10 Deadly sins of pitch.

An attempt to identify pitfalls and avoid them, perhaps.

Crowd raising hands at a conference.
Credits : Edwin Andrade — Unsplash.

Mistakes are inevitable. Learning naturally leads us through the same channels. Fortunately, mistakes are often more interesting than success. They better illustrate biases, shortcuts and preconceptions. They ignore good luck and don’t care about your status. So it is in all humility, and with no guarantee of success, that I try to bring together the inevitable mistakes that hopefully you will avoid.

Because you have the impression that a pitch context necessarily implies a performance, you will act differently. You will speak louder. You will adopt a lexicon that is not natural to you. You will become much more solemn. You may even try to insert jokes through the content. You will become, during the presentation, a character that does not exist in any other context.

Forget the term “pitch”. Instead, assume it is a discussion. A discussion in which you are given the floor right from the start.

This is not a sketch: don’t try to be funny if it’s not natural for you and forget about comical methods such as “asking false questions” or “reacting at the same time”.
This is not a play: forget about perfect sentence constructions, dramatic grand gestures and exaggerated figures of speech.
This is not a school presentation: You don’t have to occupy every second of the pitch to “make the time requested” by trying to insert as many key notions as possible.

This is simply a discussion that you have prepared. You’ve prepared it because, unlike others, you’re probably holding it with strangers. So it’s just going to be clearer and more interesting, quite simply.

There is nothing more surprising than someone who manages to remain natural and posed in a pitch context. Assume that the people in front of you have seen a hundred times people try to “surprise” them. They have seen many sketches, plays and school presentations.

Give them a chance to have a meaningful discussion this time. They’ll thank you for it.

2. The relationship to the visual support

Because you move too quickly to construct your visual presentation document, you will abuse it. You will use it to structure your thinking from the start. You will put too much information in it. During the pitch, the audience, visually distracted by the information overload, will choose to read rather than listen to you. And as far as you are concerned, you will have structured your thinking within your software. You will therefore be completely dependent on it and will not master your own presentation.

(For presentations that are bound to contain a lot of content, such as a review of an annual report, for example, provide the material to your audience in another way. Don’t force them to read spreadsheets on the screen).

The main use of visual support is to engage a second sense in your audience to increase understanding and retention of what you are presenting. It must therefore be used strategically to help visualize key elements of your content. An image, a sentence, a number or a simple graph will help to reinforce what must absolutely be understood. *(No advice here is absolute, but if you want a tried and true rule: never display more than 3 elements on the screen at the same time).

Don’t build the structure of your presentation using the visual design software. Build a clear plan of your pitch on paper before you start designing. Your pitch and content should be so well mastered and memorized that you will be able to perform a full version of the presentation in front of an audience without any visual support. Then, and only then, will you be able to ask yourself which elements need visual support to be better assimilated.

If, at your next presentation, you find yourself looking at the screen too often, having to turn around to follow the thread and reading content directly on the screen, assume it’s an addiction.

3. The place of improvisation

Because you are confident in your improvisational skills, you will skimp on preparation. You will quickly review the important points and make up the rest as the presentation progresses. Of course, you will always stay at this level. Somewhere between a good improviser and an ordinary presenter.

I’ve always liked to divide pitchers into three categories:

The hard workers: who do not necessarily have natural talent and who are aware of it.
Improvisers: who have a natural talent and who know it a little too well.

Professionals: who have a natural talent and have not taken it for granted.

It is quite difficult to move from level 2 to level 3, for a rather subversive reason: level 2 will be sufficient in the vast majority of cases. People who are naturally gifted in public have always done well in school, or in comparison with their colleagues. They have integrated this ability to get out of any situation. But it will never be enough to reach the next level. High level pitching and public speaking is highly thought out, scripted and practiced.

Of all the pitch-related exercises, I think the most useful is to write at least one of your pitchs in full. From greetings to acknowledgements. Here’s my theory: you will write the presentation once, without stress, crowds and urgency. And even then, you’ll find a way to do it better. You’ll shorten chunks, change words and move sections around. You’ll adjust a multitude of details to make the whole thing stronger. And you’ll always find a way to improve…

Now, how do you think you can reach this level of quality by improvising in front of people with the pressure and the time running out? It’s simple: you’ll never achieve it.

Have at least once in front of you, in writing, a perfect pitch according to your standards. You will finally have an idea of what you would be capable of…with work.

4. Model observation

Because you have the impression that the talent of a presenter is innate and that it emerges freely in some people, you will assume that it is inaccessible to you. You won’t try to dissect good practices and forget to look at how the best do it. Yet you do this in the majority of your learning processes. But for the pitch, you will think it’s different. Then you won’t take advantage of all the content that is available for free. You won’t notice that good presenters have a lot in common.

It is reasonable to assume that all high-calibre presenters have invested a great deal of time and practice in achieving this level. One need only read a little more about each presenter to understand that they attribute at least some of their success to observing other presenters.

Whether on Youtube, through the TED network, or on online training sites, take the time to make conscious observation of what good presenters do. Notice how they start speaking, build their arguments, establish and maintain contact with the audience, structure their thinking, etc. Take notes on what you find interesting, on what attracts your attention.

Then think about what lends itself to your personal style and the context in which you will need to present. Some methods will seem too ceremonial or masterful. Some presenters may have reflexes that you may want to avoid at all costs. The important thing is to be actively engaged in observation and thus accumulate additional tools.

Someone has probably already succeeded in doing what you are undertaking now. Make the most of it.

5. Control of the context

Because you focus too much on your content, you will forget that the context in which it is received is just as important. You will present too soon or too late. On a bad day or in a less than optimal location. You won’t be in front of the right people or worse, you won’t be there for the right reason.

Of course, you don’t always have complete control over the context. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advantage of every possible opportunity to improve it. If everything is decided in advance, the least you can do is to do a quick research on the people you will meet. This will at least help you to understand their job, their role, their background, their presumed level of knowledge and a lot of other useful information to adapt your material. And don’t hesitate to validate this information once you’re there. You will be surprised at how often you will finally be in front of a great specialist (humility becomes a good strategy) or, on the contrary, in front of people who completely lack context in your presentation (so you will want to take the time to give it to them).

Now, if you have control over the presentation context, take advantage of it. Generally speaking, you can’t expect the highest level of listening at the ends of the day. Prioritize the middays. Similarly, Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are not the most appropriate times. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes for this exercise: if you’re not a fan of one-hour presentations at the beginning of the day, don’t propose one yourself.

Finally, pay attention to the premises as soon as you arrive and check whether an adaptation is necessary. Noisy, too far away from the public, annoying temperature; it won’t take much to interfere with everyone’s attention. See how you can adapt, or at least demonstrate that you are aware of the inconvenience.

In the end, you will look clearly prepared, and perhaps even sympathetic.

6. The entry and exit strategy

Because you lack perspective on your content, you won’t know how to start and where to end. You will underestimate the importance of the context to set up and the impression to leave. You will accept being boring and conventional at the beginning, rushed and messy at the end. You will forget that the first and last scenes are often the most memorable.

I’m going to branch off a little bit from the context of the pitch and talk about cinema instead. Go back to your favourite films and consciously observe the context in which the action begins. Note how the background is (or is not) presented to you. If the film is meant to be 2 hours of a story that could last for years, how did you choose the precise moment to start? You will quickly realize that, more often than not, the door is opened at a time when the action is already well underway (the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” seems to me to be a great example).

Learn to do the same.

Find a way to start your presentation in an interesting place. You don’t need to thank everyone, remind everyone why you’re here, or how much fun you’ve had preparing this, or working on that. Just jump right into the action.

The first sentence of Steve Jobs during his famous presentation of the iPhone in 2007: “This is the day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years. “ Already, the table is set.

The end is at least as important. It’s with the end that everyone leaves. How do you build your arrival at the climax? All this may seem dramatic in a more formal presentation context, but the opportunity is there. It doesn’t take a lot of work and synthesis to surprise everyone. An effective way to summarize your thought, an image, a demonstration, a metaphor or an unexpected link is probably enough to mark your audience.

Tell yourself that if the pitches were films, we would have a lot of B-series and very few masterpieces.

7. The deployment of the argument

Because you feel that you need to surprise the audience at all costs, you’re going to make your assumptions too quickly. You’re going to precociously launch ideas and then defend them. But being naturally defensive in a presentation context, your audience will frown. They will wait to be convinced every time. You will cause constant tension. You’ll start with the “what” and then back up to the “why” in a situation that is uncomfortable for everyone.

A well-constructed presentation does not surprise. On the contrary, it makes potentially destabilizing ideas perfectly acceptable. By making sure you put arguments before assumptions, you avoid the moments of friction when the audience is waiting to be convinced. And since the pitch context is often as much a test against you as it is against your ideas, you’ll also want to avoid appearing reactive, defensive or out of control.

Take the time to identify elements or ideas that may potentially surprise your audience (assume that all your strategic decisions are at risk of causing a reaction). Then, make sure you have the necessary arguments to defend these ideas. Place these arguments in your presentation as if they were part of an obvious progression.

After reading that [X] and realizing that [Y]’s ideal was [X], we decided on [Z].

In this deployment, the same idea, supported by the same arguments, seems more logical, almost obvious. If you do your job well and the path of your thinking is clear, the audience may even be able to identify the idea before you get there. Don’t think wrongly that you have just wasted a surprise in this case. Instead, praise yourself for presenting a new idea so well that it already seems obvious.

The sooner your ideas no longer surprise the audience, the sooner they will be adopted.

8. The complexity of the content

Because you forget that the public has not been present throughout your process from the beginning, you will underestimate the complexity of your ideas every time. Your audience will lack the context to fully understand the ramifications and this will greatly reduce your chances of communicating effectively.

It’s hard to really put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re presenting to. Even if you try to make a conscious effort to simplify your ideas, you will always take things for granted. So there is a good chance that you will quickly pass over points that seem trivial to you, but which may surprise your audience and distract them from your main point. Unfortunately, you will have just lost their fragile attention because of what seems to you to be a detail. And in the long run, this dynamic will become increasingly frustrating for you.

Don’t be afraid to explain. If the explanation is well constructed, it will always have its place. And don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s not clear. Not everyone is frank about it, and not everyone is comfortable admitting their misunderstanding in public.

Test your pitch with people before you actually do it publicly, and choose people who aren’t afraid to tell you if something is unclear. At this stage, you don’t need compliments but honesty.

Slow the flow. You’ll do it for the best, always. Do it even more in potentially complex sections.

Use images. Comparisons, visualizations or analogies if it helps you simplify an idea. Just be careful not to add unnecessary complexity.

You certainly didn’t do all this so that everyone would go home without understanding anything.

9. Relationship with the audience

Because you are only focused on your delivery and your content, you will forget that you are not alone in the room. You will not connect with your audience or your colleagues (if they are involved). You’ll go headlong into the room without observing what’s going on around you, especially because the idea of adjusting your presentation as you go along seems dangerous, or simply impossible.

Pitching gives you the unique opportunity to adapt your content to the reactions of your audience. You can, at the time, catch a glimpse of a dubious look and take the time to add an element of explanation if necessary. You can quickly identify who around the table is particularly sensitive to budgetary considerations, for example, and then address that person more directly in your future explanations concerning these issues.

Above all, you can establish contact (direct, visual, etc.) with your audience to ensure their sustained attention. Just think of the feeling associated with the moment when the teacher was looking directly at you, or when a singer or comedian seems to directly cross your gaze in the 5th row. Invariably, the heart rate increases slightly and your attention is momentarily increased.

And contact is more than just movement. Manage your time in such a way as to leave room for discussion before and/or after your pitch. A preamble, no matter how simple, can clearly lighten the dynamics of a pitch. On the other hand, free time at the end of a presentation can give way to a discussion that will allow you to learn important information about how your content was received, answer live questions and simply strengthen the connection with the crowd.

Eliminate the distance between you and the audience. If you do it then, it will be settled for a long time.

10. Power dynamics

Because you consider yourself lucky to have the attention of others and because you quickly devalue your material, you will bend your back. You will feel like you are in the middle of an evaluation where everyone is trying to destroy you. You will leave the position of power to the people on the other side of the table or in the stands. And unfortunately, you’ll prove yourself right. Your body language and the way you interact with the audience will reinforce the idea that you are not worthy.

From the moment you make first contact with your audience until you leave the room, keep this in mind: you are not lucky to be able to present in front of these people. They are lucky to be able to attend your presentation. Or at least that’s what you should believe.

Let us take a moment here to recall that humility is particularly important. So it’s not a matter of being haughty or too cavalier, but simply of remembering that, after all, you are the one who is about to get everyone’s attention to share your ideas. You’ve been given this moment. Probably, for some reason, you deserve it. Act accordingly.

So both in your non-verbal and in the way you express yourself, you must assume that you are the speaker for the moment. So you have 30 seconds, 5 minutes or an hour to prove to your audience that they were the privileged one in this exchange. Raise your head, look at people and learn to exude confidence.

Give everyone the impression that they listened to you in their best interests, not out of obligation. It clearly won’t be the last time.

Feel free to let me know if the formula (10 pitfalls) is interesting to you. I would love to repeat the process with specialists in a variety of fields.

Thank you for your time.

Creative director — Associate at Orkestra. Collecting solidly articulated, relevant ideas with tangible implications, and trying to join in. | www.orkestra.ca