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Presentations are conversations

I’ve been reading John Steel’s book Perfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New Business, published by Adweek Books. It’s one of the best business books I’ve read in the past couple of years.

Some people might think of it as a book for advertising professionals, because the author comes from an agency background. But it’s really just a book for anyone who ever makes any kind of presentation — business or otherwise. This common-sense view of the art of presentations focuses on how every presentation is essentially a conversation. It doesn’t matter whether your audience consists of one person or a thousand. Whether you’re presenting an idea, proposal, or your potential as a great employee, you’ll benefit from this viewpoint.

Steel gives the example of a meeting with Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, contrasting a briefing by Steve with an earlier one by two senior Apple marketing executives. The account is humorous and insightful. After the two executives attempted to bore the agency team to death with a bad, rambling Powerpoint presentation, Steve used a marker pen on a whiteboard to give an unforgettable, highly focused presentation that cut to the heart of the problem. He was transparent, clear and passionate. This is the essence of a great presentation!

Think of every ad, every brochure, and every website you create as a presentation. Then take it further and think of them as part of a conversation you’re creating with potential customers. What are the questions they’re asking when they begin to engage with the content? What do they need to know? What are their dreams? What’s their vision? What does a successful outcome look like?

Imagine yourself face to face with each one of them. How would the conversation flow? How would you make the same pitch if sitting across from them in your local coffee shop?

I’ve enjoyed a pretty good track record in new business presentations, with more than 80% of all my presentations leading to a business relationship. This success rate has been the result of having great mentors when I was first getting started, people who were honest and firm in forcing me to evaluate what I was doing from the customer’s perspective. It has also been the result, in many cases, of having a great team around me who did the rest of the work, from researching information I needed to building relationships with the prospective client. But I’ve noticed that one element has been consistently important: caring about the other party. You have to listen, really listen, to what the other person is saying. If you don’t, then nothing you say will be relevant.

I recall one presentation made after I started my young ad agency when I was just 24 years of age. The prospective client had already been pitched by four large agencies who wanted the account. Here I was, young and inexperienced, though passionate about what I could do with my small but talented team. I asked the company’s marketing team what they wanted to achieve, what their goals were and how they saw their business five years down the road. I mostly just listened, yet it was a conversation. A few minutes into the pitch, the company president stopped me and said something I’ll never forget. He explained that every other agency had come in and shown a bunch of work and talked and talked endlessly about what they could do. They were pitching without understanding. I was the first person who had even asked any of these questions. He awarded me the account on the spot.

Perfect Pitch is an excellent book and a worthwhile read for anyone, especially people who have to pitch new business. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. The heart of the message is to think of your presentation as a conversation.

Publisher Information

Perfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New Business
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley (October 30, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0471789763
ISBN-13: 978-0471789765

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George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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