I still remember the excitement of hearing the “ding” of my inbox and opening an email with the subject line, “Web design proposal.” I had delivered a strong proposal to a warm lead, and I needed this project to make payroll.
Quickly, my nervous excitement turned to disappointment as I read the canned response: “Thank you for submitting your proposal. Unfortunately, you were not the successful bidder. All the best to you and should you have any questions, please let me know.”
We’ve all faced the sting of rejection before and it sucks. It made me wonder if closing a deal is just a random luck of the draw, or if there’s anything I could do to improve our success rate.
Then I read a book called Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff that deepened my understanding of sales and changed how I think about pitching. I’ll outline a few principles from the book to help you improve how you make a sales pitch that closes the deal, whether you're pitching to a powerful type-A personality or a geeky analyst.
How long should your pitch be?
People have short attention spans. As much as we’d like to, we simply can’t hold a client’s attention for an hour. At most, you have 20 minutes to deliver a message in a way that’s going to intrigue the buyer, so take the time now to prepare a tight, well-rehearsed pitch that you can deliver succinctly.
But what should your sales pitch actually be about? Most people simply review their proposal content, walk through the deliverables, and brag about their past experience. I’ve made this mistake before, and this is where Pitch Anything opened up my eyes.
Selling to the croc brain
Before you can craft an effective pitch, you need to understand how the brain is hardwired to process information.
There are three basic areas of your brain:
Neocortex - The top layer, which is responsible for complex tasks like decision making, logic, conscious thought, and language. It’s the most highly, and recently, evolved part of our brain.
Midbrain - This is where we process social interaction and relationship hierarchy.
Crocodile Brain - The lowest level in the brain, and the part that’s the oldest in our evolution. The croc brain thinks in simple, linear survival terms: Do I know this already? Is it dangerous? Can I eat it? Can I mate with it? You get the idea.
Oren Klaff provides a great example of how the brain processes information. Imagine this: You are walking down the street and hear someone shouting.
Your first reaction is fear. This is the croc brain wondering if there is danger.
You turn to see the person shouting to someone else and not you. This is the mid-brain processing the social component of the interaction.
Finally, your neocortex evaluates what the person is saying and concludes that it’s simply a friendly exchange between two friends.
So how does this relate to sales?
Most of us think that our sales pitch is about delivering information, so our pitch is simply us relaying information the same way it’s stored in our neocortex.
The problem is that, in reality, you aren’t pitching to your client’s neocortex, you are pitching to their croc brain first. And the croc brain can’t understand much beyond simple, binary logic.
The croc brain is concerned with two things; is it dangerous, and is it novel? Anything dangerous — which in a sales context might be pushy, needy, desperate, nervous — and the croc brain responds by pushing away. If it’s anything that’s not new or novel, it signals to the brain that it already knows this information and can thus safely ignore it.
Your client has no idea this process is happening, but triggering these reactions will spell doom for your pitch.
If you’ve ever sat through a meeting or read through an email that was littered with jargon, and spent more time Googling acronyms than you did paying attention to the task at hand, you’ll understand why you should avoid jargon at all costs.
When you’re pitching a proposal, you want to command attention. You don't want the person you’re pitching to be thinking, “What does he mean by silo?”, and then trail away from you as they think about the time they saw a silo on a farm when they were seven.
It all comes back to the croc brain. If your sales pitch is so full of jargon a 9th grader can’t understand it, chances are your sales lead might not either.
Everyone's croc brain (including your lead) sees words and acronyms that are unfamiliar as risky, which leads them to pull away from you mid-pitch. 'Risky' is not how you want to be viewed as when you’re pitching a deal.
If you want to hold their attention longer, use less technical terms. Practice the pitch on a friend or a co-worker from another department to see if they can point out any areas that might be confusing. It will improve your chances of closing the deal in the long run.
Status and social hierarchy
To illustrate how most business transactions are framed in the mind, look at your average, run-of-the-mill request for proposal (RFP) document. It usually reads something like this — and I’m paraphrasing, but not by much:
“The steering committee will evaluate the successful bidders and if any part of the criteria is not met, the committee reserves the right to reject the proposal at the bidder's cost.”
Generally speaking, money is hailed as the ultimate prize to be won, so we end up treating the person who decides whether or not to pay us money as the highest ranking individual who needs to be supplicated. They are the king and we are the peasants petitioning them for the honour of receiving their business.
This alpha/beta social dynamic is at play when most companies pitch a client, saying something like, “Thank you for taking the time to meet with us today. It’s a wonderful privilege to have the opportunity to work for such a prestigious, world-renowned brand, such as yourself.”
This kind of language signals to their croc brain that you aren’t novel or interesting, and in fact, kind of needy and desperate, which then reinforces in the midbrain that you are the beta and the client is the alpha — likely resulting in your pitch being rejected.
To avoid sending this signal, begin the meeting by establishing what Oren Klaff calls local star power.
Local Star Power
Imagine you are in a high-end French restaurant. After a short wait for your table to be ready, the maître d' arrives to seat you and take your order.
A true professional, the maître d' takes command of your dining experience, outlining how each item on the menu is prepared, corrects you when you order a wine for the table that doesn’t pair well with the food you ordered, and entertains your dinner guests with witty banter.
Perhaps in normal, everyday life you are more popular, wealthy, or powerful than the maître d', but in this particular setting, he has local star power over you. This is his area of expertise, his milieu, his territory. He has control, and you end up working to impress him.
You need to achieve that kind of local star power in your pitch meeting.
When you first begin a pitch remember that no matter how wealthy or powerful your decision maker is, money is just a commodity. You need to have the mindset that if you don’t get it from them, you can get it from somewhere else, but that you’re the only firm that can make this client successful. You’re the prize to be won over. This is how you have to think. Flip the script on them and you’ll have them eating out of your hand.
So how do you achieve local star power?
Shifting the balance of power
It’s human nature to want what you can’t have. It’s why we pay more for something when it’s scarce to come by. People chase things that move away from them.
Clients expect you to chase after them which raises their alpha status. Instead, make them chase you by saying, “I’ve only got 45 minutes until I have to leave for another meeting. Tell me more about you and your company. I have a good feeling so far, but we have a lot of projects lined up, so we want to make sure that we only take on clients that align with our vision and culture.”
This might sound very brazen, maybe even arrogant, but you’ll be amazed at how this approach really works. I’ve used it before when dealing with pompous, type-A decision makers. Klaff calls it “busting their power frame”.
It instantly turns the tables and puts them in the beta position, giving you local star power and allowing you to take control of the pitch.
Telling the story
The most important thing when making a sales pitch is to capture your client’s attention, and yet it can be the hardest thing to achieve.
As Klaff relates in his book, attention is made up of two main ingredients: a reward (what I want) and tension (will I get what I want). Showing the reward and then threatening to take it away creates a push/pull effect that holds people’s attention, a technique widely used in storytelling.
For thousands of years, humans have used storytelling to relay memorable information, and it’s no different today. We require a narrative in order to process information and make decisions. Information alone has no convincing power.
Remember that the croc brain is interested in things that are novel before passing it up to the neocortex. The minute you start reciting facts and figures, and bragging about your awesome track-record, you’ll sound like every other company your client heard that morning and they’ll mentally check out.
How to structure a narrative
Look at the best directors and screenwriters and you’ll find that there’s a common story structure that naturally captivates us.
The basic structure is:
Introduce your characters and give them a common prize they are striving for. In film it’s called the McGuffin. It’s the money-filled briefcase or the diamond cave everyone is searching for.
Some kind of conflict occurs as the characters try to attain the McGuffin whereby they are placed in a tense or dangerous situation.
Get the characters almost to safety, but then introduce a ticking time bomb to increase tension in the climax before resolving the story. For example, they reached the diamond cave but it’s going to collapse in 3 minutes.
If you study films of any genre you’ll begin to notice that practically every film follows this same pattern or structure. Check out the 10 commandments of screenwriting from the award-winning Billy Wilder, for more storytelling secrets.
You need to frame your pitch around a narrative and introduce tension to hold their attention. Don’t just reveal The Big Idea. Lead up to it. Talk about the problem, and the changing forces in the market that require a solution. What circumstances led you to coming up with the solution?
In his stellar Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek repeated the mantra, people don’t care what you do, they care why you do it. Framing your pitch around a narrative holds their attention so they are primed when you introduce The Big Idea.
The meat of the pitch
Once you’ve introduced The Big Idea briefly and still have the client’s attention, you can get into the meat of the pitch.
The meat looks like this:
Value Proposition- How the big idea will deliver return on investment to the client.
Secret Sauce- Why you have an unfair advantage in executing the big idea, like proprietary technology, unique industry insight, valuable partnerships, etc.
Competition- You can acknowledge who you’re up against without overtly trash talking them, but still make it clear why you’re better.
Scope and Budget- What will you do and how much will it cost. Keep it very high level and avoid details that the neocortex needs to process. Sell to the croc brain.
“Cold” and “hot” cognition
Cold cognition is exactly that it sounds like. It’s why people say “Give me the cold, hard facts”.
But by the time we’ve processed the cold facts, we have already formed opinion subconsciously. Some call it your gut reaction. Later we use facts to back up how we already feel. This is called hot cognition.
You want to keep the client in hot cognition mode at all times, and you do this by keeping details very clear, simple, and high-level without going down the rabbit hole of nuanced, micro details that sound dangerous to their croc brain and require mental energy from their neocortex.
People with an analyst frame are typically technical people there to pick apart holes in your pitch, like the director of IT who interrupts you to delve into security questions while you’re telling the story.
When clients come at you with the analyst frame, you need to bust their frame by staying focused on the narrative and defer to the proposal which contains the details — they can read that after the pitch.
How to close the deal
Asking questions like “So what do you think?” or “When can we make this happen?” signals neediness and lowers you to the beta position. Remember, moving towards people repels them. They chase that which moves away.
Give them a time frame
Too often agencies are at the mercy of the buyer’s decision-making process and they end up with dozens of proposals out there in the ether waiting to close.
Pressure selling often causes buyer's remorse, which isn’t what you want either. But you do need to put a time frame in place that the client must adhere to, otherwise there’s no motivation for the client to ever make a decision.
Try something like this: “We’ve got a lot of new business coming in, so I want to be sure that I can get you in. If you think there’s a fit here, let me know by Friday of next week because that’s when we’ll have our project schedule complete for the next few months.”
This gives the client a reasonable amount of time to make a decision and reinforces your high alpha status. They need to play by your rules under a time frame that you set.
I’ll admit, the strategies in Pitch Anything are bold, unconventional, and audacious, but you don’t need to be aggressive or contentious to put these strategies into action. Have fun. Crack a joke here or there. Assert your status with a wink and a smile.
Most importantly, you need to believe deep down that you are the prize to be won, and be willing to walk away if the client disagrees.
Pitch Anything fundamentally changed everything I thought I knew about sales pitches and presentations, and flies in the face of virtually every classic sales technique we were taught. I highly recommend buying the book, reading it, and applying its principles.