How to ruin a great business pitch

Gerald Ratner


I had a meeting with a long-standing client yesterday.

He is a great guy, a formidable presenter, and a very successful professional in the world of finance.  But he arrived at the meeting looking unusually downbeat.  His first words were that: “My confidence is shot“.

He emphasised how he had made a name for himself in the City by bringing pitches and presentations to life using stories, anecdotes and ‘hooks’ far removed from the industry norm.  He was renowned for his ability to paint a picture within which specific and technical products made sense.  My work with him had only ever emphasised that he should keep doing what he was good at as it had stood him in such good stead.

However, he had recently moved jobs to promote a huge new idea in the world of banking.  For the purpose of this article, let’s call it ‘New Money’.

‘New Money’ is complex beyond belief.  But it could transform the world of banking for the better.  It has succeeded elsewhere in the world and is now about to hit Europe.  The biggest danger is that people won’t understand it.  It requires context, clarity and relevance before the inner-workings of the product itself are described.

My client had been called in to his new boss to explain how he planned to pitch the big idea in a series of  upcoming meetings with institutional investors.  And so he set-out the big picture and started to explain the context when the boss cut him short with the words:

“Don’t be ridiculous.  They don’t want a story.  They just need stats and facts.  Go away and create some slides.”

Rarely in my professional life have I heard such bad advice, or, for that matter, such poor man management.  In one sentence, he had undermined the basis of my client’s entire career and the prospects of his succeeding with the ‘New Money’ venture.

I hope our meeting helped to steady the ship, and to remind the client why he is good at what he does.  It also reminded me of the eight key rules of any business presentation on a technical subject:

  1. Define the key message.  Without it your pitch will lack a core meaning and purpose.  It will usually be a benefit.
  2. Create a structure for the presentation that never veers too far from the key message
  3. Try to find a ‘hook’ to draw your audience in.  It needs to be relevant and appropriate, but if it is original it will inspire them to want to know more
  4. Define the next step you want from your audience at the end of the pitch
  5. Write a simple script to show how your argument will progress and how you will draw your audience towards that next step
  6. Highlight those areas where an illustration may help bring your points to life.  They will be your slides
  7. Don’t use slides for anything other than illustrative purposes – slides should not repeat what you are saying
  8. Rehearse it out loud until you know what you are saying so well that you can argue the case without notes

Having been through this process, my client has altered his approach again to focus on his strengths, but with a little more factual evidence than I’d usually recommend.  Importantly though, those ‘facts and stats’ are simply evidence in an argument, rather than the argument itself.  As a result, his pitch is still a story rather than a haphazard list of details.

The key for anyone preparing a presentation (or any speech for that matter) is never to forget your audience.  A day after you have spoken they will rarely remember one of your facts.  Which is fine.  Because if they remember the key message – and understand how it will benefit them – then your job as a presenter is done.