Perfect Pitch

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008 0 comments

perfect-pitch-thumbPerfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New Business by Jon Steel

“Got milk?”

Jon Steel is a hugely influential figure in advertising, and for our US readers at least, will be familiar through his work. This is a presentation website though, and it is for his work on winning new business pitches – Perfect Pitch – and not for his strategic planning expertise, that we take an interest in Steel’s work.

Books about winning new business often include impressive figures about win-rates and the amount of work won by the author – to establish credibility. Steel has won billions of dollars of client billings, at a 90% win-rate. But plenty of people have won vast amounts of business (for their companies or their clients – m62 certainly has) – yet without self-awareness and the ability to analyse how they come to succeed – these sales superstars have little they can teach us. Fortunately for us, Steel has a clear view of how pitches should be approached – in terms of broad aims, specific approach, and clear process.

Steel’s idealised presenter must (i) understand audience psychology (ii) take relevant and important material and distil it into a single motivating idea (iii) then write a presentation full of twists and turns with the right visuals to bring this idea to life, and (iv) perform when presenting, and present as a performer. Whether many individuals – Steel aside – possess all these attributes is a point for debate. Steel uses this ideal as organising idea and to map out the process to follow in writing a presentation.

Audience Psychology and the Purpose of a Pitch Presentation

For Steel ‘the purpose of any presentation is to take the key decision maker or makers from the place they currently occupy to the place where you want them to be… You can’t just tell them where to go; you have to guide them carefully, sensitively, logically. And it’s not enough to inform. The job of the person who wants to win is to persuade.’

To illustrate this distinction between the rational and the emotional, Steel discusses the OJ Simpson murder trial in some detail. The prosecution, Steel notes, used rational argument exhaustively and painstakingly… but the jury simply didn’t want to find the defendant guilty. In pitch situations, ‘the members of the audience have to feel what you are saying.’ Steel suggests using personal stories, and taking surprising approaches to familiar material, in order to engage the audience emotionally. Appearing likable, personable, and easy to work with also plays a part in those pitches where key decision makers will have to work with those pitching.

If the aim of a presentation is to move the audience from A to B, Steel argues that arrival at B should not signal ‘the end of a thought’ but ‘the start of a new thought: an invitation, a challenge to the audience to get involved.’ Presentations should persuade, and to do this most effectively they should invite the audience to dialogue.

Designing a presentation to engage the audience does not mean leaving gaping holes in the structure of a presentation. On the contrary, Steel is clear that questions should be anticipated, and where possible, answered before they arise. But, as an illustration of an approach that invites participation, Steel tells of a time when ‘a client was simply asked to pick which question he was most interested in hearing [Steel’s team] answer… The presentation became a conversation.’

Finding a Single Motivating Idea

Distilling material to produce a presentation – for Steel – is an intensive process. Certainly visuals follow the story – and never come first. Instead, presenters should first gather material, move this material around to tease out connections and meaning, then discard material. After all of this work with Post-Its and long walks and relaxed cogitation, a unified key idea should be found. For Steel focusing on a single idea is ‘the only way of building a strong body of work that has been really thought through … creating and keeping a linear, logical flow to a presentation.’ It’s likely that pitches for consumer advertising contracts take a different shape to those in other industries – and in some pitches, two or three strong ideas must be explored. But focus on a strong core message will of course strengthen a pitch, and make sure the audience can more easily assimilate information.

Finding the Right Visuals

Once a presentation has a core message and accompanying story (and, for Steel, a script written out word-by-word), visuals should be found. Steel suggests designing research with visuals in mind – asking research participants to draw pictures, write short responses, take photos, and so on. Again, this may be more relevant for direct-to-consumer work, but may be an idea others can adapt. Then, using this and other material, the presenter should ‘add the illustrations that help bring [the story] to life’. For Steel, these illustrations will most likely be printed on boards, tacked to walls, or produced in-house on video. For the rest of us, PowerPoint might be the best tool.

Jon Steel thinks that he dislikes PowerPoint, although we would venture that he simply hasn’t seen the tool used well. For Steel ‘visuals should be created that will assist in delivering the message’. Steel believes that ‘PowerPoint is not designed for the benefit of the message a presentation is meant to convey, or even for the audience, but rather for the sole benefit of the presenter.’ Continuing this analysis of the rather all-too-common use of slide software for bullet points, Steel argues that ‘in the form often used for presentations, PowerPoint represents intellectual lethargy on the part of the presenter, and generally induces something similar in its audience’.

This critique of PowerPoint as it is commonly used is spot on. Bullet points are used as cue-cards for presenters, demonstrate laziness, and bore the audience. What Steel hasn’t seen, and what those without the full creative resources of a major advertising agency might benefit from, is PowerPoint used well. The tool can make presentations come-to-life, and help tell stories visually. Steel transforms rooms with stadia seating, produces TV spots, and has an entire company playing video games as part of a pitch. PowerPoint, used visually, can provide an accessible way of providing similar impact.

For Steel, the visual goes beyond a simple focus on slides or print-outs or video, to encompass the entire presentation experience. Steel pays attention – more attention than many pitch teams – to room layout and appearance. ‘The room in which a pitch is delivered should be a physical manifestation of both the agency and its idea’, and the room ‘has to feel different’. This might mean dressing a room with examples of work, images produced in the research process, or even visual aides to make up the presentation. Dressing a room to relate to the core message of a presentation helps bring the message to life – helping to persuade and not just inform.

Elevating the audience experience should also apply to what happens after the pitch. Leave-behinds should not simply consist of slide print-outs. They shouldn’t simply repeat the material of the presentation, but summarise this idea in a way that helps to ‘demonstrate the relationship between the people who work in the agency and that idea’. For Steel’s agencies, this means asking staff to bring in photos, write personal stories, and then binding these collections in glossy print. Leave-behinds become coffee-table books, about the key idea of a sales presentation. The approach may not work in other contexts, but it certainly beats print-outs of six-slides to a page.

Managing the Pitch Process

Perfect Pitch mostly examines the pitch process from the perspective of the individual presenter (who writes his or her own material), but also provides guidance for the pitching organisation. If presenters must understand audience psychology, messaging, how to use visuals, and how to present, organisations must understand what to pitch for, who should pitch, and how to prepare as a team.

Organisations must be strict about what work they pitch for. Firstly, because pitching takes time and resources. Secondly, because some business relationships are a bad match, and staff will become unhappy as a result of them. Thirdly, because existing clients may be neglected if resources are too often diverted to pitching new business. Steel warns of the need to be wary of prospects who ‘have asked for a meeting because someone has told them they should’, and of those times a company is merely included to make up the numbers.

For Steel, the pitch team should be made up of those who will actually be working on an account. Clients ‘want the people they will actually be working with’. This team should ‘like and respect each other’ – as this will of course lead to better ideas and better work.


Perfect Pitch is a great book. Its shortcomings are easily ignored. The book won’t all be relevant to those outside of an advertising agency environment, but differences are easy to identify and consider. The critique of the common use of PowerPoint is spot-on, but there is a lack of awareness of what can be done with this and other presentation software. The structure is not always crystal-clear, but the stories, anecdotes, and well-argued points make up for this.

What Perfect Pitch does well is set out a clear and insightful guide to pitching, both for individuals tasked with writing and presenting a section of a pitch presentation, and for those running a pitch process. Steel gives both a clear sense of what presentations should do, and of how to write them. From clear messaging to appropriate visuals, the guidance is clear. Some readers will struggle to put Steel’s insights into practice, which is presumably why WPP had no qualms about letting the book be published. Most readers would be satisfied even with some improvement with their pitches. Whether those following Steel’s advice will see 90% win rates remains to be seen, but we know from m62 client experience that these rates are achievable.

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