Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing some thoughts about how to build the perfect pitch. The first three tools in your presentational toolbox are knowing your audience; employing the right language; and designing strong visuals. Today, we reach something of an apex—the part where you’ve put in the hours, you’ve done the prep work, and you’re ready to actually deliver the pitch.
Now, I said that this was an apex—and it is, in the sense that everything we’ve talked about so far leads up to this. But remember that delivering the pitch is not the final function here. Ultimately, the goal isn’t to give a pitch; it’s to close the sale! As for delivery, it’s not only the culmination of these previous tools, but it’s a tool in and of itself.
Any time you deliver a pitch, you’re performing. It’s not the same as theater, though. You’re not moving toward a big punchline or a surprise ending. In fact, the ending should be telegraphed well in advance. Your delivery is meant to move the audience to a new and specific place—the place where they buy whatever it is you’re selling. (Remember my premise: “We are all selling; you may not be in sales but you are selling.” And selling can be ideas, products, services relationship, attention, or moments.
With that said, how do you deliver as effectively as possible? First, let me offer a familiar adage with regard to structure. You start by telling your audience what you’re going to tell them. Then, you tell them. Then, you tell them what you just told them. Remember: You shouldn’t have a surprise ending!
As a side note, you may know of some famous pitchers whose methods departed from this a bit. The obvious one is Steve Jobs, whose “just one more thing” approach—which often did come with a surprise ending—was highly effective. It’s also incredibly risky, especially for the inexperienced, and not something I recommend you start with. (If you insist on taking this approach, I urge you to read my previous post on the power of voice.)
A second piece of advice? Remember that old New York joke, the one about knowing the way to Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice. You should never give an off the cuff presentation. Speaking personally, I have presented non-linear editing and Final Cut Pro more times in my career than I can remember. For each presentation, I practiced beforehand. Actually, for every presentation to this day, I rehearse.
The reason practice matters is that it prepares you to handle changes in direction from your audience, or comments that lead you down a rabbit hole. When you’re well-rehearsed, you’re always ready to issue a resetting statement, shifting everyone’s attention back in the direction you want it to go.
That leads me to an underutilized but invaluable presentation skill—something that I call extempore focus. I had a Senior Vice President at Adobe who was a master of this. Before anyone on the team gave a presentation, they had to furnish him with the one (and only one) area of focus for the day.
When giving a presentation, you should always have one (and only one) central point, the theme you want the whole pitch to hinge on. Be comfortable knowing that one (and only one) point; set the stage for it, announcing it at the beginning of your time; and always be quick to move the discussion back to that point, even if audience interactions threaten to veer off track.
Setting the stage is important; it sets the context for who you are and why you’re there. If you can do it with a little bit of humor, that’s all the better.
Also remember, as you deliver your pitch, that it’s not about you, the performer; it’s about the audience. That’s been a tough thing for me to realize. Whether or not the people like you or laugh at your jokes is really not the point. Whether you make that connection with them, and move them in the direction you want them to go, that’s what’s crucial.
To synthesize what I’ve said here, let me propose five short and essential rules for giving any kind of pitch or presentation:
1. Perform. Actually stand up—never sit down—and give your pitch.
2. Deliver. Speak with rhythm and cadence.
3. Engage. I recommend taking questions at the end; personally, I don’t like taking them in the middle of the pitch.
4. Stop. When you’re done, you’re done. Don’t keep rambling on forever.
5. Thank everyone for their time.
To those five points I’ll just add one more thing. I’ve said throughout this blog series that what you say in your pitch is much less important than how you make people feel. I truly believe this. As such, a really great delivery can actually trump the story, or content, of your pitch. So be crisp and present. Practice in advance, and don’t let your mind wander during your pitch. Keep focused on that one point you want to make. And always be mindful of the story you’re trying to tell—something I’ll talk about in the fifth and final installment of this series.