I'm working with a client who has a major pitch coming up and if I could, I would insert this book directly into his brain. But since I can't do that, I thought I'd do my best to summarize the ideas in Peter Coughter's book, The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills that Win Business.
To begin, Coughter makes the case that simply having a better product, or a better idea isn't enough to win business most of the time. My experience with clients validates this. My clients always tell me that their product is better than their competitor's. Assuming that's true, then if people made purchase decisions purely on an objective evaluation of what is the better product, then all of my clients would dominate their markets. But they don't... yet.
So we must assume that there are other components that go into a purchase decision. In chapter 1, Coughter describes the characteristics of a great presenter/presentation:
1. It's a conversation
"Forget about being professional, and start being yourself," says Coughter. The conversation, albeit one-sided, should have the same feeling of sitting across the table from a group of people at a restaurant. This is a friendly chat.
2. Be Yourself
Do not, seriously do not read your slides to your audience. Great presenters understand that they are just talking to other people, and watching someone read the information on a slide is incredibly boring. Don't be boring!
This implies that you have to use your slides differently. The slides are not the presentation. You are the presentation! Use slides simply to support what you are saying to the audience. They are just a visual cue for making a specific point.
3. Tell Stories
Societies are built on stories. We are hard-wired to communicate through stories, so include them in every presentation. Tell stories about your other clients as a way to invite your audience to see themselves in their success. In other words, don't make your company the hero of the story; you're just the guide. Make your clients the heroes. If the story is relevant enough to the audience you're talking to, they will start to see themselves as the hero of the next story. All they need is a good guide.
4. Know Your Stuff
It's true, you don't want to appear like your acting out a scene. But that doesn't come from over-preparing; that comes from under-preparing and failing to abide by the first two rules above. You should be so well prepared that the unexpected question, or tangent doesn't throw you off. You'll be able to dive right back into your presentation as if the whole thing was planned.
"Great presenters are open to the unexpected," says Coughter. "The unexpected is often where the fun is." And I agree. If you have an audience that is interacting with you – asking questions, telling small stories of their own – then you know that you are in the middle of a great presentation. You've got 'em. It feel natural, like a conversation.
Do not memorize your entire presentation. Perhaps you want to memorize some of the transitions from one idea to the next. Fine. But don't memorize the whole thing. It's not a play. It's a conversation.
6. Teamwork Counts
Great teams present like they're an orchestra. All of the sections (flutes, violins, brass, percussion), work together to create interest, build tension, and grow to a final crescendo that leaves the audience wishing there was more.
Don't make the mistake of allowing everyone to create their own mini-presentation in isolation and then expect to just put it all in order the day of the presentation. Instead, see the presentation as a whole, and work together to move from one person to the next seamlessly.
7. Make it Personal
You have to know your audience, and I don't mean simply at a professional level (they work at company xyz, their title is VP of whatever). You should know their names, their hobbies, their interests, and their favorite sports teams. The more you know about the individual people in that room, the more likely you are to make a true connection with them.
As Coughter puts it, "You must know what they like in order to give them what they need." You can't seduce someone without knowing what makes them tick. Do the legwork to figure out what will stir up a positive emotional response from the people in the room.
Yes. Rehearse. The team has to rehearse together. Don't memorize your presentation. Know it like the back of your hand.
9. Know why you're there
You have to have a crystal clear picture of what you want the audience to feel and do when the presentation is over. Everything in your presentation – the stories you tell, the points you make, the slides you use to support what you're saying – should all be squarely aimed at the purpose of your presentation. That could be to make a sale, or it could simply be get these people to answer their phone when they see that you're calling them. Either way, know why you're there and build a presentation that leads to that purpose.