Category Archives: Pit(ch)falls


I am naturally shy,  so even now, several years after publication, it still surprises me that my book, It’s Not What You Say, It’s The Way You Say It!, is all about emotion. It’s about the way you come across, not the comfortable rationale of what you say.

Starting out armed with the experience of over 1000 pitches –many successful,  some not but learning from both – I intended to write mainly for the business reader, quoting case histories together with lessons for success. This format has however been done well by others and I was determined to be if not better, then different.

My talented editor pointed out that the pitching principles in my first outline were the same for all live persuasive communication, principles for the most part formulated by the ancient teachers of rhetoric over two thousand years ago. It made complete sense to broaden  potential readers to all who present or speak, interview or audition, preach or propose. This in turn determined a communication approach in the book that was easy and accessible to all readers, an approach that was itself a demonstration of the way to come across with impact, bringing ideas alive with wit and visual imagination.

While the principles are indeed common, there is also in my view one basic error which lies at the heart of many unsuccessful pitches or interviews. It is an error based on the very human concern to keep on trying to improve the content – the script, the PowerPoint, the argument – right up until the last possible moment.

Much midnight oil is burnt striving to perfect or find a competitive edge. And all of this reasonable, or rational, use of resource, effort and energy restricts, sometimes to zero, time spent on injecting the emotional energy essential to performance.

We forget that people act on emotion, then justify with reason.

We ignore what our experience tells us, as did Dale Carnegie ‘When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.’ Or as Maya Angelou so beautifully said ‘I’ve learnt that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

With words like these inspiring me, it will be no surprise that my central premise, developed through the book, is that emotion is at the heart of any successful pitch.

To bring this central thought alive in a compelling way, some 50 ideas are explored using clever illustration and creative headlines, aiming to stimulate and educate in a memorable way. Through the book, getting to the emotional heart is considered in three ways. What is the emotional response you seek? How do you resist content pressure to give priority and space for emotion? How can you bring the right levels of emotion to your performance?

The importance of getting under the skin of your audience is covered as is the essential skill of listening, really listening, something often overlooked in the excitement of a pitch. Without this, the emotional responses sought will be easily missed but there will in all situations be two responses that are paramount.

They were very well articulated in a perceptive and revealing article some years ago in a marketing journal in the UK. The writer was head of a company, AAR, which specialised in guiding clients through the agency selection process. He had gained unique insight from observing his clients firstly receiving the pitches, over 600 of them, and then discussing their decisions.

Surprise, surprise, his conclusions were that it was not the brilliance of the proposed strategy or creative solution that carried the day.  More often than not the decision came down to their assessment of two simple questions they asked themselves, the first being:

‘Will I like these people?’ (as partners/suppliers/staff ) with an allied ‘Do they (the pitch team) like each other?

Both are loaded emotionally. Of course, most people pitching will pass the likeability test in their normal lives but are they as likeable under the tension of the competitive arena? They may be worrying about their words, their visual aids, often subject to last minute changes (the curse of PowerPoint), the hand-overs.  A team that may be the best of friends can, under pressure, easily give off vibes that signal otherwise. If they do, the decision will go against them. Rehearsal is discussed later but worth noting that in my experience ‘rehearsal makes nice people nicer.’

The second question the decision takers ask themselves is this, “How much do these people really want my business? How hungry are they?

Hunger is not to be mistaken for desperation. Nor is it the same as the polished professional enthusiasm you expect in any pitch. Hunger is not something you proclaim. You ooze it by being hell-bent on doing more, asking more, leaving no proverbial stone un-turned.

Judging the emotional response is as critical in the one-on-one interview as it is on a global stage. Ten years ago London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Five cities were competing in the final live pitch to the International Olympic Committee with Paris, in rational terms of delivering a successful event, the clear favourites. London’s hopes rested on persuading the IOC to act on emotion.

They did this through a highly emotional appeal expressed as “London’s vision is to reach young people all around the world, to connect them with the inspirational power of the Games, so that they are inspired to choose sport”.

They knew if they failed to connect, they would fail

Many months after London won the bid, Lord Coe was asked if there was one thing that he felt was at the heart of their success. His reply: “It was all down to the emotional connection.”

A study of this bid, widely discussed as a case history demonstrating the perfect pitch, shows that a relentless attention to detail and massive resource were committed to the essential Technical submission – the ‘rational’ phase. During this however the London team never lost sight of the emotional end game. They built ‘emotional priority’ into their preparation and went into the final live pitch knowing the emotional levers to use. Or, in other words, they understood how to arrange and emphasise the key messages that would best resonate and persuade.

The concept of ‘arrangement’ is not new. It is one of the Five Cannons of Rhetoric defined by the ancient writers such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian who said: “The whole art of oratory, as the most and greatest writers have taught, consist of five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery.”

Often overlooked, it is the clever arrangement of your argument that enables you to express it to greatest effect. The Greek word was taxis– to arrange your troops for battle. A nice thought!  To win the (pitch) battle you need to lead with your key attacking force- your proposition or promise, (see Coe’s vision).

Don’t bury it somewhere in the depths of the charts. Describe this central thought in words that lend themselves to passionate articulation, not like so many dry corporate mission statements.

I suggest in my book you think of them as “words to woo your lover…”You should be able to condense your story or presentation to 50 persuasive words that capture the hearts, not just the minds of your audience. Some elevator pitches miss out on the emotional component.  Shakespeare, of course, said it best “Thou cannot speak of that thou dost not feel”

Then, pursuing the concept of arrangement, my suggestion is to obey the ‘rule of three’ (omnium trium perfectum). Or, put another way, don’t make the mistake of presenting a whole ‘shopping list ’of facts and arguments.  Lists have their place on a fridge door, as a reminder of what to do or buy. Lists do not have a place when you want to communicate with your audience. They deny emotional expression. You may have 20 burning issues to get across, but the audience will not easily take them in, or be moved by them, if you do not have a simple structure that guides their listening.

To make life easier for them you need to arrange your arguments (your troops) into no more than three themes that support your promise or subject. So, ‘burning issues’ can be arranged into ‘hot’, red hot’ and ‘flaming.’ Each of these can be separately developed but with no more than three supporting points.

Finally, having identified the emotional response you want and then arranging your messages to allow emotion in, what can be done to perform with emotion on the day? Rising to the occasion and outperforming your rivals, rather than the great solution, will so often be the difference between getting the job or the assignment, or not.

This is the essential role of rehearsal.  In my view it is the most neglected and ignored ingredient of pitch preparation yet is your best return on investment.

Delivering a pitch, whether from a platform or across a boardroom table or over coffee at Starbucks, you are on stage.

You need to tap into the actor in you. Connecting emotionally with a large group or a single interviewer in conversation, calls for a performance that reaches out, bringing emotional resonance to the words. Actors start off fully confident in their brilliant scripts written by a William Shakespeare or a Tennessee Williams. They are not worried about their content. All they are concerned with is how they can make their script come alive to their audience. No matter how experienced they may be, they rely on rehearsal to gauge their performance and its impact.

They don’t do this alone, practising to a mirror. That can be a useful exercise for checking timing or your memory, but it is not rehearsal. Rehearsal requires that you have someone standing in as an audience, like a director, who can tell you how you come cross.  You can’t judge yourself!

My advice to any presenter is to find a trusted colleague to rehearse you, and, where possible, rehearse each pitch or speech before you deliver it. Ask them not to comment on the words but on your performance, on the way you said it and on how it makes them feel and think.

Was my energy level high? Was it clear? Was my passion evident? (Words with huge meaning can be ‘lost’ in translation if spoken poorly. In any pitch you need the balance of logos (appealing to reason) and pathos (appealing to the emotion).Was I making eye contact? If you are looking down constantly, reading from notes, you lose connection and lose your audience. In rehearsal you can identify this and other mistakes and correct them. Was my body language open and expressive? Was I confident? Was I likeable? And, finally, was I myself, or better?

As Oscar Wilde reminded us, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”

The ‘sin’ of failing to rehearse is wrapped up in my earlier premise that time spent on content, at the expense of performance is the common error. The excuse for not rehearsing is given as lack of time (although in truth it is one of many avoidance mechanisms!)

Too much time is spent being rational, striving to create perfect content. Too little time is spent perfecting delivery, being emotionally on song. If you want to win, let your emotions show and take this advice written two thousand years ago

“I would not hesitate to assert that a mediocre speech supported by all the power of delivery will be more impressive than the best speech unaccompanied by such power.’ Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory


The value of an Overture.

The dictionary definition of the word overture is: an instrumental prelude to an opera.  Among many famous  ones are the overtures to Rossini’s William Tell, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Wagner’s Tannhauser.  What all these great composers had in common was their understanding of the importance of engaging the audience’s senses from the outset, raising the emotional temperature and  building anticipation for the performance that followed.

Perhaps the commonest mistake I come across when coaching rehearsals is the complete lack of an overture. The lack of any opening that surprises or engages.

Too often the starting point is ‘a polite thank you for the opportunity, an introduction to the team members, the agenda for today and a reiteration of the brief (which the prospect already knows having written it).’

Whilst some of these elements may have a role, they are not an overture!  Like the great composers, be creative with your opening.  Use imagination and wit.  Consider a topical observation, a story from personal experience or a relevant piece of theatre.  Prepare it and rehearse it several times.

The great overture will achieve two things.  It will raise the mood and expectation of your audience.  It will raise the confidence and performance level of you and your team.

Incidentally, a further dictionary definition reads: opening moves towards a new relationship.

Pit(ch)fall 7. “Being as dull as Darling”

A new expression to replace ‘as dull as ditchwater’?  Alistair Darling’s  platform speech to the TUC on Tuesday  was  received in silence and apathy, with possibly four or, as much as four and a half seconds, of applause.

Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail described him as “standing as limp as a sweet pea in the rain”!

Clearly, Darling was on a hiding to nothing, with little of substance he could offer, but surely he could have put up at least token resistance by injecting some fizz, some attack and personality  into the way  he spoke?

There will always be pitches that don’t go as planned.  The scintillating solution that  wasn’t, the audience that was unreceptive, the brief misread and so on.  None of these are reason to be dull.  You may not win but pitching with energy, wit and enthusiasm can lead to a next opportunity. And you’ll feel better for it, darling.

Pit(ch)fall 6. Playing second fiddle to the charts.

I am not alone in saying beware of ‘death by powerpoint’. It is the seemingly inevitable first port of call for most presentations. It is inexpensive, efficient, easy to create, can be the basis of a leave-behind and, properly used, can aid communication.

For these reasons you find that at rehearsal, assuming one takes place, (mandatory  says pitchcoach!)  people automatically turn up, powerpoint poised. It’s only at the rehearsal, and not always then, that discussion  takes place on what would be the best form of communication to create impact.  And, surprise, powerpoint is not always the answer.

Two stories illustrate this. Some years ago, with a high quality powerpoint presentation, I delivered  a platform speech at a conference.  It seemed to go ok but it was blown away by the next speaker, a famous academic and skilled lecturer. He used a single scruffy acetate on an overhead projector ( remember them?)  and mesmerised the audience. It was the way he said it!  I felt foolish and lost the powerpoint habit.

Recently, I was involved in a pitch workshop.  One excercise called for six teams to take the brief, with 60 minutes to prepare and then deliver a ten minute pitch, using flipcharts or powerpoint. To add challenge, ‘rules’ altered at last second. One team only  was told they could not use any of their prepared visuals. It was this team that scored highest on the “communicated best” measure. They had no charts to ‘vampire ‘ them, and talked directly to their audience.

People buy people, not their charts.



Pit(ch(fall 5. Being boring…….

One of the few people to thrive on being boring was, as captured on Spitting Images, snooker’s  Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis.  A successful pitch consultant, who advises clients on their  selection process, warns that their attention span is minimal during presentations. Despite this, one of the commonest errors is to be worthy, dull and boring.  Why is this?

Many reasons, of course. There is the natural inclination to show just how much hard, clever work has been done.  Or there is the temptation to reproduce everything that has gone into a lengthy tome of a document. Or a feeling of obligation to give everyone involved in the build up a role in the pitch.

All of these fall into the same trap . It’s not what you put into a pitch that matters. It’s what the audience takes out. A pitch is a performance and, however serious the subject, you are putting on a show that should deliver the content in a way that surprises, delights and engages the audience.

Sir Alan Sugar in an interview in the Daily Telgraph, post the Apprentice, commented on Gordon Brown who he seems to like. “His problem is that he is not an actor……..a serious person, who with all due respect is a bit boring, not that eloquent in his presentation skills”

In the same article he went on to say “….what a sad state of affairs that you need a showman to get someone to vote for a party”.

And to lead the successful pitch!