Podcast: Interview with Star Architect Phil Freelon on Winning the Architectural Pitch

Phil Freelon
Phil Freelon

No one needs to be told that business in the architecture, construction and real estate world these days is tight.  There aren’t many chances to compete for business. The few chances that you do get, you want to win.

That’s why I was so excited to get the chance to interview Phil Freelon, whose firm The Freelon Group has won several big presentations lately.  Earlier this year, Phil’s firm teamed with HOK here in Atlanta to win the competition to design the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Just a month later, Phil’s firm won another trophy commission, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Earlier this week I interviewed Phil about what it takes for architects to win these highly competitive opportunities.

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Five Ways to “De-Commoditize” Your Business in a Presentation

“Our business has really become quite commoditized. The only thing anyone cares about is price. That makes it very hard for us to distinguish ourselves during a presentation.”

Those are the words of a general manager of a large division of a major software company. We were having breakfast and discussing his business.

I hear the same thing over and over again from business after business. Bankers, accountants, lawyers, construction firms, high tech vendors etc. Everyone thinks they’re in a commodity business.

But let’s be clear about something. No business is a commodity if a major component of the delivery of the business involves some level of personal service.  Even if you’re in a true commodity business like soybeans, the quality of  human interaction will set one firm apart from the rest.

What does this mean for a sales presentation?  You have to build your presentation around the things that set you apart from the competition. That is usually the things that emphasize the quality of personal service the prospect will receive from you.

There are five things in a presentation that will set your firm apart by forcing the listener to focus on the human differences in a firm.

  1. Focusing your message on a business solution: By focusing your message on solving a problem, you show that you have carefully listened for their needs.
  2. Keeping the message simple. By delivering a simple message, you show that you understand that communication is important in any business.  That’s a part of service.
  3. Speaking with passion: If you seem passionate, you get your prospect excited and you seem like it will be fun to work with you.
  4. Leaving lots of time for Q&A. By taking lots of questions, you highlight your ability to solve problems.
  5. Rehearse: Lots of practice shows and demonstrates a committment that will set you apart from the competitors who didn’t care enough to practice.

Many people think of their business today as a commodity. But if you focus on the human differentiators in your next presentation, you’ll set yourself apart from the competition.

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Sales Presentation Lessons from Billy Mays

Anyone that wants to learn how to create and deliver sales presentations should take a little time to study Billy Mays, the famed television pitchman who died over the weekend.

Of course, most people in business would never attempt to pitch with Mays’s revved up, over-the-top style.  And I would never suggest such a thing.

But there are a several of things we can learn from Billy Mays.

First, energy sells.

Mays is best known for his hyped up style of almost yelling into the camera as he sold everything from OxyClean, to Mighty Putty, to Flies Away. Of course, business people should not present like a television huckster.  But they do need to speak with more energy. Too many people in business speak with all the energy of a houseplant.

Second, always start your pitch by focusing on the customer’s problem.

In his pitch for the “tool bandit”, Mays starts by saying “Tired of fumbling with your tools or wasting time trying to find them?”  Use the same approach in your sales pitch.   Start by focusing your sales pitch on the business problem that your prospect sees. If you’re pitching for the chance to build an office building, start by focusing on what your client sees as the biggest problem with the project.  If the key issue is cost, then start by focusing on how you understand that your prospect is concerned about getting the project done within budget.

Third, build a relationship.

One of the reasons that Mays was successful was that he was on television constantly. People felt like they knew him. That familiarity led to trust. Sure he was goofy. But people liked him.  Good sellers understand that a good sales pitch doesn’t stand on its own. They understand that to you greatly increase your chances of winning a sales presentation by developing a relationship with the prospect prior to the pitch.  For that reason, good sellers are constantly seeking chances to meet with and listen to the prospect prior to the pitch. Those pre-pitch encounters help  build a relationship that often pays off with a sale.

Billy Mays was a great seller of consumer products. But we can all learn from his ability to connect with prospects and make the sale.

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In a Pitch, Nobody Cares About Your Resume!

Will you please repeat after me: “No one cares about my resume!”

That’s my new mantra for people who are putting together presentations to win business or a job.

If you’ve made it to the short list to pitch, you’re most likely already qualified. Your resume got you to the short list. But now it’s irrelevant.

This week I worked with two clients that drove home this message for me even more.

One client was a judge seeking appointment for a position on an appellate court.  To be sure, she had a wonderful resume and is a wonderful judge.  But the three or four people she will be competing against on the short list will also have great resumes. 

Her job in the interview is to articulate her vision for the position. To win, she now needs to articulate a persuasive vision of the kind of judicial leadership she plans to bring to the job.

I also worked this week with a real estate firm that was pitching for the chance to represent the owner of a building in the marketing and sale of the building. Once again, the team had made a short list of four highly qualified real estate companies.  The less qualified firms had not made the cut.  So the resume no longer mattered.  All that mattered was their plan for selling this particular building.  They had to go into the meeting prepared to show how they would be able to sell the building for as much money as possible as quickly as possible.

In a pitch, nobody cares about your resume. What they do care about, however, is how you’re going to help them achieve their goals.

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Which Generation Has the Best Speakers?

In an interview recently about my new book “How to Win a Pitch”, someone asked me the following question: “Why are business people today such bad presenters? Is it a generational thing?”

I answered that I thought the younger generation generally gives better sales presentations than the older generation.  The older group is used to the old way of standing up there and telling about the company.  In other words, they stand up and talk about themselves when the prospect just wants to know a solution to a business problms. 

The younger group is more attuned to shorter attention spans and therefore is more willing to cut right to what the audience is really interested in — a solution.

But I don’t have any data for this. It’s just my sense from working with lots of people. There are certainly lots of poor presenters in both groups. But the younger group seems more willing to learn to get it right.

I’m interested in knowing your opinion.

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Auctioneers Makes Big Sales By Connecting With Bidders

Ever wondered what it takes to auction off a priceless Picasso or a rare Egyptian artifact?  The key to success is one word: connection.

Great auctioneers “connect more spontaneously with bidders,” says Jamie Krass, director of auctions at Christie’s in New York.

“You want to make everyone comfortable,”  he says in.  “Build a relationship with me. Don’t make me feel like a number.” 

That just one bit of sage communication skills advice from an article about how to become an auctioneer posted on Careerjournal.com.

Of course, the same is true whever you’re trying to make a pitch.  Just like a great auctioneer, you want to speak in a personal, animated way, like you’re having an intense conversation with a friend. 

That connection is what separates the great auctioneers from the rest, says Krass. “It’s not just about eye contact. To make the bidder go one more, you have to convey that you know his bid matters to him, and that it matters to you too.”

If you want to connect well during your business presentations, one key is to think of your presentation as a series of “mini-conversations” with your listeners. 

Look at a single audience member and chat with her for about eight seconds.  Then randomly move to another audience member until you’ve made eye contact with everyone in the room.  Then make the rounds again.

That way, everyone will feel that you’ve connected with them personally.

Do that well enough and you’ll be the kind of communicator that, like a great auctioneer, always makes the sale.

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Use Testimonials To Persuade Your Prospect

To add persuasive power to your next pitch, consider using a testimonial. 


I received an odd lesson in the power of testimonials the other day on a drive down to Birmingham.  I had stopped to fill up my gas tank and buy a drink.


I was in front of the drink cooler in the gas station’s convenience store reading the ingredients on a bottle of Vitamin Water. There were lots of ingredients and I wanted to make sure that it contained no caffeine. The long list of ingredients on a bottle of “water” gave me pause.


At that moment, a man wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt,  and several tattoos approached the cooler and reached down to get a bottle of blackberry flavored Propel.


“Don’t drink that stuff,” he said, referring to my Vitamin Water. I looked up a little surprised. He was far better spoken than I expected. “That has too many ingredients. I read about this stuff in Men’s Health Magazine. Blackberries are great for your colon. You should consider this stuff.” And then he went to the front of the store to pay for his drink.


I thought about his unsolicited testimonial and went with the Propel. I mean, who doesn’t want a healthy colon?

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Repeat Catch Phrases to Make Your Message Stick

If you want to make sure that your message gets through to an audience, considering taking a lesson from the great marketers.  They settle on a catch-phrase and repeat it over and over, hoping to penetrate the public’s mind.

Many great speakers do the same thing.

One of the great recent advertising campaigns is from MasterCard.  Many of you can probably repeat their catch phrase from memory. “There are some things money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s Mastercard.”

We can remember that message because the MasterCard ads repeat it so often.  And notice that they repeat it the same way every time.

You never hear them say, “There are some things that cash won’t buy you.  For the rest of the stuff, there’s MasterCard.”  No.  It’s the same way every time.  Exact repetition helps the listener remember.

Great speakers do the same thing, focusing on a message and repeating a catch phrase.  One of the most famous is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.  He actually had two catch phrases in that speech, “I have a dream” which he said nine times and “Let freedom ring” which he said 10 times.

King wanted to get a message across. So he repeated his key phrases to ensure that they made it into the audience’s mind. And like MasterCard, he repeated the phrases exactly, not changing a single word.  King understood that great speaking is first and foremost about getting a message across to audiences that are often distracted.  Repeating a catch phrase without any changes helps. 

During your presentations, think about using catch phrases.  Maybe it’s as simple as “Our brand is about saving money” or “This program will increase your sales.”  Be sure that you repeat the key phrase the same way several times. That way, you’ll be sure that your message gets across.

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Tim Ferris Shows How to Sell and Idea

Here’s a fun, quirky speech from Tim Ferris, the productivity guru who wrote The Four-Hour Workweek.

I like the speech because it shows the power of stories and power of  a plan to sell an idea.  If you give someone  a clear plan for how to accomplish something, then your listeners will get motivated to do that thing.

In this speech, he details simple plans for learning to swim, learning to dance, and learning to speak a language.


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A Sales Pitch from My Son

“Do you have ten bucks?”

That was the sales pitch from my son Elliott the other day.  Apparently, it was his day to bring donuts to one of his classes.

I was sitting in our little office/computer room when he walked in and delivered the pitch with all the enthusiasm that you would expect from a too cool 16-year-old.

Talk about the apple falling far from the tree. Good grief.

“If you ask like that?” I said. “Absolutely not.  Now if you’d like to come in and try again and really try and sell me, then I’d be happy to reconsider.”

Elliott walked out of the room and returned.  This time he smiled (actually he was suppressing a laugh) and said, “You know I’ve been asked to bring the donuts to class tomorrow. It’s something that all the kids do.  We were going to stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way to school. Could I have some money for that?”

He made such a light-hearted and fun appeal that I was genuinely happy to help out.

“Of course,” I said, reaching in my wallet for the money. “Here you go.”

Just another day in the life of a sales presentation coach and dad.

Enjoy your weekend.

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