Life’s a pitch, basically.
We’re all of us pitching all the time – to that attractive blonde at The Grand in Cannes; to the new next-door neighbour; to your son’s best friend; to your spouse’s mother. Some you win, some you lose. Quite often, you’re not even aware that what you’re doing is selling yourself, your life, your intelligence, your sex appeal, your sense of humour in order to persuade the people in your world to do what you would like them to do.
And therein lies the rub: we all pitch all the time, but most of us don’t realise we are doing it, why what we’re doing works – and, more crucially, why it very often doesn’t. So we go on making the same old mistakes, reinforcing bad habits and setting up pernicious cycles of low expectation and failure.
But if getting a "domestic" pitch wrong is unfortunate, messing up a business one can be disastrous – and never more so than in today’s over-populated, under-funded media environment, where you can blow months of hard work in seconds if you fail to deliver your message to the right person at the right moment.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that pitching is arguably the most important skill in your professional toolkit. Weirdly, it’s also the least understood, all too often treated as an optional extra rather than a core competence. This never ceases to surprise me in a business where people are constantly called upon to pitch their ideas, pitch for resources and pitch themselves for promotion.
And the ironic thing is that it’s actually not that difficult to transform yourself into, if not a brilliant pitcher, then at least a competent one. I know this to be true not only personally but because my clients – the likes of BBC, Google and MTV – consistently report a 75% increase in their pitch success rate following one of my training sessions.
So how does it work? I spent last year distilling my 20 years of experience in pitching and communication into a book. Called The Pitching Bible, it lays out the seven secrets of a successful business pitch. Here they are, in summary:
1. It’s all about them
Public speaking is public enemy number one. According to one survey, people fear it more than death – and die on stage you undoubtedly will if you drone on, look anxious and fail to connect with your audience. The way to avoid this is simple: stop thinking about your own hopes, fears and anxieties and focus on your audience. You may be centre stage, but they’re the stars of this particular show.
2. By the time you start, it’s already too late
When does a pitch start? With the first slide? When you start to speak? When the audience sits down? Wrong. The pitch starts the moment the audience commits to listening to your pitch. This is the point from which you must start influencing them. How? Well, you invite them, don’t you? You send an agenda? Some pre-pitch reading? Even the title of your pitch sets their expectations, and it is upon the foundation of those expectations that you will build great things.
Secret 3: Steady, Ready, Pitch!
The audience has to be ready to listen before you start speaking. When you call someone on the phone, you wait for them to answer before you begin talking to them, don’t you? Of course. And you ask them if it’s convenient to talk, don’t you? Well, be honest, you might forget that one in your excitement. Before you begin talking to your audience, make sure that you have their full and undivided attention. Give them time to compose themselves. There’s no rush, and ten minutes of their full and complete attention will get you further than an hour with them shuffling their feet and wondering if it’s lunchtime yet. Avoid ice breakers, because they actually distract from the topic of your pitch and break the rapport that you have developed, and just before you begin… pause. It’s a sign that you’re in control, and that’s reassuring for the audience.
Secret 4: Dream The Dream
Your pitch, your idea, was created in a dream world. In order for that dream to become a reality, you need to draw the audience into your imagination. All too often, TV people think that they need to use hard business language, talking about ‘ratings’, ‘market strategies’, ‘eyeballs’ and so on. However, your audience doesn’t think in such abstract terms; they think in emotions and sensations, just like you do. Drawing the audience into your pitch with rich, vivid, emotional, sensory language allows you to convey far more than you ever could describe in facts, figures and "benefits". Bring your pitch to life and let your words carry the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of success.
Secret 5: Mind Your Language
While 93% of your message may be conveyed non-verbally, there is no doubt your language conveys the raw information your audience needs to make a decision. Once the audience has tuned into your pitch with their intuitive minds, their rational minds take over, otherwise they say, "It feels good but I just can’t put a solid business case forward". Once you have engaged your audience’s emotions and imaginations, fill in the gaps with what they need to hear to feel that they’re making a really sound decision.
Secret 6: Say It Again, Sam
Seasoned presenters say, "Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them again". Does this mean that you have to repeat yourself to drum your message into the audience? Absolutely not. It means that you must think about your central message and convey it in as many different ways as you can. Believe it or not; the way you dress, the way you walk into the room, the colours in your presentation slides, the words you use, the way you speak, the way you handle questions and the way you end the pitch are just a few of the elements that can either pull in different directions, diluting your message to the point that no-one can hear it, or snap together like pieces of a puzzle, reinforcing each other to create an unforgettable experience.
Secret 7: The End… Or Is It?
Every rock star understands the importance of an encore. It’s the thing most concert-goers rave about. Some performers make the audience wait for up to an hour before being reluctantly coaxed back onto the stage for one more song…or two…or 10. What’s the encore to your pitch? Do you send a DVD with the sizzle tape? A copy of your format for them to refer to later? A thank-you email or call? As an absolute minimum, you must send a follow up letter. You could email, but it’s so easy… if you really want to win the pitch, isn’t it worth putting a little more effort in? When you follow up, don’t make it a generic, worthless, "thank you for your time…", make it as special, unique and valuable as the opportunity to pitch was. Reassure the audience that you meant every word you said, remind them of the questions they asked and once again, reinforce your central message. If the pitch begins when the audience ‘buys the ticket’, then the follow up is the souvenir programme that they’ll take home and show to all their friends.
About Paul Boross
Paul Boross, – aka The Pitch Doctor – specialises in the "art and science" of corporate communication. Drawing on a career that has taken him from front-of-camera primetime TV and stand-up comedy to behind-the-scenes production, development, consultancy and motivational psychology, Boross works regularly with media power players including the BBC, Google and MTV, training executives in communication, presentation and pitching. His frontline experience of performance — his credits include a 12-year stint at London’s legendary Comedy Store and presenting primetime BBC TV shows – coupled with a strong commercial grounding enable him to deliver effective and focused skills to clients from across the industry spectrum.
His book – The Pitching Bible – is gliding gracefully up the Amazon charts. http://www.thepitchingbible.com/