Perfecting the Pitch

By Kelly Bouma

Kelly Bouma is a freelance film and live performance director and producer based in Missoula, MT. All of the skills she has acquired in her life have led her to actually use the degree she not so thoughtfully pursued 15 years ago in undergrad: Communications. 

A guide to selling your idea (and yourself). Where business and life skills meet.

Keep your eye on the ball.

pitch1
/piCH/
noun
the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it
2.
a form of words used when trying to persuade someone to buy or accept something.

Elements of a perfect pitch.

There are many ways and contexts in which people pitch ideas. Let’s assume you have a great idea and you need to get funding. You have to describe your idea in a certain amount of time for a group of people who have the power to give you a green light, or at least a head start, on your project. This guide gives you ten ways on how to create and deliver the best pitch possible. The rest may be up to fate.

Story.

Storytelling is present in every aspect of our lives and is especially important to remember when “selling” your idea. People understand stories. They are innate to human beings. For more on the evolution of storytelling, check out Melissa Mendoza’s article.

Whenever you get lost preparing or delivering your pitch, always go back to the story.  Why is this story important to tell now? Make it urgent, relevant and most importantly–interesting. Let’s review Storytelling 101.

Parts of a story:

You may have a story within a story. Whatever your time limit is, be sure to begin and end your thought. People investing in your idea need to see the entire picture. I use to teach writing to kids, and they were always the best at shouting out the parts of the story. Think about all the classics: Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs. Apply this logic to your idea and how you are going to lay it out and how to captivate your audience.
Beginning–Middle–End
The seven basic plots:
You’ve heard this right? I first heard this in reference to movies. Just for fun, try it out on some of your favorite books and movies.
  • Overcoming the Monster.
  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Rebirth.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
Last but not least, you need a hero.

It might be you or the protagonist in your film or novel. Make people fall in love with your hero. It shouldn’t be hard.

For a more detailed, brilliant account of this theory read: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker (Really? You write books and your name is Booker, sir?)

 

So how does this apply to your pitch? Let’s take Voyage and Return and an idea I pitched for a short documentary recently as an example.

I have a hero, Lois. She is a character and very captivating on camera. She is an older adult who currently lives in Missoula, MT. She is socially active–visits the local Senior Center, plays pinochle at a couple of Senior Residences and where my interest perked up: she bowls. It opened my eyes to an entire movement I know nothing about: Senior Leagues.

The Voyage & Return comes in with her returning “home” to reunite with a couple of her best friends she started bowling with over fifty years ago…and who she hasn’t seen in over 30 years. Now is the time Lois, Marlene and Sylvia will bowl together again. Older and wiser, but in a stage in their life where bowling just isn’t the same. How does our hero reconcile with change?

Whatever your idea, even a business plan or solution–find a story. Know who your story is about, what happens, the problem or struggle and the (potential) resolution. You are putting your idea or business plan into a language everyone instinctively understands.

A Writer.

Find a writer and make friends. I’m lucky to be married to one. The lesson: the writing is where the pitch begins. If you’ve given presentations before or have enjoyed a backyard BBQ where your friends look engaged and attentive when you talk, you may think you can wing it. And you might, once or twice. But writing out your pitch takes it to the next level. Not only will you be more at ease, knowing which points you need and want to cover when, your preparedness probably leaves you (slightly) less nervous.

The most important quality of a good pitch is a concise, tight story (see above). I know…I know…this may sound redundant, but it’s TRUE! You have to include:

The WHO.

The WHAT.

The WHERE.

The WHEN.

The WHY.

….and one more you may not have included in the traditional “5 Ws”–

The WHO’S PAYING

An Actor.

Once you have written the pitch, you have to present it as if it’s completely off-the-cuff. The idea just came to you. You are brilliant. This is where it is helpful to be a trained performer or public speaker. Not many of us are, but here are some skills to keep in mind.

    1. Warm up your voice. Take a shower, sing your favorite song, do some scales, sirens and blow your lips (channel your high school choir class). You will feel silly. Embrace it.
    2. Stretch. If you believe in the power of Yoga, do your morning practice. Or go for a run and then stretch. Warm up your physical body.
    3. Memorize. I like to go on long walks/hikes to memorize while I’m moving. Know your script so then you can let it go and sound “natural” (like you’re not just reading a script)–this can only happen once you know your script really well.
    4. Practice. This goes along with #3 and goes without saying. Practice in front of your partner, your best friend or several friends. You will probably be even more nervous to do it in front of the people who love you.
    5. Get into character. You are a confident bad ass convincing a room of people your idea is the best.
    6. Energy. You are indeed performing–take it up a notch. This is not the time to go into a monotone, “take me seriously” mode. Let you, your personality come through.
    7. Body Language. Stand tall, shoulders open, chin up. Own the room. More on power poses later. Speaking of power…Judi?

Timing and Rhythm.

As you craft your pitch, remember to leave some space. Think about your pitch as a song. When you deliver your pitch, give the audience time to catch up. Find the rhythm of your story, the anecdotes, the numbers and your comic timing (spoiler, #10). Remember to make eye contact and find places where you can connect to those you are trying to convince. These moments are written into your pitch and can be practiced. Urgency is not always conveyed through speed. OWN THE ROOM.

You know who’s good at this? Comedians.

Self-care.

A few obvious reminders:

  1. Sleep.
  2. Eat breakfast/lunch.
  3. Warm up your voice and body (as detailed above).
  4. Give yourself time to get ready.
  5. Dress as expected, but make sure you feel comfortable in your shoes and outfit–wear something you feel good (and can move) in.
  6. Breathe.

You may breeze past this element of the Perfect Pitch. I’d recommend starring it. If you really only have one chance to win x amount of money or to acquire x amount of investors, you want to be your best self. Take a moment here to realize what self that is. When is the last time you felt physically and mentally on top of the world? I’m going to add a reminder here.

7. Visualize your best self. Your most confident self. Lift your arms up in a “power pose” (examples below) right before you walk through the door or on stage to give your pitch. Take it away Mick.

Know your audience.

The best advice I’ve gotten throughout my life is a genuine reminder that your audience wants you to do well–they want to love your idea.

In the cases where you know the judges, panel or ultimate deciders, learn about who they are. This will help you as you formulate your pitch. Make sure your idea is what they are looking for. Does it fit?

Know the criteria and the timeline. Make sure you hit those in your pitch, even briefly. There are two aspects of timeline here. Know the timeline of your project and the timeline of your pitch. If you only have 3 minutes, make it count and make sure you time yourself while you’re practicing to stay within that time limit while including everything you need/want to.

Know your competitors.

You may actually know your competitors. You may see them in the room as you are presenting. In an ideal world, these people become/are your friends and you pat each other on the back or give each other fist bumps as you walk off the stage. In a more likely scenario, it may feel a bit more cut throat. In either case, it helps to know what you are up against.

Don’t dwell on their work or their pitch–and certainly avoid psyching yourself out or comparing yourself to the other teams/participants pitching. That won’t help you. But watch how they work a room (or not). How do they tell a story? Does it feel genuine? Is there idea solid or are there holes?

Watch and learn. What is working, what is not… take note.

No competitors? Look in the mirror. We are often our harshest critic. Try to reframe this conundrum. Take it away HuffPost. Don’t discount yourself or your idea before you even cross the threshold. Remember the advice in the Acting section? It’s worth repeating: you are a confident bad-ass with a killer idea.

Be Nice.

To everyone. Not fake nice, but genuinely nice. I approve of anyone working for the greater good of the people. Hopefully that is the kind of pitch you are involved in. So, in the best case scenario, it’s a win-win for whoever walks away with the prize.

I’m a curious person. I love to learn and ask questions and I genuinely care about people and their ideas. This all applies to the element above, but make friends. You never know, you may work with them in the future.

Not the greatest song, but a good message. And talk about practice, includes some great rollerskating moves.

Practice.

This is worthy of its own slot. And it’s good practice to remember to practice.

Side note: My parents put me in piano when I was little. I believe I took piano for about six years and I hardly ever practiced. Although I liked playing (as much as any 6-year-old likes to play piano) I begged my parents to let me quit so I could do gymnastics instead. They finally agreed, but gently told me I’d regret it. I do.

Here is an inspirational quote on practicing. It was hard to choose just one.

Through practice, gently and gradually we can collect ourselves and learn how to be more fully with what we do. 

-Jack Kornfield

Then I promptly looked up Jack Kornfield. Maybe now I will start meditating.

I like this quote as it implies practice is a lifetime uhh…practice. I am approaching mid-life (OK, I’m 36, but it feels like it). I have kids. I am married. I am more settled than I have ever been, and I like it. I have also been a working creative artist for many, many years and I am just now starting to feel/be (as Jack Kornfield puts it) “more fully with what I do.”

I’ve lost you, haven’t I? This section is very personal and contemplative, forgive me. But truly, practicing your pitch is an example of practicing in your life. Keep practicing and the rest will fall into place.

Make them laugh.

Drum roll. The final element of Perfecting the Pitch. Even if you are pitching a dismal idea or a solution to a dismal idea. Find lightness where you can…and where it’s appropriate. This can also come in earlier while you are preparing. Ask someone you know who exudes that sense of humor and lightness to help you ease into it.

Most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Donald O’Connor says it best. This is a good note to end on. Good luck everyone–though maybe it isn’t luck. It’s a bit more passion and practice.

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