the next generation in developing social impact projects to address pressing societal challenges. With some careful planning, your submission to the case competition can also be leveraged to create a CGI U Commitment to Action (CTA) as follows:

A CGI U CTA is a positive and effective social impact project that is new, specific, and measurable:

  • New: Leverage any discussion of how your solution is innovative and distinct from other current approaches to the problem
  • Specific: Include any goals, action plan or timeline you have for your project
  • Measurable: Leverage any discussion of metrics or methods for determining the success of your project

CGI U assesses CTAs across three main categories:

  • The Commitment-Maker (the person): Leverage the personal story behind your proposed solution and your specific motivation to address educational access.
  • The Commitment to Action (the project): Work from the description of your solution, including your solution flow diagram and the high-level steps of how your solution would work, any project metrics and goals, and any research you did about the issue area and how your solution aligns with the specific problem you’ve chosen to address.
  • Community (the impact): Highlight work around your target community and the extent to which your solution aligns with a true need in that community. Leverage any discussion of how your solution advances equity within education.