The Art of the Pitch

The biggest challenge with a compelling business presentation is the time you have available to give one. The concept of an elevator pitch is a case in point: you don’t have ten minutes to make the sale; you only have ten seconds to capture their interest. Make the wrong assumptions about your audience and you’re toast. Having a good idea is the easy part; convincing others to “buy in” is a quite different hill to climb. The advice that follows is based on over forty years of trials, tribulations and (thankfully) some notable accomplishments in designing and leading new business presentations.

A successful pitch requires four ingredients: preparation, connection, engagement and simplicity. The first is obvious: figure out beforehand what you want your audience to know, what you want them to feel and what you want them to do. Distill your answers to their persuasive excellence in three short sentences. Then develop a five-minute pitch and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse (with an audience willing to provide critical feedback that informs you what sells and what doesn’t). Cut the superfluous and keep the meaningful with a view to creating a one-minute, three-minute and five-minute version of each presentation. Think Twitter (compress your unique selling proposition to 140 characters). If you can, develop your pitch for the most influential person in the room – the decision maker.

Connection is critical and empathy is the key to making it meaningful. We might hope buyers are genuinely fascinated by what we have to sell but that’s rarely the case. While our own motivated reasoning may lead us to believe others are interested in what we have to say, they probably are not. They could easily be turned off by a clumsy effort, which is a precursor to being turned down. To connect, you must view the world through the buyer’s eyes, not yours. You must acquire a solid understanding of their needs, interests and feelings. Find similarities and common ground, strategically mimic or mirror their behaviours, and use strong non-verbal gestures and social bonding cues. Understand the power of small talk – how to start pithy, colorful and intriguing conversations.

Engagement is the ability to stay upbeat despite perceived rejection. As Winston Churchill said, success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. This requires an understanding of the principles of embracing and then overcoming resistance, the value of learning from failure and the power of positive self-talk. The vehicle of engagement is the ability to ask questions that arouse their curiosity. And a high aspiration level – a belief in what you’re selling – is invariably more powerful than your skills of persuasion.

Simplicity flows from an understanding that meaning is in the receiver, not the sender. What you say has little to do with what people hear. Hence, there are times when you need to “dumb it down,” not to demean your audience but rather to help them understand your point of view. Without clarity there is no understanding. And, without that, there can be no confirming decision or action. Define the problem or discontent your proposal is designed to alleviate, frame it for them in words they can easily comprehend and ask intelligent questions to ensure they actually “get it.”

While an elevator pitch has its flaws, knowing how to win someone over in a short period of time is an important arrow to have in your quiver of presentation tools. Rather than delivering a long explanation of why your idea is superior, focus on what the first ten, thirty or sixty seconds must achieve: getting your audience to invest its precious time in continuing the conversation. That means stimulating their curiosity and their desire to ask pertinent questions. The objective is to get them to talk rather than listen to your soap-box blather. This is how you find the fit between your solutions and their problems.

Don’t start by explaining your bona fides – they know who you are or you wouldn’t be there. Rather, start by telling them things they probably don’t know but would really like to know. Ask three “did you know …?” questions in succession. (Three is enough: it’s meant to be a sale, not a lecture.) Link evocative words like “imagine” to your solution in separate but pertinent and provocative statements. Then close with “You don’t need to imagine it, we’ve created it.”

Ask questions designed to encourage resistance, then embrace the opportunity to eliminate it. For example: Do you think it would be ridiculous (or impossible or a problem) if I asked you to …? Anticipate the answer will be “yes” and that you’ll likely now hear the reasons why. You’re inviting them, in an uncomplicated and non-threatening way, to expose the rationale for their resistance. Then ask them to expand on those reasons.

When we talk too much, we usually talk ourselves into trouble. We expose the weakest links in our argument and that opens a door we’d rather not invite them to go through. The more you encourage them to talk, the more likely you are to hear revelations about what it is they actually agree with. You win arguments by advancing one step at a time and focusing on common rather than divergent interests.

Every buyer seeks an honest answer to one question: What’s in it for me? Tell them how your solution will make their lives better. Translate your unique features into their unique benefits. Never bore people: create a simple, interesting, credible, inspirational story and tell it with gusto. The quality of your message is more important than the quantity of verbiage that supports it.

If you can, use visuals: they engage the mind and are easy to remember. Don’t try to be a comedian but do occasionally leverage the power of relevant, timely humour. Lastly, never argue with your buyers – the objective is to uncover the reasons for resistance not be a smart ass by telling them what they may not know. When you win the argument, you lose the sale.

Never forget that humans emotionally respond to simplicity over complexity, certainty over ambiguity, less rather than more, easy over hard, value over price and likable over annoying. People do love to buy; they just hate to be sold. Allowing people to vent their resistence, disinterest or impatience first frees the mind to hear what you’re saying. We are more willing to listen to others after we’ve been heard. So pitch to an open, rather than a closed, space. Even when you have the best idea in the world, you still have to sell it.