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How to win a business pitch blog

How do you take a business pitch from good to great?

I recently worked with an international team of engineers to help them prep a major business pitch to senior managers.

The purpose of the pitch was to get funding for their division to invest in the next 5-year wave of technology and convince the panel that the new guy in charge of the division had a clear and coherent strategy. (And when I say ‘funding’, I mean 100s of millions of dollars. Stakes were high and time was short.)

Trouble was, here was a team of engineers presenting to former engineers. The temptation to get sucked into detail was huge. So one of my challenges was to elevate their thinking from below ground to about 50,000 feet, and remind them what the panel was most interested in — organisational and business benefits.

Hired at short notice, I started work on a Monday, with the 3-hour pitch scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Can you win a business pitch in two and a half days? You can, but it was tight.

I helped them to slash their slide count from 278 to 49, clarify the overall aims of the meeting and each presenter’s key messages, craft the ‘killer’ slide and simplify the rest, prep the Q&A, perfect the timing and running order of the presentation, and hold numerous rehearsals. Oh, and I gave them a few tips on presentation skills.

Ironically, what took most concentration was deciding when to step in and when to shut up.

Most of the technical discussions flew over my head, so I spent lots of brain juice trying to get the gist and make the right call. Part of my job was to keep the process on track and re-focus them on what the audience would find most persuasive.

The upshot was, their presentation to the Big Cheeses went well and the new division head was pleased. They secured 90% of the funding they sought. Job done, what lessons did the assignment reinforce? There were nine reminders of how to win a business pitch:

1. Nail the story, then the slides.

Too many pitch teams launch PowerPoint before brainstorming, planning and structuring their story. Work out what you want to say first, then design the slides in support of that. (If you can do without slides altogether, the client panel will love you forever).

2. Limit each presenter to three or four high level messages.

There’s a limit to how much information we can absorb orally. So presenters must exercise self-discipline when deciding what they’re going to talk about and what they’re not.

3. Hold the most detailed slides back for the Q&A.

Related to point #2, keep your most detailed content in your back pocket to help answer the panel’s burning questions in the Q&A after the presentation.

4. Keep your slides spare, clear, simple.

The more information you cram onto your slides, the harder your audience will have to work to get your message(s). Make it easy for them. Keep bullets to one line and no more than six words. Use simple graphics that tell a clear story. Less is more.

5. To win a business pitch, practise.

Many senior managers mistakenly think they don’t need to practise or rehearse. They’re either arrogant and don’t think they need to, or they’re worried about showing themselves up in front of their team. But the best leaders show vulnerability as well as strength. Mastery and confidence only come through practice.

6. Focus on the end and the beginning of your pitch.

The theory of recency says that your call to action at the end will stick in the panel’s mind and have most impact on them. The theory of primacy says that how you open a pitch engages the audience and sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. If you blow it at the front, you may never recover.

7. Think about the pitch from the panel’s perspective.

If you show them you’re viewing their world through their eyes you appeal to their self-interest and make them more receptive to your message. So walk a mile in their shoes, talk more about them than you. It’s not about you; it’s about them.

8. Craft a killer slide.

No sales pitch or business pitch should be without one: a single slide or page that summarises the major benefits of your offer, request or ‘value proposition’. Begin each bullet point with a verb (word of action) and emphasise not what you’ll do, but what the panel will get.

9. Ask rhetorical questions.

Framing your talk with simple questions like ‘Why this?’, ‘Why now?’ and ‘What’s the cost of not doing it?’ can be thought-provoking. They force you to describe the benefits of your proposal, outline the risks and costs of not doing it and introduce a sense of urgency around timing. This appeals to different motivational styles in the audience: the ‘yellow hats’ are drawn towards the positive; the ‘black hats’ want to move away from the negative.


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Thanks for reading!


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