Inside the mind of a pitch

From Hollywood films and international marketing campaigns through to multi-billion-pound infrastructure projects, the pitch is often a decisive moment – something on which careers and whole companies can hinge.

Some 1,220 pitches took place in the past year in the UK advertising industry alone, with companies spending as much as £75,000 on a single pitch, according to the Brand Experience Report 2017 (external link). But while they’re happening across almost all sectors, and pretty much all the time, is there any consensus on the best way to clinch a deal?

There’s a time and a place
It’s a shame, according to PR and advertising veteran Dean Russell (external link), that guidance about the specifics of pitching is often diluted with more general advice about giving presentations.

In reality, the two things are quite different, for two reasons. The first, says Russell, is that ‘pitching, in most modern business settings, is far more likely to be a team effort, with several people sat round a table’. The second is that a team’s ability to impress in the pitch itself rests largely on how well it prepares – not just how it performs on the day.

Having published a guide on how to win pitches, Russell’s counter-intuitive advice for increasing a team’s chances of success is to pitch less: ‘All too often, a brief lands on the desk, a proposal is cobbled together and people end up working late because they’re doing the pitch on top of their day job.’

Russell suggests a more considered approach, with pieces of work only being contested if they are a good fit for the business. With time used more effectively, people are more likely to be motivated and able to make time for much-needed rehearsals.

The make-up of your pitch team is important, too: ‘You might have a seasoned pro in the team who has done hundreds of pitches,’ says Russell, who is former head of digital at FleishmanHillard (external link) and creative strategy director at Lewis PR (external link). ‘But you risk undermining their experience by asking them to work alongside someone junior who’s expected to learn on the job.’

It’s all about the biscuits
When it comes to the art of pitching, there are so many factors – big and small – that can make the difference. ‘I’ve been part of a winning pitch where we were told that there was nothing to choose between us and another agency,’ says Russell. ‘But the client had to make a decision. They ended up going with us because they thought the biscuits and coffee we served were better.’

There are a few different theories about how to master the psychology of pitching. Research carried out in the 1970s by Stanford University (external link) psychologists in the US says that we tend to use a set of stereotypes or ‘person prototypes’ to categorise other people as quickly as 150 milliseconds after first meeting them.

Professor Kimberly D Elsbach (external link) of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management at Stanford has suggested that people pitching in creative industries can improve their chances of success by ‘projecting’ themselves as one of three creative types. First, there’s the showrunner, who is a consummate professional combining inspiration with production know-how. Then, there’s the artist, who lives in a heady world of creative ideas. Finally, the neophyte, who comes across as young and naïve.

More generally, Dr Robert Cialdini argued in his 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, that all the methods used to convince people in business could be boiled down to six principles: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consensus, commitment and liking. But, for Russell, the single most important consideration is clear. ‘If you’re passionate, you look after the details. And who would you rather buy something from? It’s the people who care most.’

What a coincidence!
Communicating enthusiasm and passion is often only possible if a good relationship is taking shape. We tend to be drawn to people that we consider like-minded, according to a study (external link) co-authored by researchers at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the University of Kansas. As a result, says Russell, it can pay to do research about clients, with a view to creating manufactured coincidences that reveal shared interests.

It’s also important for pitchers to be clear about the professional responsibilities of the ‘catchers’, and use that information to address points that particular people are likely to be concerned about. ‘Try to understand the power-play in the room,’ says Russell. ‘Influence the influencers.’

One way to boost a pitch team’s chance of doing this is to suggest pre-pitch chemistry meetings that can be informative and will provide an opportunity to collaborate with the client to shape the brief.

Lights, camera, pitch
It can also be helpful to think of the pitch as a piece of theatre. That holds true for everything from the two-minute elevator pitch to a sit-down meeting that can last two hours. ‘That’s about the same length as a Hollywood movie,’ says Russell. Just as a film director would, he advises thinking about different methods of storytelling, changing the pace, locations and introducing props (such as a 3D-printed representation of some salient data points). ‘Take them on a rollercoaster of emotions.’

Researchers at the University of Michigan (external link) found that the pace of speech tends to affect how listeners respond. The most effective speed is not too fast and not too slow; the Michigan researchers settled on around 3.5 words per second, or 210 per minute, while Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED, claims that 190 words per minute is about right. Pauses matter, too. Omitting them all together and sounding too scripted is best avoided.

Remember to send flowers
Even if a pitch has finished, it isn’t really over, says Russell. Following up with clients to check that they have everything they need is a good insurance policy. ‘And even if you lose, keeping in touch means that the door is always open.’

The thing you must absolutely always do, he adds, is to schedule a debrief with the pitch team. ‘They will have spent a lot of time and effort working on this. And win, lose or draw, there will be things that can improve.’ That’s important – because it might not be long until the next pitch.