The Art of the Pitch
Persuasion and Presentation Skills that Win Business
By Peter Coughter
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2012 Peter Coughter
All rights reserved.
EVERYTHING IS A PRESENTATION
presentation | noun
1. The proffering or giving of something to someone, esp. as part of a formal ceremony: the presentation of certificates to new members | the trophy presentations.
a. the manner or style in which something is given, offered, or displayed: the presentation of foods is designed to stimulate your appetite.
What is a presentation? We can see how the dictionary defines the word above. I like "the proffering or giving of something to someone ..."—like a gift. That's a cool way to think about a presentation. And I particularly like the next part, "the manner or style in which something is given, offered, or displayed: the presentation of foods is designed to stimulate your appetite." That's what we want people to feel, isn't it? Stimulated. So we want to offer people a gift. Something that will stimulate their appetites for more.
We could say that our ideas are the gift, but I prefer to think of it in another way—we are the gift. We are giving ourselves to our audience. We're giving them the product of our thoughts, efforts, and personality.
We're giving them who we are. We're telling them our truth. That's our gift to them.
Most people don't think about presenting, or giving a presentation, in that way. But that's the way we should think about it—after all, we "give" a presentation, don't we?
Most people think about giving a presentation as a chore. As something difficult that they'd really rather not have to do, something to be avoided at all costs. In fact, part of why people think about presenting the wrong way is that they equate presenting with the dreaded "public speaking." I say dreaded, because in every poll ever taken of Americans' greatest fears, Number One is public speaking. Ahead of death. Every time.
But a presentation isn't "public speaking." It isn't getting up on the steps of the Forum and delivering a stentorian address. It isn't a debate. It isn't making a speech. It's a conversation. Only you're doing most of the talking. The trick is to understand that you are simply talking with your audience, sharing your thoughts. You're not arguing. You're not selling. You're having a conversation. You're giving them a gift.
YOU'RE ALWAYS BEING JUDGED
It's all a presentation. I mean this. Sitting down with your boss for a little "chat" is a presentation. Going out for beers with your colleagues is a presentation. Obviously, an interview is a presentation, but so is meeting your boyfriend's family.
In each case, people are judging you. They're sizing you up. There may be a lot more on the line in one situation than there is in another, but they're still all presentations. People are forming opinions of you, opinions that are hard to change.
Often these opinions are formed when you least expect it.
For the first eleven years of its existence, the VCU Brandcenter was located downtown in a building with a fair amount of foot traffic passing by every day.
I would often stand outside and chat with a gentleman who worked upstairs from us for the Department of Transportation. He was a terrific guy and a lot of fun to talk with. One day he said to me, "This new crop of students seems a lot better than last year's." I was somewhat surprised to hear him say that, and even though it seemed he had no way of forming that opinion since he had never set foot in one of our classrooms, I asked why he thought that. "Because they don't block the sidewalk the way the kids did last year. If anyone is walking along, they get out of the way. They're courteous," he replied.
Someone is always evaluating you. Everything is a presentation.
Regardless of the situation or the stakes, I suggest that you think about presenting as an opportunity. An opportunity to share your thoughts with your audience—to give them the gift of you. Whether it's one person across a table in a cubicle or a ballroom full of automobile dealers in Las Vegas. It's an opportunity to share yourself with them.
In most business settings, presentations are team affairs. And that requires a different approach—there's a group of you, after all, and the group is going to have to come together to first agree on exactly what it is that they want the audience to take away and, secondly, how they're going to accomplish that. Each person on the team will be required to contribute to the total team argument. Each person should be "cast" for the particular skill or style that she brings to the team. And while the team has to carry the day, each individual speaker will have to pull her weight if the team is to prevail. This is accomplished principally through the process of rehearsal. We'll talk a lot more about this in a subsequent chapter, but we still shouldn't change our mindset of delivering a gift to the audience. It's just being presented by the team and not one individual. When you think about it that way, you're on the path to giving a great presentation.
Why is it so important to be a great presenter? What's the big deal?
Why should I spend so much time and effort trying to do this when I'm good enough right now?
Because good enough isn't good enough. Because good enough will leave you in the middle of the pack. It will not get you to the head of the pack. It won't get you noticed, promoted, and compensated.
There, I said it, compensated.
There are lots of obvious reasons to want to get better at presenting, but one thing that almost no one mentions whenever I ask them why we're working on presenting, is this—money.
The first time I ever went to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, they hadn't yet opened a Boulder, Colorado, office. Everyone was still in Coconut Grove in Florida. It was a little after 9:00 A.M., and I was starting my workshop by asking the group, "Why are we working on becoming better presenters?"
Jeff Steinhour, then one of the agency partners and the head of Content Management (think Account Management), now president of the agency, was sitting in the room with 12 folks from the agency. It was my first workshop there, and he wanted to see what he had gotten his agency and his people into.
I asked the group, "Why are we doing this? Why are we spending two days trying to put on better presentations?"
I got a series of answers, all of them "right," but none of them the one I was looking for. So I went to the front of the room and I drew a giant dollar sign on my flip chart. I was a little bit afraid of appearing to be overly mercenary with an agency known for its creative commitment, but I drew it anyway.
At which point, Steinhour stood up and yelled, "Fucking A!"
Here's how it works.
If we sell the idea the first time, that work has a much better chance of being great. I don't care if you're in advertising, architecture, or investment banking. If you're dependent upon a client approving your ideas, the first one you show them is the one that has a chance to be great. It's the idea that has a chance to increase business and win awards, which, I believe, is good for everyone concerned.
But if we don't sell it the first time, if we have to go back and redo it, that costs the agency real money. Given today's tight budgets and tough compensation agreements, it's highly likely that the client won't be paying for the "redo."
Furthermore, if we sell the work the first time—the work that the agency believes is the right solution to the client's business problem—it is very likely that the work will, in fact, work, and the client will reap the rewards. More money.
And finally, if we sell the work, we become winners. We're the one the agency wants out there selling more work. To more clients. And in new business pitches. And guess what? We make more money.
It is a fact of agency life that, with very few exceptions, the highest paid people in the agency are the best presenters. Think of your shop. It's true, isn't it?
You've got to get as good as you can possibly get at presenting. Your career depends upon it. John Adams, the CEO of The Martin Agency, one of the industry's finest leaders and a fantastic presenter himself, once said to me, "I think the single most important skill anyone can have at this agency is the ability to present."
Every summer, the Brandcenter sends students who have completed their first year of study to agencies all over the world for internships. The students learn up close from some of the industry's brightest. When I ask them about their experiences, it is remarkable how many times I hear the following: "You know I worked with so and so this summer, and he's supposed to be a great creative director, but I didn't think he was really that creative." "I see," I say, "but what was he really good at?" "He was an amazing presenter," they answer.
DO AN AD FOR YOUR ADS
Arguably the biggest complaint I hear from creatives at agencies all over the country is, "I can't get anything produced." How do you think you get to be a famous creative director? You get your work produced. And the only way you get it produced is by convincing the client that it's the right answer to their problem.
Here's a useful way to think about convincing the client that your ideas are right: Do an ad for your ads. It just doesn't matter how good the idea is unless you can persuade the person on the other side of the table to feel the same way. Whether that's your executive creative director, the client, a new business prospect, or whoever. You've got to help them get it. Whether you're a writer, art director, planner, technologist, or an account person, it doesn't matter, you're a creative person in a creative industry. You and your team have spent as much time as you could get working on your idea. Yet most agencies talk about how to present their work in the car on the way to the meeting. It's true. I've been told exactly that countless times. But there's a better way. Take some time and figure out how to sell it. Apply the same creativity and energy that went into creating the work to selling the work. Do an ad for your ads. Give your idea a chance to live. It's your baby. You've put your heart and soul into it. You can't walk into a jump ball situation and leave the outcome up to whether or not the person on the other side of the table likes your idea. I don't care if she likes your idea. I just want her to understand that it's the right idea—and that we know what it takes to achieve the goals of the brand. You've got to take control of the situation and convince her of that. So take at least a fraction of the time you spent inventing the work and create a way to sell the work. Put that creativity to work in the name of creativity. And do an ad for your ads.
WHAT DOES AN EFFECTIVE PRESENTATION LOOK LIKE?
Okay, now we know why it's important to become a great presenter, but how do we do it?
Let's think about the characteristics of a great presenter and the presentations she gives.
1. It's a conversation, only you're doing most of the talking.
A lot of people have a hard time with this idea. I see it almost every time I work with folks at an agency. They cling to the notion that they need to be "different" than they are in "real life," because this, after all, is work. And they want to appear "professional." What they end up accomplishing is being boring. When I sit and review presentations in one-on-one meetings with the individuals from the workshops, they are often appalled at just how boring they are. And boring is the worst thing a presenter can be. It is the mortal sin of presenting. If you are boring, you are wasting your audience's time, and they will hate you for it. Forget about being "professional," and start being yourself. Your authentic self. It shouldn't feel like an address on the steps of the Capitol or a speech at a political convention. Nor should it sound like a lecture. It should sound the way you sound when you're sitting across the table from a friend in a restaurant.
We've all been there. Sitting in a meeting, praying for it to end while the speaker drones on about something that is apparently important to him, but of no interest to us. It might have been okay if he wasn't so stiff, so stilted, so "professional." Caught up in his own world. Lecturing us.
Don't be that guy. I can't say this strongly enough. Just talk with us. The best presenters know this, and that's how they present.
Now it goes without saying that we will turn up our volume and intensity depending on the subject and the setting. If we're talking with 5,000 auto dealers in Vegas, it's got to be a little bigger than when we're discussing the media plan with two people across a table. But it's still a conversation. Just put it into the proper proportions.
2. Be yourself.
Great presenters do not read their slides. I will talk about this at greater length later, but let me state it now as well, because it can't be said enough.
Great presenters remember that we're all just human. We're going to make some mistakes. There will be some slipups. It's okay. In fact, really good presenters acknowledge their mistakes and charm the audience by being so honest and—human.
In fact, since we're trying for a conversational style, there probably SHOULD be some mistakes. I once worked with a terrific presenter who deliberately built in a certain amount of fumbling with his words and his props—just to make himself seem like a "regular" guy. His name was Ace. His audiences loved him.
I've also worked with presenters who were too slick, too good, too polished, too sure of themselves. They came off as something less than sincere. This is also a killer. What audiences want is authenticity. They don't want a game show host.
What audiences really want, what they will really respond to is—You. I've said it earlier, but I'll say it again. Be yourself.
The best presenters know that there is no one right way to do this. There is only one Alex Bogusky, one Sally Hogshead, one Jeff Goodby. But there's also only one of you. Find your own style and exploit it. Work it. Develop it. Find YOUR voice. Don't try to sound like anyone else.
A cool way to think of it is this: You'd better be yourself— everyone else is taken.
3. Tell stories.
It's become a bit of a cliché, but that's probably because it's true—great presenters tell stories. We all love stories. Stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories that grab our attention right away and hold it all the way to the end. No one wants to sit through yet another boring regurgitation of everything you know about a particular subject. No one wants to watch and listen as you read from the deck. But everyone loves a story. It's arguably the oldest form of entertainment known to humankind. Since man first had language as a means of communication, we've gathered by the fire to hear the stories of the day, the tales of lives both commonplace and spectacular. Today, when we meet our friends in a restaurant, we all take turns sharing our stories and we all have a great time as a result. We need to remember this when it comes time to present to our client or new business prospect. Make it a story. Make it fun. Make it human. Make it conversational. Make it personal. Make it matter.
Get yourself and how you feel about the subject into your presentations. This is what audiences can relate to and, therefore, relate to you. That's the beginning of getting them to say yes.
So think of every presentation as a story and concentrate on creating a real attention-getting opening and a powerful close. Take them by the hand and walk them through your story to the end. That's where you get what you came for.
4. Know Your Stuff.
Great presenters know their stuff. They haven't memorized it. They just know it. They know it so well that they can go anywhere once the presentation starts and know exactly where they are. They can wander off on a digression if it seems like a good idea, or if they need to backtrack in order to be sure the audience understands. Nothing will solve as many problems as knowing your stuff. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Art of the Pitch by Peter Coughter. Copyright © 2012 Peter Coughter. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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