This book quickly makes it clear that the way to win a pitch is to stand out from your competition.
However, you are not going to stand out from your competition by showing off the awards you’ve won or the impressive things you’ve done. Chances are, you’re going to giving a pitch to a prospect after you’ve been shortlisted. The reason you’ve been shortlisted is that you have a list of achievements and awards that attest to your quality; however everyone else on the shortlist is going to be there for the same reason. It might even be true that they could do a job as well as you could. So just polishing your trophies isn’t going to make you stand out.
So how do you stand out? Asher’s key point is to focus on the fundamentals. Like the Green Bay Packers, who are mentioned more than once, if you get the fundamentals right and, more importantly, do them better than your competition, then you’re going to win.
So with little beating around the bush, Asher gets onto what he sees as the five fundamentals of a successful pitch. A pitch has to focus on your prospect’s needs. It needs to keep the message simple. It has to be delivered enthusiastically. It should be interactive. You need to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. All good points, and he sounds convincing for every single one of them.
Perhaps most interestingly, he spends the most time on the first two fundamentals, which also happen to be the fundamentals about the presentation itself, rather than the delivery of it. The prevalent view seems to be that the hard-skills of presentation creation come second to the soft-skills of public speaking. At best the tendency is to throw some design at a presentation to pretty it up and make it less of an eyesore. However this doesn’t solve the problem: you need to make a presentation differently if you want it to be effective at being engaging and memorable, and it is great to see Asher acknowledging this.
What you need to put in you presentation
In the first fundamental Asher narrows in on the fact that a pitch is going to be so much more effective if it offers something the prospect wants. Most presentations are just what Asher calls a ‘Jimmy, Fuller Brush’ presentation, after the Fuller Brush sales man who used to do the rounds when Asher was a child. The problem with Jimmy’s pitch was that it essentially boiled down to turning up and saying “I’ve got these brushes, can you think of anything you could do with them?” This might work occasionally but you’re relying on the prospect doing all the work. So if you were to turn up at your big pitch, and just talk about who you are, what you sell, and what it does, then you are relying on them thinking up a reason to want you.
Imagine your company makes fantastic computer software that could make your prospects administration 20% more efficient. It might be obvious to you that this is great, but your prospect might be thinking about how they need to save money, or how they want to make sure that they don’t lose any important records, and the 20% efficiency increase you’ve been boring them with doesn’t solve those problems directly.
However, if you take the time beforehand to find out that what really concerns your prospect it making sure they don’t lose those important files, then you can present your fantastic software as a tool for increasing efficiency, increasing accuracy and reducing risk. By doing this, the prospect is suddenly going to be interested in what you have to say because it gives them a solution to what they were worrying about.
The other valuable part of doing this is that the process of finding out the prospect’s needs help rig the game in your favour. Asher argues that if you start having a dialogue before the actual pitch you can start to build a relationship with the prospect, and if you can show them you are a company they want to do business with the battle is half won. A solution focused pitch gives the prospect a taste of your product so they know what they’re buying into and therefore makes your company much less risky. As Asher puts it: “a great sales pitch doesn’t stand alone. It is the culmination of a well-planned process in which you learn your prospects needs and develop a relationship”. So does your presentation say “this is what we’ve got and it will solve your problem because it will do x, y and z”? It should if you want to stand out.
How should your presentation flow?
The second fundamental that gets into the nature of the presentation is to make sure that you keep what you’re trying to say simple. There’s no point bombarding your prospect with too much information, or information that is too complex. It just isn’t going to work. In fact it’s going to kill your chances, unless all of your competition is even more boring than you of course. In 1956 Miller found that the average personcould hold 7+/-2 different things in their mind at any one time. So by keeping your presentation to five points you should pretty much guarantee that your audience can keep track of them all. Asher takes an even more minimalist approach and suggests a three point structure. Then each of those three points is broken down into a further three points. He goes for the classic:
Tell them what you’re going to say
Tell them it
Tell them what you told them
Although perhaps in this case it should be
Tell them what their problem is
Tell them how you’ll solve their problem
Tell them how you solved their problem
Either way Asher is right that your audience is only going to be able to remember a certain amount of content from your presentation. So you don’t want to tell them any more than that. Any more would be wasted, but worse, if you tell your audience more than they can remember then you don’t have any control over which bits they do remember. This means you are risking the audience not remembering your most important points. So take Asher’s advice and work out the three most important messages you have, and deliver them short, sharp and to the point, just as though they were bumper stickers.
The middle of the three sections is perhaps the most interesting from an analysis perspective. Asher identifies the value of telling stories in your presentation because they de-commoditise your company and your product. Rather than being a series of facts and claims, telling a story about your product can put it in context, particularly if the stories are relevant and detailed. The purpose of telling the stories is to convince the prospect that you can deliver what you have claimed you can, so any stories you can tell of successfully solving a similar problem for another client are fantastic.
This approach is much better than the idea of “closes” in the sense of having some magic words you can say to convince a prospect to buy, because it is actually going to work – unlike “closes”, which are complete rubbish. The prospect is already going to have decided whether they want what you’re offering by the time you get to the end of the presentation, and they will have decided based on whether you have convinced them you have a solution to their problem, and that you can deliver the solution.This is also where you realise that Asher has been practicing what he preaches, since throughout the book he illustrates every point with a story, and this genuinely does make the book more readable, more engaging and most importantly more believable.
How excited are you about your presentation?
The other fundamentals come down to how you present the pitch. Asher makes a good point that most of the audience isn’t going to be paying full attention to a PowerPoint presentation, because they know what to expect. They know it’s going to be forty slides of bullet points with so much dense information that it will be impossible to understand. There seems to be a preconception that this is what PowerPoint is, and despite how tedious this makes a presentation it is still tolerated, for no better reason than the fact that your victims expect it.
To steal some of Asher’s words “that doesn’t change the fact that it’s crap”. Hopefully you’ve already changed the framework of your presentation in line with the first two fundamentals, but you’ll still need to shake your audience out of their apathy and disinterest. So you’ve got to be passionate about what you’re presenting, because that is interesting. Furthermore, you are part of the solution the prospect is buying, so if you’re not interested in your own product, why should the prospect get excited?
The fourth fundamental builds on this, dealing with what you should be doing once you’ve got your audience interested and how to make the most of it. Asher argues that you’ve struck a goldmine when your audience start asking questions because it means they’re engaged. The worst possible thing to do at this point would be to tell them to be quiet and let you finish your presentation. Instead you want to engage in a discussion because it starts to move the relationship from a pitch to a working relationship, and if you can manage to do that then of course the prospect is going to choose you. However, whilst Asher sets out the many benefits in a compelling way there is one point that concerns me.
By answering lots of questions you run the risk of alienating some other part of the audience. Asher does offer some advice on how to keep the presentation on track and running whilst having a good interaction with the audience, but it is here that Asher’s focus is most clearly on individual pitches to small audiences and some of the rules might not apply in other scenarios.
Finally, the last fundamental, and perhaps one of the most important according to Asher, is to rehearse, rehearse again, and then rehearse some more. Asher is totally right here, and there is a tendency for presenters to put together a quick presentation the day before they’re due to present, and that just doesn’t leave them enough time to work out what they are going to say and how they are going to say it, and that’s ignoring the fact that most presenters don’t even consider spending time to ensure that the presentation itself is effective. It’s clear who has done their homework when you watch a presentation, and better rehearsed presentations come across as slicker and more professional. The more professional a presentation looks, the less risky the pitch appears, and that is an important deciding factor.
Putting it all together
Finally, I give you Asher’s Presenter Challenge. Imagine I offered you £300,000 if you could make me remember 3 key points, a day, a week or a month later. What would you do to win that challenge?
In most cases, making a pitch is exactly that challenge, so why wouldn’t you put the same into the pitch as you would into the challenge? Asher has put together the fundamentals of making a good pitch, and they might not be everything you need to ensure you win, but getting the basics right will go a long way. Not only that but he presents them in an engaging way that makes this worth a read for more than the great lessons you can learn about putting together presentations.