How to pitch for a step-change

Life is not a pattern of gradually evolving improvement. It's a series of long, fallow patches punctuated by moments of crucial change. How you handle the fallow stretches doesn't matter much. How you handle the moments of change is vital. That's true in business: the moment of crucial change may be an interview for a new job; the board agreeing (or failing to agree) your plans for a new direction in the coming year; a presentation to win a big new project...

by Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It's these moments when you're pitching for a step-change that things really matter. In eight detailed steps, Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity help you put the magic into that pivotal moment of opportunity.

It's Theatre, Not Information

The pitch moments - those crucial instances that give the opportunity for major change - all have one thing in common. You are trying to get someone else to do what you want them to do. People always assume that the key to these moments of persuasion is to present the information that should make people change their minds (here's the logical reason why you should lend me a million pounds...), but, actually, these encounters depend much less on logic and much more on emotion.


Someone being asked to lend a million pounds is faced really with only one simple question to answer: will I get my money back? And of course that isn't a logical question, because it's asking to know the future. No logic can describe what is going to happen a few years from now. But although you can't know what's going to happen, you can think you know. Indeed a banker who spends their whole life lending money is endlessly 'deciding' what will happen in the future. But, of course, they are not deciding, they are just guessing.

So when you're pitching to someone, you're asking them to judge the future. Since knowing the future is beyond logic, their judgment won't be based on logical factors but on emotional factors: trust, confidence, hope, ambition, desire. So, to pitch successfully, you have to understand that it's not about widening someone's knowledge base, it's about giving them a jolting power-surge to their emotional electricity.

Shaping Your Pitch

Have you ever watched a house being built from scratch? For months and months nothing seems to happen - then suddenly the house is there in a matter of weeks. But those months and months of 'nothing' happening are when the site is cleared, the drains put in, the foundations laid. When the base is properly in place, the rest is easy.

It's worth thinking about that when you draft a pitch. If you get the foundations solidly in place first, and you take a bit of time to do that well, the rest flows naturally.

People may agree with this idea in principle but often find it hard to implement in practice. They can't resist the temptation to start writing the final pitch before they've really thought through what they want to say. You must begin at the beginning.

We always start with a discussion about the problem and try to pin down what the big issues are - and if there are more than one or two, you haven't simplified enough. We prefer to do this in a room with a whiteboard, so you can draw diagrams reflecting the way the argument unfolds. This makes the debate more involving and helps give it a central focus. Only when the few big issues are becoming clear should you start to draft the backbone of your argument.

When it comes to drafting, you still need to stay with big issues, to map out the high ground, and to avoid getting sucked into detail. There's a technique that helps hugely in this. I use an artist's A2 layout pad (landscape, not portrait) on my table, and I work with a soft-lead artist's pencil, at least 2B. That way, you physically can't write in fine detail, so you don't. I then write the outline of the pitch like the storyboard for a film, in a series of frames across the page. In each frame I put only a few words - for example, 'What is the biggest single problem we are trying to solve?'

Tell Your Story, from Problem to Solution

Your audience has a problem to which it wants a solution. They are not with you in the room as a favour to you; they are there because they're worried about a problem. And you might - just might - be able to solve it for them. So when you construct your pitch, construct it as a story - and not just any story, but a story of problem and resolution.

A good pitch starts with a crystal-clear exposition of the problem you are trying to solve. The unspoken response you want in the mind of your audience is: 'He may not have solved it yet, but this guy really knows what our problem is.' That quickly leads to the feeling: 'If he understands the problem well, I trust him on the answer.'

Then elaborate. Develop your understanding of their problem. Show research, statistics, even some anecdotal insights that dramatise that problem. The purpose of this stage is plain: it's to make your audience gut-wrenchingly, suicidally miserable about the scale of their problem. Why? The bigger the problem, the more valuable the solution.

Once you have brought your audience down, you need to start showing them the answer and prove yourself their superior in arriving at a solution. Finding the right solution to a business problem is usually hampered by the expectation that it has to have some unique 'Eureka!' factor. Don't worry about that for a nano-second. The solution to most business problems is usually not some astonishing breakthrough idea. It is more often a healthy dose of pragmatic common sense, underscored by real passion about delivery.

Writing the Cornerstone Slide

When you write a pitch, be sure that you have a powerful idea at its core that is crystal-clear to your audience - because if it's not vivid to them, it might as well not be there. Go through your draft presentation and identify the one slide that encapsulates this central idea. I call it the 'cornerstone slide'. Make sure it's as clear, as crisp and as simple as it can be. Then, when you deliver the presentation, linger on that slide and say: 'If you forget everything else but remember this slide, you'll still have captured the essence of what we're saying to you.' The effect is dramatic. You will, in a moment, convince your audience that your pitch has a big idea at its heart. Nothing can be more compelling.

Confidence Is the Key

The issue of confidence can't be taken as given; especially if money is involved. And many important pitches are related directly to money: Will you buy my business? Will you invest in this new idea? When money is involved, there lies a problem. If you are asking for money, you must be talking to someone who has money; and the bigger the amount you are asking for, the more your audience must have. And people with money tend to have one characteristic in common: they want to keep it.

When you think about it, it's not surprising. The people who are most willing to take risks are the ones with nothing to lose. So the bigger your pitch is, in terms of the money involved, the more likely it is that your audience will be cautious and risk-averse. Therefore, for them, the whole issue of confidence in you becomes absolutely overwhelming. If they don't have confidence in you, they certainly won't have confidence in your idea.

How can you radiate confidence?

First, by not trying too hard. People who look as if they are desperate to reassure you only end up looking desperate. That certainly inspires no confidence. Second, confidence is about generating from previous behaviour a suggestion that future behaviour will be dependable. At the heart of every pitch is a question about the future. People are much more comfortable answering that question if they have some relevant example from the past. So the clever pitcher finds ways of demonstrating that his or her previous work and previous experience should encourage the audience to trust him or her for the future.

The Art of Rehearsal - and Why You Shouldn't Leave It Till the Night Before

The legendary golfer Gary Player was once accused of being lucky. 'Yes,' he agreed, 'and the harder I practise, the luckier I get.' Great performers know that talent is most of it, but it's not all of it. Raw talent gives you the opportunity, but it is hard work and practice that enable you to seize that opportunity. That is as true of winning at presentations as it is of winning at golf.

In the art of presentation, practice includes rehearsal, which is practice with a purpose. Practice with two purposes, in fact, since rehearsal on your own achieves something quite different from rehearsal with others.

Let's start with rehearsal with others - and that usually means others in your team, working on the same pitch. Don't even try to 'deliver' the pitch, just go through it. Be clear that your aim is not to rehearse your delivery, but to get their views on the content. Reflect on their comments and separate the ones you agree with from the rest.

If you can't test your delivery of a pitch with this kind of rehearsal, how can you? This is where rehearsing on your own becomes important. One of your aims in this is to memorise the order of your argument. That does not mean you learn your script parrot-fashion. What you should have is a clear sense of the flow of the argument, and which point follows which. A good technique is to write down in two or three words the theme of each slide, and use that as your 'script'. Get this order of argument imprinted in your mind by endless rehearsal, and you will always seem confident when the big day comes. A good pitch feels like a dialogue, not a lecture, so your ability to encourage questions is important.

Rehearsal on your own, although it may seem pointless, will actually get you confident about delivery. You need to do that about a day before. Shouldn't you rehearse the night before? No, just get an early night and wake up fresh.

The Psychology of Pitching

To pitch brilliantly, you need to sense what is going on beneath the surface. You must grasp the psychology that underlies every pitch. In truth, that psychology is simple: a pitch is an attempt to transfer power from the audience to the pitcher. You pitch to an investment bank for funding for a new business; they have the power to give you the money you need to launch your business. And they have the power to reject you. So the audience for a pitch has the power: the power to give you money; the power to give you opportunity. Not unnaturally, people with power are reluctant to give it up. The easiest course is always to say 'no'.

The shrewd pitcher deals with that at two levels. They must defuse the angst of giving away power; they must deal with the audience's fear of loss and risk. They need to reassure them, to minimise risk, to make it safe to say 'yes'. But at the same time, they must excite them: no-one is going to concede power unless they get something in return. The pitcher must offer them something that will make them want to say 'yes'. It's about the removal of negatives and the creation of positives. It's about a subtle intertwining of reassurance and excitement.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the power is all on one side. They have something you want, but you have something they want. And that applies in every pitch - you may be pitching to them, but in a sense they are pitching to you. Understanding that the transfer of power in a pitch is a two-way street is massively important. Never forget that you have something they want. Because then you will come across far more confidently. It has become a discussion between equals. And as we have seen before, your confidence in a pitch is the most powerful weapon you can have...

The Pitch Itself

There are only a few things you need to concentrate on: how you pace and shape the presentation, how you deal with questions and the use of humour. In all of these, your body language will say as much as the words you use.

If you present with your hand in your pocket, it just looks a bit scruffy. If you present sitting down, rather than standing up, it makes it much harder to dominate and control your audience. Remember two things: you are in charge of your audience; and you are there for them. This brings us to the question of speakers using notes. It's very simple: don't. Few things in life are more unconvincing than a speaker who is constantly referring to their notes. It's a living advertisement for the fact that that they don't have a full grasp of the issues.

The pace and handling of a pitch are crucial. You must give people the sense that the meeting is for them, not for you. So if they want to spend a long time talking about something you think is minor, go with it. Obviously, you need to control your agenda, but you need to do so in a way that makes them feel this is a dialogue and not a lecture.

It's often assumed that presentations with lots of slides are longer. That is often not true. I have seen people spend 10 minutes on one slide; and I've seen people go through half a dozen slides in less than a minute. It's much more important that each slide is simple and is a stepping-stone to the next slide. Then the presentation will flow quickly.

Body language really matters when you have to deal with questions. A pitch is a good pitch when people start taking an active part in the process. So questions matter greatly. They are not an intrusion, they are involvement. Deal with them straightaway. Saying 'I'd rather answer that at the end' sounds overly formal; and it implies that your timetable is more important than the question. If the question is asked now, now might be the time to give the answer. There is one exception to this. Often, someone will ask a question that is dealt with slightly later in the pitch. Take advantage of that. Flatter them. Say: 'I'm afraid you're three slides ahead of me: but if you hold on, I'll catch up with you in a second and we can deal with it then.' This is a good device, but make sure that when you do get to the relevant slide, you refer back properly to the question.

Lastly, in body language, there's the question of humour. Pitches are a serious business, but if they become too serious it feels stiff and uncomfortable. Taking a lighter tone relaxes people. You can even be a little bit cheeky, if it's done delicately. It shows that you are not afraid of them.

At the end of the pitch, it's important to know how to close the meeting. When you are pitching, you want a positive answer there and then. But in the real world, that rarely happens. People want time to reflect and discuss among themselves before coming back to you. So the key thing, if you aren't going to get a definite 'yes', is to make sure that you don't get a definite 'no'. If that looks to be a risk, it's essential to find a way of keeping the dialogue going. Use the discussion at the end of the presentation to identify areas that they are not happy with, and then agree what further work you will do to resolve those problems. Set a date to show them that new work and stick to it. Then you're still in the game.

This feature is an edited extract from Life's a Pitch..., a book on how to be businesslike, by Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity, published on 2 March by Bantam Press at £14.99. To order a copy at the special price of £12.99 (including postage and packing), call Bookpost on 01624 677237 citing the code PITCH.

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