Through running my own agency for a decade and working at others for a decade more, I’ve been involved in winning somewhere from $10 million to $15 million of work. Needless to say, I’ve gotten pretty good at pitching.
Sure, pitching is very common in service businesses, especially within the sales divisions of those businesses, but don’t make the mistake of thinking pitching is only for salespeople. Everyone pitches and everyone gets pitched, probably more often than they think on both accounts. When you see an ad for a candy bar, you’re being pitched. When you lobby for a promotion, you’re pitching.
Parents of young kids are constantly pitching. Have you ever seen a parent in a public place try to get a screaming child to calm down? The frazzled parent resorts to some version of “you have to listen to me because I’m your parent”—one of the worst pitches possible. The wise parent is unflappable and withholds attention until the child chills out or isn’t too good for a snack or iPad bribe… all pretty great pitches.
I’ve learned that there are 2 important ingredients in a great pitch:
First, if you’re pitching something to someone, you must communicate that you have something that they want. Pitching is a very particular way of asking for something. If you pitch something to someone that they don’t want, no transaction will happen. It’s a simple, obvious guideline that so many unintentionally violate but not being intentional about this part.
I’m fortunate that I regularly get messages from people trying to pitch me on working for/with them at their company. I often accept these conversations to see what’s out there. I’m almost always disappointed because their pitches are so bad. I always politely ask a version of, “Why would I want to work at your company?” The answers are usually awful, because they’re not thought through:
Clearly, they haven’t done their homework because they’re pitching me things I don’t want or need, so most of these conversations don’t go anywhere.
(Note: I have a totally different approach if I’m the one who applied for the job instead of them reaching out to me. If I applied, I’m the one pitching, not them. So, the onus is on me to pitch them on why I’m something they want. Whomever wants it more should do the work.)
If you’ve done your homework, make sure part of your pitch reinforces what they don’t have that they want, and that you’re a great avenue to getting it.
The second important ingredient in a great pitch: you must communicate that they’ll gain more than they’ll lose in this transaction. In other words, what you’re pitching has to be profitable for them (even if that’s in a different form than monetary profit). Most pitches ask someone to give up something. That’s ok, as long as they get something more in return. Financial examples are the clearest ones. Many people who buy a share in the stock market for $5/share do so if they expect it’ll rise to $10/share. A company might spend $25,000 for a new website if they believe that new website would earn them an additional $50,000 this year. Give up something to get something more is a classic investment strategy. Through that lens, most pitches are a request for investment, so the person pitching should make clear how the gain outweighs the loss.
(This is why value pricing is a natural approach when pitching, because it keeps the conversation focused on what the other party gets.)
Some people treat pitching like zero sum: if one party gains, the other has to lose. This is nonsense! The best pitches are the ones where everyone wins, and the mechanics of that are that one party’s success is dependent on the other’s success. The most obvious versions of this are things like commission or royalty structures. If you can pitch a win-win option, it significantly increases the likelihood that you’ll get a yes.
So, next time you’re pitching someone, try to make clear what’s in it for them, no matter how large or small. Here are a few examples:
And yes, I’m speaking from personal experience on that last one.
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