In my most recent post, I introduced my five-part series about crafting the perfect pitch; you’ll remember that, for me, this is all about storytelling. Before we get to the big-picture view, however, and talk about how storytelling ultimately shapes and frames your pitch, we’ve got to master a few mechanics. In step 1, we talked about knowing your audience. That leads nicely into step 2: Once you know who you’re talking to, you need to make sure you’re speaking their language.
When I talk about language, I’m talking about a few different things — diction, visual context, and grammar. Or, to put it a bit differently, I’m discussing the words you use; how you present them; and the basic rules that are in place to sequence and structure them.
These are all important considerations, and they’re important for a simple reason: Language has meaning. I don’t necessarily mean that language conveys austere, absolute truth, either; what I mean is that words have specific associations and connections in the minds of your listeners. That’s why, before you know what language to use, you have to know who you’re talking to. Hence, all of this is rooted in understanding your audience.
And there is more to this than you might think — more variation in how people actually speak and communicate. According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are more than 520 million words in use here in the United States — and it might surprise you to learn that academics, the group you’d think would have the widest vocabulary, is actually the lowest-ranked demographic for word usage. Everyday people — the kinds of folks you do business with, and try to sell to — draw from a rich spectrum of language, wherein each word comes with its own meaning and baggage. Your job, in crafting your pitch, is to choose your words with precision, finding just the right verbiage to make your audience feel something.
And making your audience feel something is important. As I recently wrote in my post about the power of voice, people don’t remember your presentation for facts or figures. They remember how you made them feel. If you want to establish any sort of an emotional connection, it’s vital to employ words judiciously.
That’s something we took seriously at Apple, where Think Different was our mantra. That was just at the macro level, of course; those of us who were in sales had to tailor our language to meet each individual client and each specific audience, finding new ways to say things while staying in sync with that overall mantra. Going too far afield — losing sight of that Think Different motto — was more or less a fire-able offense.
So in addition to thinking about your audience, how else can you ensure your words are effective? My guidelines here are brevity and economy. As the mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Taking the time to pare down your message to its essentials, wherein each word is chosen to pack an enormous emotional wallop, is fundamental to good presentation-giving.
Personally, my own rule is the 3, 5, 7 formula. In any given presentation, I limit myself to three concepts, five total slides, and no more than seven words per bullet point. This isn’t an immutable rule of presentation giving, yet I would encourage you to impose some similar sense of limitation on your own pitch. That’s what forces you into true precision and gives each word a greater impact.
Something else that’s necessary: Being descriptive. I can’t tell you how often I doze off when faced with a presentation littered with three-letter acronyms. Acronyms are no way to forge an emotional connection, nor do they make your presentation more memorable. For that, you need rich, descriptive language that causes your audience to feel things.
I keep coming back to emotion, but only because it’s so important. If you’re not going to invest in cultivating emotion, you might as well just write out your pitch, send it out as a PDF, and not bother giving a presentation at all.
As for the visual context for your language, that’s what we’ll get to next time, in the third part of this series. To close, though, let me just give a brief, rare product endorsement. I’m always telling people to use music as a source of inspiration, and if you want to really hear your music like never before, I recommend these Shure SE 535 in-ear monitors, pictured here. This is not a paid promotion; I bought these for myself on Amazon, and mention them only because they’ve so wowed me. Give them a try if you want to experience music — and words — with incredible clarity.