The dog and pony show, the beauty contest, the shoot-out. You may just call it “the pitch.” The term is especially common in some industries—advertising, executive recruiting, some law firms—but we all know it.
Typically we think of it as an event—a rather formal presentation by several professionals made to several members of the client organization that typically lasts 30 to 90 minutes. Secondary characteristics of a pitch often include PowerPoint and a timeslot among a few other competitors who are pitching on the same day.
Let’s be clear: there is no single perfect pitch, since the winning pitch is situational to you and your client. Still, there are some guidelines that hold true. Here are nine rules for perfecting your pitch.
1. When the Best Pitch Isn’t a Pitch
Sometimes the best pitch is one that never happens because both parties choose an alternative.
Think of a pitch as a blind date where each party is cautious. The quietly cautious buyer wants control and seeks it in an impersonal, formal event. The seller also wants control but expresses it by being assertive. One fears being “sold;” the other fears losing. When both parties are fearful, decisions get made on process, features, and price.
Both parties are often better off starting from a strong relationship. Though both know this, they don’t admit it. Sellers may try to go around pitch events. The trick—not really a trick at all—is to explore the possibility of meetings before the pitch during which personal relationships can be established. It’s critical that this be done from a position of respect and honest concern for what’s right for the client.
Sometimes the client then abandons the pitch idea altogether because they find one competitor that seems to understand them uniquely. That’s generally a good outcome for both parties. Do NOT try to force this outcome—you’ll jinx if it you do.
2. The Pre-Pitch Warm-Up
Your objective shouldn’t be to avoid the pitch, but to produce a good outcome for both parties. Any pitch will be improved by prior conversations with as many client people as possible.
If you are meeting the client representatives for the first time at the pitch, your odds are even less than one divided by the number of competitors. It’s less because with total strangers meeting each other, the “none of the above” option frequently appears on the table.
Of course, not every client wants to meet you in advance. Often the intent of the pitch is to prevent such meetings in the first place in pursuit of an “independent, fair” competition. Pushing too hard for meetings can appear distasteful.
How do you know how far to push the suggestion for prior meetings? Simple—ask the client. Point out the advantages of offering all competitors a chance to talk with them in advance, then gracefully yield if the resistance is too strong. You get a few points for offering if you do it respectfully—just don’t push your luck.
If you can talk to people in advance of a pitch, you’ll improve the quality of the pitch for both you and client. Of course, you learn valuable information, and you get to call people by name. But it goes much further than that because the next key to a great pitch is interaction.
3. Interact in the Pitch
Nearly always the client says, “Tell us about yourself.” And nearly all sellers assume that’s what the client wants—after all, they said so!
But the truth is, listening to someone—anyone—talk about themselves for 30 minutes is incredibly boring. Even more important, listening to others does not persuade human beings—they become persuaded by listening to others who have previously listened to them.
Letting clients be heard is critical to successful pitches. If you can’t do it before the pitch, then dare to be great and engineer listening into the pitch. Here are several approaches:
- Tell the client ahead of time you’d like to ask for reactions
- Build in “and what about you?” questions into your pitch
- Offer data about similar situations and ask for comment
- Ask the client if they’d consider a “first-meeting” approach. Instead of a standard pitch, offer to treat the pitch like a first meeting, as if you’d already been hired, and allow five minutes at the end to talk about how it felt. (This is not a crazy idea; I know of two success stories using it.)
- If you’ve had any prior-to-pitch conversations, refer to them.
Remember: what you say in the pitch matters less than whether you have listened to them first.
4. Have a Point of View
Your qualifications, credentials, and references are worth absolutely nothing if you can’t show relevance to the client. To walk in without a point of view on the client and the issues facing them is arrogant, disrespectful, and selfish. Those are strong words; let me back them up.
If you want this job, you’ve (hopefully) thought about what you’d do if you got it. If so, why wouldn’t you share it? The probable answer is because you’re afraid you might have gotten it wrong.
But that fear is all about you. Now is the time when not to take a risk is risky. The client wants to see if you’ll do some homework on spec and if you’re willing to engage in real-time thinking about it. They want some sample selling. Showing up with nothing but a track record is like going on a blind date with just a list of past dates. It’s no better as a pitch strategy than as a dating strategy.
5. Collaborate on Talking Price
Conventional wisdom says don’t quote price until the client has heard benefits so that they can properly calculate value. This makes theoretical sense, but it ignores human psychology; price is the elephant in the room during the pitch.
While everyone listens (or pretends to listen) to your pitch, they are all mildly pre-occupied with what your price is going to be. That pre-occupation is death to their ability to listen to you, so air it.
When you walk in, place a five-page pile of paper on the table, saying, “This is the price part of our proposal—the bottom line and four pages of backup explaining it. We don’t want to focus on it, nor do we want to keep it from you. At any point in the conversation today, you can ask us to turn the page over, and we’ll talk about it. Wheneveryou want.”
The point is not when you talk price; it’s about who makes that decision.
6. PowerPoint Pointers
There seems to be an emerging consensus among presentation professionals that looks like this:
- Most presentations are written as leave-behinds: build your pitch on the presentation, not the leave-behind
- Less is more: limit yourself to several bullets
- Don’t read aloud what’s written: get a picture and talk from that
- Visuals are great, great, great: use photos, not clipart
- Except for the title page, lose the logos and backgrounds
7. Handling Qualifications
Most big sales these days follow a two-step process: screening and selection. Most screening is done on credentials. That means if you’re in the pitch, your credentials got you there. The pitch is the sale you already got; stop selling it.
If the client specifically requested a section on credentials, don’t embarrass them by fighting it. But you can touch briefly on credentials, with a large leave-behind set of documents. Go through them only if the client insists.
8. Dissing the Competition
This is an easy one. Don’t. Don’t do it, don’t go there, don’t even think about it. If asked, demur, with, “We respect our competitors. You should talk with them. But they can speak well enough for themselves without our help.” Taking the high road never hurts, and it usually helps.
9. When to Ditch the Pitch
Imagine a pitch where an obstreperous client takes you off script away from the PowerPoint or raises a point well in advance of when you had intended to address it.
Disaster? Not at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is client engagement—exactly what you want—cleverly disguised as an objection. Greet it with open arms. Ask the client for permission to go off script and deal directly with the issue raised for as long as the client wants.
Remember: despite what the client said, it’s not your PowerPoint they want to see—they want to feel how it will be for you to interact with them. If you respect their wishes, move your agenda to fit theirs, and respond directly with relevant content, you will address precisely that desire. And you will more likely win the pitch than someone who stayed on (Power)Point.