Whether it’s pitching for that promotion, pitching for new business, pitching an idea at work or pitching for funding – pitching is a crucial business skill. Success comes from being able to compete for those rarest of resources – attention and engagement.
From birth, human beings, as social and sentient animals, are pitching. As children, we pitch to our parents. At school, we pitch to our teachers, to our friends in the playground, and later, we pitch ourselves in romance.
Some of us become proficient at pitching. Others struggle. But with two decades of managing and evaluating advertising agency pitches and another 15 years earlier pitching new business myself, there are some straightforward tips for becoming more competent and successful at pitching. Whether that’s in business or life.
Here are seven critical things to keep in mind next time you have to pitch.
Define your successful outcome
The first question you need to be very clear on is this: why are you pitching? The circumstances may vary from a chance opportunity to meet a potential new client to participating in a formal tender process. But no matter what the circumstances, defining the purpose of the pitch and the desired outcome is essential. Ultimately, the reason you are pitching is to achieve a specific and desirable outcome. Keep that in mind. Do anything and everything required to achieve that goal. Reject anything superfluous.
Know your audience
Know your audience. More specifically, know the decision-maker and makers. This does not mean stalking, but it does mean knowing what they are thinking, feeling and especially what they desire. After all, and contrary to conventional wisdom, a great pitch is not about you. It is about them. They are the ones you need to persuade.
Get to know them by researching the organisation and individuals. Talk to the people that have either worked with them or for them. Use all the time available, even if it is as little as five minutes from the time you spotted them across the room, to get to know your audience.
Answer the most important question
Too often we see a pitch fall flat. Why? Because many people are too focused and too busy explaining what they are pitching in microscopic detail. They have the misconception that this is what the potential buyers are interested in. The fact is, the most important question the buyers are asking themselves, sitting there, is what is in this for me – and I do not mean just financially.
In fact, that is often a secondary consideration after more emotional considerations like opportunities for success and fame and minimising risk and loss.
Prepare, prepare and prepare. Then prepare again
Some say rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. But it is more important to know your material inside and out, back-to-front and upside down. More important than having a performance polished down to every pause and gesture. It is amazing to see how often the polished pitch lands as insincere or falls apart with a curveball question, when the person pitching is not in command of their subject. It is infinitely more effective to come across as confident, enthusiastic and in command of the pitch, the message, the audience and the outcome.
Timing is everything
The opening few minutes of your pitch are everything. This is when you need to engage your audience. So, don’t waste time building to a reveal, get straight to the pitch. If you do not get them in the first minute the rest of the pitch is usually wasted. Likewise, if you have 30 minutes, then pitch in under 15 minutes. You want to engage the audience as quickly as possible and give them plenty of time to follow their curiosity. The reason is, when the audience is engaged with a genuine interest in what you are offering you are sliding onto home base.
Benefits, not features
This is an old copywriting technique. Yet it is surprising how often even the best advertising agencies forget it. Don’t go into the details, but rather spend the time selling the big benefits.
Behavioural economics tells us human beings do not make rational decisions. No matter how large this decision, it will not be rational. Instead, it will be an instinctual or emotional one that is then justified rationally. Certainly, know your numbers in detail, but don’t get caught up in an analysis of these details in the pitch because no one makes decisions based on the details alone. Make sure all of those details are in the documentation you will leave behind or send through after you have an agreement to proceed.
Provide social proof
Too often people try to convince you how good the idea they are pitching is, by telling you how good it is. Or they believe that the idea is so good it will sell itself. But rarely are ideas that good. When you look at the original pitch decks for Uber, Airbnb and Facebook, you can see why they had to pitch, and why even these ideas didn’t just ‘sell themselves’.
But, in the Facebook pitch, for example, there was a powerful (and in some ways ironic) example of social proof. It had quotes from the staff at the various Universities about the impact the platform had distracting students from their studies. The only thing more compelling than proving how good you are, with a great case study, story, or data, is having someone else telling them how good you are.
Will doing all these things make you infinitely successful at pitching? It will definitely improve your run rate. But like all worthwhile skills, getting out there and putting it to practice is the only way to find out.
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