The Art of Pitching

I’ve been doing a lot of pitching this week; on behalf of clients, and to glean new clients. There is an art to pitching, and it’s not just knowing the cousin of the brother of the guy whose dad owns the company. Pitching can take on many forms. You may have a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to respond to; you may be a writing a cover letter; you may be presenting your idea in front of decision-makers; you may be at an interview. Whatever the situation–you are trying to sell yourself.

During one such pitch this week I was asked to explain my approach to pitching. The potential client had responded to an RFP a month earlier, and lost the bid. The question posed to me was: what would I have done differently? Here are my five steps to putting together a good pitch:

1. Understand the client’s goals, needs, and expectations.

This means: read complete <insert: proposal, job description, instructions> carefully, especially if you don’t have the time to talk to a decision-maker, or someone at the company about the job or project. I once had a contemporary come up to me, with RFP in hand, and ask me how to write a proposal. I looked at him and asked, “have you read the RFP?” I know, the idea of reading through a hundred pages of dry requirements doesn’t get anyone excited, but if you read it, you will not only learn the exact page count of everything you’re supposed to submit, you will learn a lot about the client. Somewhere in all that dry writing are the client’s goals, needs, and expectations–and you need to be familiar with all of the above to even put yourself in the running. This goes for a job, project, or presentation. It amazes me how many people will submit a cover letter and resume for a job they are neither qualified for nor express any desire to learn about. Read, learn, and research as much as you can about what people are looking for, don’t guess.

2. Create a keyword/keyphrase list.

When you are reading the RFP or job listing, highlight words and phrases that are being used to describe the vision, the situation, and what the client needs. If you get to talk to the client about their project, take a lot of notes; then do the same thing, highlight those words or phrases that really speak to their vision. Create a list from the words and phrases you’ve highlighted to use as reference when you’re putting your pitch together. You want your pitch to elude to the ideas they are passionate about; I find it helpful to sometimes quote the client; make them feel that you understand.

3. Note any specific directions.

When it says “no longer than 30 pages”, don’t submit 31. If it asks for three samples of your work, don’t send two, or four. If there are no directions, and you can make a phone call to see if there are any–do it. The first interaction you have with a potential client or employer is really a test to see whether you pay attention, and how much you care. Whether you are exactly what they are looking for or not, look professional, and show them you are as interested in their project as they are.

4. What is your value proposition?

This is the holy grail of your pitch. This is your sale. You’ve read the RFP or the ad on craigslist, you’ve talked to the client about the project, you’re armed with your list of keywords and phrases, and you know what the rules are, so what can you bring to the table? Your value proposition needs to make the person on the other end feel that you know exactly what they are looking for, and you have an approach to achieving what they want. The length of your value proposition can be a sentence or several, but remember, brief is usually better. If you’re giving a presentation your value proposition should be one slide, one hand-out, or a memorable “leave behind”.

Here is an example of a value proposition: Your campus design will shape a community for decades and requires vision. Our firm will bridge  the elements of modernization, accessibility, and sustainability to deliver that vision.

5. The one-page/two-page/ten-slide rule.

Resumes should not be longer than a page; cover letters should not be longer than a page; executive summaries should not be longer than two pages. I don’t care how experienced you are, how amazing your portfolio is, or what you think you need to share during that first interaction–follow this rule! No one wants to read the details of every subject you took in undergrad, or a dissertation on why you are great to work with. You know they have two hundred e-mails in their inbox, twenty voicemails, three meetings later that day; and four other candidates to interview. Make your pitch package short and sweet, because all they really care about is #4 anyway, your value proposition.

This brings me to presentations. You should be able to say everything that is going to make you memorable in ten slides or less. When you’re putting your slides together remember your keyword/key phrase list, remember your value proposition, and make sure each slide is making one point, not twenty. Think about it this way, when you first meet someone, how many things do you remember about that person when they walk away? Keep the slides sparse, not cluttered. To me the mark of a good slide is one that may only have a few words or a graphic, but makes such a great point it makes everyone linger and discuss it for a while…

As always, I am happy to discuss this topic further or answer any questions. Please contact me through my website:

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