Great Pitches Propose Happy Endings for Clients

“We think we have a great story to tell here. We need to figure out how to best tell that story.”


On the phone was the president of a large real estate firm. We were discussing how to put together a pitch for the chance to win a major project.


And I was I was getting worried.


Why?  Because when someone tells me that they “want to tell their story” I get worried. When you’re delivering a pitch, the goal isn’t to tell your story. The goal is to show how you can help the prospect write a happy ending to their story.


Too many people in business think that the goal of a sales pitch is to describe their firm and capabilities. As a result, they waste time detailing qualifications or “telling their story.”


But a great sales pitch proposes a solution to a business problem.  That means that the best pitches don’t focus on the presenters.  The best pitches start by recognizing the big challenge that the prospect faces. Then they propose a way to help get past the challenge.


Let’s say that your prospect is a corporation looking for a firm to manage their 401-K plan. What is the business chellenge that the prospect faces? It could be several things. Perhaps the last manager of the plan did a poor job of employee relations. In that case, they’re looking for a vendor that will do a better job of keeping employees happy.  Perhaps the existing plan is too limited with too few choices for the employees. Perhaps the most important issue is putting in place something that will be inexpensive. 


The best pitch will be the one that focuses like a laser on how to resolve that challenge that the prospect sees.


To be sure, you can talk about how you’ve helped other clients solve similar problems. In that sense, you can talk about your qualifications.


But the focus should be on the prospect’s key problems and challenges.  Forget about your story.  Discuss how you can make the prospect’s story have a happy ending.


Here’s Elvis singing “Happy Ending” from the 1963 film, “It Happened at the World’s Fair.”



Four Steps To Engaging Conference Calls

“When I’m leading a conference call, I know that there are people reading their email, working on memos and not paying attention. Are there any tricks to making people paying pay closer attention?”

Yes. Be more engaging.

It’s not the listener’s fault that your calls feel like a waste of time.

When people ask how to make people pay attention on conference calls, they’re usually asking it with some sense of exasperation. They feel like business world has somehow contracted Attention Deficit Disorder.  Technology has somehow turned the business world into a bunch of boorish children who can’t sit still and pay attention.

But if people aren’t paying attention on your conference calls, it’s your fault.  It’s your job to keep them engaged.

You keep them engaged in four ways.

  1. Start the call by stating a simple benefit for paying attention.  “During this call, I’d like to discuss how we can keep our customers despite the current price increase.” Make sure that the payoff for paying attention is clear. 
  2. Lay out a short and focused agenda. “During this call, I want to discuss three things:  why we’re losing customers, what we can do about it, and what is our timeline for fixing the problem.” If you give people a strong sense of what to expect, they will be more engaged because they know that the call won’t go on forever.
  3. Ask people questions and let them respond. Interactive is always better.  Conference call participants have a right to contribute. One-sided presentations multiply the chance of people tuning out.
  4. Be excited. Put a mirror on your desk. Do you look engaging as you speak? That facial animation will show up in your voice and keep people engaged. Your listeners can hear your smile.

Next time you have a conference call, remember that it’s the call leader’s job to keep everyone engaged.  And if they’re not paying attention, it’s not the fault of the listeners.

Public Speaking Tip from Muhammad Ali


What do I love about this clip? I love Ali’s facial intensity. Notice the animation.   He’s not just reciting some speech.  He’s trying to get you to understand it with his face. You can’t avoid paying attention to him because of the intensity that comes through in his eyes, and eyebrows, and smile. 

That’s what the best speakers do. They show how they feel with their face. It’s a lesson we could all learn from Ali.


Based on Height, Obama Should Beat McCain

If you want to rely on the “Height Index” then Barack Obama is the favorite to become our next President. Approximately 60 percent of the time, the taller candidate wins. according to a Wikipedia analysis.

Senator Obama is 6-foot-1.  Senator John McCain is 5-foot-6.

Of course height isn’t just a benefit when running for President of the United States.  There have been several studies indicating the benefit of height in the marketplace.   For every additional inch in height, you can expect to earn almost $800 a year in pay.   CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are approximately three inches taller than the general population.

There is something about height that conveys a sense of “leadership.”

Of course, we can’t make you taller. But you can learn to present yourself with “bigger” presence. Stand up straight as you walk onto the stage or into a room.  Also, make big gestures and hold them as you speak.  Be big!

It’s a sad reality that the world seems to have a prejudice in favor of height.  Here’s a tongue in cheek reminder of bias against the “vertically impaired”.  



First Step to Winning a Sales Pitch? Listening


One of the most important keys to winning a sales pitch has nothing to do with how dynamic you are as a speaker, or your slides, or how to craft your message.  The first thing that the best sales presenters do is listen.

That’s because the best sales presenters know that the best pitches focus like a laser on only one thing: the client’s biggest worries.  To identify those worries, you need to talk to the prospect prior to the presentation and listen. I mean really listen.

Consider this tale of two architecture pitches.

Architecture Pitch 1

An international architecture firm invited me in to help them win a pitch. They had been short-listed for the chance to build a new corporate headquarters for a “big box” retailer.  When I arrived at the first meeting, two architects on the project were seated at a conference table thumbing through copies of the “Request for Proposals.”

Once the meeting started I asked the following question, “Why are they building the new headquarters?”

The architects started leafing through the RFP searching for answers.  The RFP listed the proposed square footage. It listed a proposed timetable. It even discussed the budget. But it did not say why they wanted to build a new headquarters.

“Isn’t that an important question when you’re designing a building?” I asked. Of course it was. You might design a Wall Street showpiece much differently than you would a structure that merely needs to be functional and fun for employees.

Of course there was a reason for building the new headquarters. It just wasn’t detailed in the RFP. The architects didn’t know the reason because they hadn’t spoken to the decision-makers and listened to their needs. Those needs aren’t usually listed in the RFP.  Yet if you don’t know those needs, then you have no way of knowing what to focus on during the presentation.

I did what I could to help them. But they didn’t have a chance. 

Architecture Pitch 2

Now consider a respected Atlanta architecture firm. They had been invited to pitch for a corporate headquarters as well. They had received an RFP also. But the key architect in this case had secured a conference call with one of the key decision-makers. On that call, the architect listened carefully and learned that the company’s biggest concern involved the lag time it would take to actually build the project.

The project would take three years from design to completion. The prospect was worried that their business conditions would change by the time the project was done and that the final building would no longer meet their needs. This architect gathered this information by asking questions and listening. 

With those issues in mind, the firm was able to structure the presentation around the prospect’s key hot button: flexibility.  The presentation focused on how they would design a building with lots of flexible workspaces, thereby ensuring that the building would meet their business needs even as the business evolved.

The pitch focused like a laser on what the prospect really cared about.  As a result, they won.  But they couldn’t have put together such a great pitch had the architect not taken the time to listen to the prospect’s concerns.

Remember that the best sales pitches are the culmination of a sales process. If you want to deliver a great sales pitch, listen for the prospect’s needs early in the process. Then make sure that the pitch addresses those needs like a laser.


Please Don’t Start Your Speech With A Joke.

“I like to break the ice at the beginning of my speeches with a joke.”

I hear that all the time. I don’t get it. How does a joke break the ice? Usually jokes thicken the ice by wasting the audience’s time. The audience thinks, “Not another lame joke to start a presentation. Ugh.”

I have a pretty strict policy against using jokes to begin a presentation.  But if you must use a joke, make sure it passes a three-prong test. The joke needs to be:

  1. Funny. This prong eliminates 95 percent of opening jokes.
  2. Relevant.  Most opening jokes are “throwaways” that have nothing to do with the  topic of the presentation and merely make the listeners wait an extra minute before you begin.
  3. Tasteful.  The joke must not have a chance of offending a single person in the audience. Since nearly all the best jokes are offensive, few survive this prong.

I worked with an engineer who asked me if he could open with the following: “I’m going to start by telling you what Elizabeth Taylor tells her husbands: “I won’t keep you long.””        

Did the joke meet the three-prong test? No.

It’s not funny. I’ve tried it out several times and I’ve never gotten a laugh. Relevant? Not close. In the presentation, the engineer wanted to persuade the management of a major office building to reengineer the building’s HVAC, and lighting system.  

The joke is also marginally offensive.  Divorce isn’t funny to a lot of people. And there might be some Elizabeth Taylor fans in the audience. Why risk offending anyone in your audience for an irrelevant, stupid joke?

At the start of your presentation, just get to the point. Skip the joke.

I searched YouTube for a good hour for a joke that wasn’t offensive and used no foul language. Here’s the best I could find.

Can Your Talk Pass the $300,000 Challenge?

Let’s say that you’re about to give a presentation to 20 people. And I approach you prior to the talk with a briefcase.  I open the briefcase to reveal $300,000 cash. I explain to you that the money is yours under one condition.

When your presentation is done, I explain, I’m going approach five people who heard you speak and ask them the following question.  “What were the speaker’s three core messages?”

If all five can repeat back to me your three key messages without prompting, then you get the money.

If that’s the condition for getting $300,000 cash, what would you do? 

I can tell you exactly what you’d do. You’d carefully limit your message to three simple points. Then you’d find a way to pound away at the those points. You’d hit those points at the beginning. You’d hit them at the end. And you’d hit them all throughout the presentation.  You’d tell stories illustrating the three messages. You’d give handouts focusing on the three messages.  Your slides would hammer away at those messages. You’d give everyone a quiz, making sure that the listeners’ all took away your core messages.

The point is this. I think getting your listeners to reliably remember a few core ideas is a fundamental test of a presentation. If your presentation can’t get three messages to stick, then your presentation is a failure.  What can possibly be more fundamental for a presentation than to simply get some ideas to stick in your listeners’ heads?

Here’s what I think is interesting. As the $300,000 challenge illustrates, passing this test isn’t that hard. If we are really motivated to do it, we all know how to get ideas to stick.  We limit the ideas and then we pound away. Most of us, however, don’t have the discipline to do it.

The vast majority of presentations don’t pass this test. Why?  Because most presenters don’t take the time to ask themselves the simple question “What are the few key messages that I want my listeners to really remember?”

Next time you put together your presentation, ask yourself this question: “Will this presentation pass the $300,000 challenge?”

What If You Can’t Practice For A Sales Pitch?

I was conducting a presentation skills workshop for a large marketing agency recently when an account representative asked me the following question. 


“When we’re getting ready for new business pitches, we often just don’t have time to rehearse. What can we do if we just don’t have time to practice?” 


Now I understand that in business we’re all extremely busy. And I understand that finding time to rehearse a new business pitch is hard. 


But here is what I told him.  “I really don’t have much sympathy for people who won’t rehearse for a new business pitch. If you don’t have time to rehearse, don’t expect to win.”


What if the Atlanta Falcons Quarterback said ‘”We just don’t have time to prepare for next week’s game?”  What if Jerry Seinfeld said, “I just didn’t have time to prepare for tonight’s performance?” What if your attorney told you that “I just just didn’t have time to prepare for today’s open argument?”


If you don’t have time to rehearse, I guess I understand. But know this. One of your competitors probably wants to win enough to practice really hard. And with that in mind, they’re probably going to win.




Because teams that rehearse more win more. It’s that simple. 


I talk to decision makers all the time about the new business pitches that they hear. They always tell me the same thing. “One team came in and blew everyone else away. They were just so much smoother and better prepared than everyone else.” 


Rehearsal is something that is extremely apparent to people who watch presentations. And it’s a simple way to separate yourself from your competition.  If you don’t have time to practice, then you’re just not going to do that well.  Sorry.


Tiger Woods always found time to practice.


A Flip Chart Idea to Nail Your Next Presentation

Here’s an easy way to give a speech that your audience will love. 

Start with a blank flip chart. Walk before your audience and say the following. “In preparing for my speech today, I thought about what are the three questions that you would want me to answer.” State the three questions and write them down on the flip chart.

Then say, “Let me answer the first question.”  Then answer the question, making sure that you use a story to illustrate your answer. And make sure you speak with the kind of energy you would have during an animated dinner conversation with a friend. Be excited and let the passion show.

Once you’ve answered all three questions, recap the main ideas in less than 15 seconds. Stop.

I came up with this simple approach for the President of a local manufacturing firm who asked for help on a presentation to his sales force. “But I don’t want to use PowerPoint,” he told me. “I’m more of a flip chart kind of guy. And I want to just keep it simple.”

He had just been appointed as the new president and needed to introduce himself to his team.  In preparing for the presentation, he sent out an email asking the sellers to submit questions they’d like for him to answer during his presentation.  He used those questions as the basis for coming up with the three questions he would focus on during the speech.

Like any good speaker, he spent a lot of time practicing the presentation.

He nailed it and the speech was a big hit.

Great speeches don’t need to be fancy. But they do need to be simple, focused on listener issues, and contain a few stories.  Do those things, rehearse, and your audience will love you.

Seven Keys to Using Flip Charts Well

One way to add impact to your next presentation is to dump PowerPoint and use a Flip-Chart. Flip-Charts allow for spontaneity, letting you to draw pictures that illustrate ideas on the fly.  They also require that you simplify your ideas, which is always a good thing in a presentation.


A great example of how to use a flip-chart is actually the UPS Whiteboard Guy, the star of those cool UPS Whiteboard advertisements.  While UPS Whiteboard Guy uses a whiteboard and not a flip-chart, it’s the same idea.  He starts with a few drawings and then fills in the rest of the diagram as he tells a story.  The effect is to keep the audience engaged as they follow the visual story. That’s exactly what the best flip-charters do.


Seven Keys to Using Flip-Charts Well


  1. Create your flip-charts in advance.  Don’t expect to be able to write cleanly and clearly on the spot.
  2. If you use drawings, do the drawings up to a point. Draw the rest of the charts in light pencil so that you can use the lines as a guide when you’re live.
  3. Leave blank pages between prepared sheets. This allows you to add ideas as you go. Similarly, leave room for more ideas at the bottom of each page.
  4. Have a conclusion page to summarize ideas.
  5. Write big. Letters and numbers should be at least three inches high.
  6. Hand out a summary of all notes made on flip-charts.
  7. Practice your presentation using your flip-charts.