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The Perfect Pitch?

“Less is more” is my second favourite aphorism. In a management training career spanning thirty years, I must have listened to and given feedback on more than three thousand practice presentations by business people from all over the world. “Keep it short and simple” was the most common plea I would make to my clients. “What is your message? In a nutshell?” Yet how few of them could bring themselves to follow my advice. To be honest, I found it hard to do so myself when making a conference speech, pitching a proposal to colleagues or selling my company’s services. Indeed, loyal readers may well beg me to apply the maxim when writing articles.

Throughout those thirty years I was on the look-out for the perfect sales pitch which I could use on my courses as a model of persuasion. Several of my students’ efforts were good enough to use but their confidentiality often stopped me from doing so. TED, the organisation “devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks [of] 18 minutes or less”, provided some excellent examples of persuasive speeches. But they weren’t exactly what I was looking for. I wanted an “elevator pitch”. How would you sell your idea, product or service to someone in the time it took for the lift to arrive and take you both up several floors? I have never liked the term but at least it forced my clients to keep their pitch very short and very simple.

On 22 April, I found that model sales pitch. I happened to catch the last fifteen minutes of Dragons’ Den, a UK television programme where budding entrepreneurs try to persuade at least one from a panel of five venture capitalists (the “dragons”) to invest in their companies in return for a share of the business. The original show – Money Tigers – was Japanese and only lasted from 2001 to 2004. Sony still own the concept. American readers will know of it as Shark Tank, Kenyan ones as Lion’s Den (why the misplaced apostrophe?), and those in Egypt and the wider Arab World as The Project (why so meaningless?). In France, Qui veut être mon associé? (Who wants to be my business partner?) must rank as the most uninspiring title for a reality show ever thought up.

A couple of smartly-dressed women had just persuaded one of the female dragons to invest in their company. The dragons looked tired; one more pitch to go.

If you are able to, click on this link and be a dragon yourself. You can then skip the next bit of this article in which I have transcribed the pitch.

A man in his late twenties, luxuriant hair to his shoulders, glasses, jacket over white vest (not tucked in), huge smile, strides out of the lift and stands before the dragons:

“Hello Dragons. My name’s Sam Jones. I’m the founder of Gener8 and I’m here today to ask for £60,000 [turns to a screen on which is written: “Use Gener8 to control and be rewarded from your data”] in return for 10% equity.[Pause] The open secret in the advertising industry is that it is built on exploiting our data.[Pause] Like, when you mention something to a friend and the next thing you know you are being bombarded with adverts for it. [Pause. Dragon Touker Suleyman already nodding] Everything that we are doing online is being tracked to follow our movements and understand our behaviour. Then they collect this information and they sell it. But I believe people should have a choice to stop this from happening or, even better, to earn from it themselves. [Big Pause. Dragons look at each other meaningfully] Gener8 gives people two choices: privacy mode – this is where we stop all companies from tracking them online or, number two [2 fingers in the air, palm forward, the Victory sign] – earning mode. In return for sharing their data with us, people earn points and they can redeem these points for products, vouchers or donations to charity. And right now the average user is redeeming between about £5 and £25 in rewards and value per month. [Camera shows almost unreadable “visual” on screen. He talks over it.] When a person chooses to earn from their data, they tell us what they’re interested in. We then use this information in order to tailor any of the adverts they see anywhere online so that they are based on their interests. [Pause] Gener8 has started a movement that empowers people and I hope that you’ll come on the journey with us.

If I had been coaching young Sam, my feedback notes would have looked something like this:

Time: 1 minute 38 seconds from start to finish. 242 words. 3 minutes 48 seconds for questions & answers which follow.

Delivery: clear enunciation; varied tone; emphasis on key words.

Body language: confident demeanour; broad smile; open stance; not too much movement; hands working in tandem with voice and words. Language: short chunks of speech; non-technical, everyday vocabulary; what jargon there is is easily understood by target audience (the dragons). Frequent use of “you, your, we, our”.

Visual aids/Props: effectively, none. Wonderful! Screen to the side tells us company name and central message of pitch but he hardly uses it. He is the only visual aid.

Structure: 1. Who I am and what I want from you dragons.

2. Establishes common ground with audience (those watching at home as well as dragons) by describing universal complaint of anyone using social media - “… exploiting our data; mention something to a friend and the next thing you know you are being bombarded with adverts for it.”

3. Builds on this common ground: it’s Us, the ordinary folk (including you nice venture capitalists) against Them (sinister Big Data spying on us and making money out of doing so) - “Then they collect this information and they sell it.”

4. The two-step Reveal, the moment the Dragons are given the key message: invest in coolly-named Gener8 and you can make money from people making money from Big Data and be the good guys for once - “… people should have a choice to stop this from happening or, even better, to earn from it themselves.”

5. Explanation of how Gener8 does this: It’s taken 45 seconds to get to this point. Audience attention begins falling from 100% (it always does). Audience already sold on the idea. Given further 45 seconds of useful but not vital information so that they have time to formulate questions on the matters that are really vital to them: revenue, profitability, entry barriers, competition, future plans etc.

6. Exit: One sentence - Gener8 has started a movement that empowers people and I hope that you’ll come on the journey with us - which makes this Oldie cringe but is music to the ears of 21st century Youth and is the starting signal for the Dragons to fire questions, which one does without any discernible pause. No need for clichéd “Do you have any questions?”

7. Questions: 100% attention again because dragons want answers to the same questions. All questions expected and prepared for. Handled smoothly – mostly short answers, on top of the facts (including about main competitor).

There were two moments of brilliance among many in the Q & A session. The first was when Sam explained what a “cookie” really is. Don’t forget that his listeners all know exactly what it is. He could have easily sounded patronising. But by metaphorically sitting alongside his audience as they surf the net, he is continuing the Us v Them theme:

“A cookie is one of the best tricks in marketing. Cookie means ‘tracker’. So, when you go to a website and you see that annoying pop-up where it says ‘allow us to drop a cookie on you.’ If it said ‘allow us to drop a tracker on you’, you’d say No.”

Big Data is tricking you, is dropping on you, is tracking you. His emotional language is deliberate. Note too the five uses of “you”, always a sign that the speaker is tailoring his message to his audience.

The second lightbulb moment was his final answer:

“I wouldn’t rule out Google as a potential acquirer in the future.”

Four of the five dragons spent the next four minutes vying with each other to invest in Sam Jones’ company. The fifth reluctantly backed out only because she has the Warren Buffet view of investment: I only invest in what I understand. “I’m not a techie”, she said. But she called the pitch “Outstanding”.

There was no negotiation with Sam, something almost unknown in all the years the programme has aired. Each dragon offered what Sam had asked for and tried to add something else which the others could not. Touker Suleyman said “I’ve been in the Den for 6 years. This is one of the best pitches I’ve ever heard.” He threw in rent-free use of one of his many properties. Peter Jones did not have to say what Sam must have known: he is the most “techie” of the five dragons. So, it was no surprise when Sam proposed that Jones and Suleyman each invest £30,000 for 5% equity plus Suleyman’s free office space. Both men made no attempt to hide their joy.

You may say that Sam had such a clever idea he was bound to get what he wanted. Not so. How many times at work have you only slowly realised what someone is trying to sell you or persuade you to do? How often, when you finally do understand what someone is pitching to you, do you think “Why didn’t s/he tell me that at the beginning?”?

The “that” is the message. The key to a successful sales pitch lies in deciding on one simple, short message, tailoring that message to your audience and, above all, delivering what you have to say in the shortest possible time. Less is more.

The same applies when we are selling ourselves in our private lives. More on that next time.


1 Comment

May 05, 2021

Agreed, Richard. Faultless and specific to the dragons in front of him. One unasked and unanswered question: entry barriers? What's to stop half of the Indian IT population from snapping up the idea for nothing and doing it cheaper than everyone else? Maybe I missed that sentence...

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