7 Tips for Proposals, Pitches and Presentations

By Tom Harnish on 4 June 2011 (Updated 21 June 2011) 0 comments
Photo: Yuri_Arcurs

No matter how great an idea you may have, if you can't present a convincing case, you can't sell it. If customers, bankers or investors don't buy your story, they won't buy what you're selling, either. If managers, employees, and suppliers aren't energized by your pitch, they won't follow your lead.

Microsoft PowerPoint© and Apple Keynote© have replaced flip charts, overhead projectors, and slide shows as the de facto presentation tools. But a fine tool does not a craftsman make. So, here are 7 tips to help you deliver convincing and memorable pitches and presentations.

1. The best they’ve seen is the least they expect.

The bad news is that any presentation you make will be compared with the acts of professional entertainers. We’re bombarded with presentations in the form of political speeches, commercials, and news stories. Even weather forecasts shower us with both content and a certain style that create expectations.

If you don’t think so, recall your reaction to local cable amateur programming, high school speeches, homemade YouTube videos, most webinars, or the acronym-filled description of a new gizmo by the engineer that developed it. All well-intentioned but ultimately cringe-worthy.

The good news is you can use many of the techniques developed by teachers, stand-up comics, presidential speech writers, and television producers to make your presentations interesting, even inspiring.

2. Deliver an experience not a speech.

In the early 1970s I was fortunate enough to teach at the Department of Defense Computer Institute (DODCI), in Washington, DC. One of our many famous guest lecturers was Navy Captain Grace Hopper. At 70-something she was the oldest active duty naval officer, by act of Congress, and never failed to bring much younger, but more senior Admirals and Generals, to their feet with applause and even tears in their eyes.

What was her secret? She told stories about the clock in her office that ran backwards (to encourage people to think differently), the jolly rogers on her wall (results are more important than process), finding a bug in a program (a phrase that came about when she found a real moth trapped in a mechanical relay), and her problems understanding why it was important for computer code to save nanoseconds.

She struggled with how to grasp a nanosecond until a young engineer presented her with a wire 11.8 inches long, the distance electricity travels in that time. She promptly distracted a Pentagon telephone installer and “requisitioned” a millisecond and a microsecond – large coils of wire that she toted to her presentations. Everyone left with their own nanosecond and an experience to share.

3. Know what you’re really selling.

People, someone famously said, want holes not drills. QVC, the cable shopping network, doesn’t sell jewelry and self-help books; they sell things that will make you prettier, smarter, or richer. Steve Jobs doesn’t sell computers. He sells bikes for your mind.

If you’re a CEO announcing a new product, an entrepreneur trying to convince investors, a sales person trying to close a deal, or a business person trying to explain what your company does, you have to do more than just deliver information.

Understanding what you really want people to take away is the first step. One way to focus on the essence of your story is to ask yourself, “Who cares?” or more to the point, “Why should they care?”

Most people scrape together some data, put it in some chronological or hierarchical order, shovel the material onto PowerPoint slides, and then drone through the presentation as if the power of the slides will make their point.

Like a so-called elevator pitch, if you can’t explain your point in a few words, if you can’t draw the idea on a napkin, if you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. And neither does your audience.

4. Capture your ideas, and then create the presentation.

Marshall McLuhan famously said, "the medium is the message," by which he meant that the tool used to send a message inevitably becomes part of the message itself. PowerPoint demonstrates the point in the extreme. Open a PowerPoint template and you’ll find a place to put oodles and oodles of bullet points. Soon, you will have begun to craft your message to fit neatly behind each dot.

But good pitches are narratives. They flow from problem to solution, from villain to hero, from beginning to climax.

Where to start? Start with a large piece of paper, such as a sheet from a flip chart. Start writing ideas down all over it, in no particular order, and certainly not in columns or rows. Don’t worry about the order or importance of ideas, capture them as they flit through your mind.

Then ask yourself the best way to communicate each key idea. Demonstration? Movie? PowerPoint slide? Think about metaphors and analogies, especially ones your audience doesn’t expect. If you’re selling pillows that look like leopard skin, can you use a real leopard as a prop? Is your idea based on a unique product or service? Bring your partners in and let them say a few words. Better yet, include customer evidence...especially if your customers are famous.

In short, don't let the medium determine the message. Do let the message decide the medium.

5. PowerPoint or Keynote slides are not dumping grounds for data.

Three tips in one, no extra charge: simplify, simplify, simplify.

Most slides have far too much junk on them – lists of bullet points too small to read, distracting designs, and images that may be pretty (or not) and are often unrelated.

Put one picture and one line of text on a slide. No more. Our brains can only absorb so much at once, and if a viewer is too busy trying to sort out the mess on the screen, all you’ll communicate is confusion. The picture helps create a mental image and the words define it. Research shows that people remember about 10% of what you tell them, 65% if you add a picture.

6. Avoid jargon.

Corporate gobbledegook may make you think you sound knowledgeable, but in fact it prevents communication of knowledge. B2B, consumer-centric, paradigm changing – you’ve heard them and have maybe used them. Here’s an actual pitch, “(We’re) a new, place-based out-of-home digital network that delivers relevant, localized media within the rhythm of consumers’ daily rituals, like afternoon coffee or sandwiches at lunch.”

The what?

7. Rehearse.

Finally, work on the material until you know it cold.

When my partner and I prepare a webinar, inevitably based on Apple’s Keynote slides delivered via Citrix’s GoToWebinar, we’ll spend about 80 hours preparing it. About a third of that time is collecting the material, another a third is invested in creating the slides, and the remaining third is spent rehearsing.

Say the words out loud, tell your story to the cat, and click through the slides to make sure the timing works.

The best presentation is one that communicates a clear message in a provocative way using stories, metaphors, analogies, and props. Take at look at your presentations and see if that’s what you’re doing.

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