How To Win The £100 Million Pitch
Full disclosure: we have never prepped a team for a £100 million pitch, they’ve often been multiples of that.
Our biggest pitches in the property sector have been half a billion. In legal or professional services, where getting on a panel might mean a decade of large instructions, £100 million in fees would be reached soon enough.
The Boardroom Table
There are informal, semi-formal and formal pitches. Over a coffee, sit round the table, stand and present.
This article concerns the second and third: a defined time for presenting, some structure and other parameters, then questions. Maybe a scorecard, which you should crush into a ball and throw in the bin. (Seriously, do it now.)
I will look at formal business pitching under three headings:
- Preparation And Practise
- Integrating Technology
- Your Strategy
Preparation And Practise
Half a dozen partners in a global law firm and a couple of business development executives arrive. There were sceptics at the thought of three days away from client work, even though it was their biggest ever pitch. Here are three partners’ journeys.
Three hours were spent, one-to-one, on the opening four minutes and closing two minutes to be delivered by the lead partner. A good presenter, she knew the importance of practice and spent another three on her own, resulting in a few midnight emails.
The opening had to contain the essence of the four presentations that would follow, and her closing remarks be short and punchy.
Another partner articulated his scepticism by saying he couldn’t stay, but by mid-morning had cancelled client meetings. By then he had pages of valuable material from the group brainstorming session and knew his rough and ready seven minutes was not good enough. It was 13 minutes on the first run through: unfocussed, too much detail, unnecessary visuals, and no overarching narrative. Fixing this was brutal but worth it; you can’t take twice your allotted time, especially when you are up first after the intro. It puts the entire team on the back foot.
Client demands meant a third partner was unable to attend much of days one and two. This happens and brilliant presenters can catch up, though it is disruptive to the team. Day three’s run through showed he was in the first category, which is fine, but good presenters need to be mindful it’s about the team.
If your pitch team is time-poor and complaisant, winging it may be the only option. You might win – even a broken clock is right twice a day - but it’s stressful and amateurish. It also puts unnecessary pressure on less experienced team members and, as illustrated above, will fail to unearth hidden material and talent that can be the foundation for an entire narrative.
Practise is performing an action repeatedly to acquire a skill and preparation is a substance that is specifically made up. You must practise repeatedly and prepare some magic to have the best chance of winning.
Preparation is allowing the team to work together, time to create compelling material, know where they are going and be confident of getting there. Practise is individual and team rehearsal for the upcoming pitch, but also your company’s attitude to personal development over the long term.
Elite sports teams spend 99% of their time on preparation and practise and 1% performing. They still lose regularly, then do forensic feedback sessions in preparation for the next game. You can’t devote that kind of time, but proper preparation and practise will improve your run rate.
Practise as a team, go at the pace of the least experienced team member. Individual practise depends on experience and ability, to be sure, but encourage it and make time for it. Train everyone in presentation skills, encourage people to seek opportunities to present and have regular in-house sessions that upskill everyone.
Prepare in a structured way to demonstrate you are serious. Have an effective chair so it is not a free-for-all, use time effectively. Start with the big picture, rather than delving into detail, before going to who is speaking when… or going anywhere near The Deck.
It is never about The Deck. It’s about teamwork, your line and how you tell the story. If you don’t have the foundations right, what comes over will be unstable and may topple when nudged.
A pitch in Bloomberg’s London HQ to a room full of potential private equity clients gleaned business enquiries for this strategist as soon as she was off the stage.
The reason? Three slides. Or, more accurately, only three slides.
Jane came with a huge deck, mostly graphs, but refreshingly told me she wanted to deliver her hour with none. We never quite got there but three dramatic visuals, with an interactive flip-and-pen session, was a huge contrast to other presentations on the day.
That’s what got traction in the room.
Over three sessions we worked on the mini-deck for half an hour at most. After the vision came the excitement of what might be possible, then how the story might unfold, and finally how it would be told. The magical, iterative to and fro that polishes it to near perfection.
Have technology by all means, in many sectors it would be bizarre not to, but ensure it is an aid, not a crutch. KWC Global has many more examples where the tech component is reduced or eliminated. It’s a truism that the less prep you do the more tech you’ll use, and if you don’t know where you’re going there will be too many slides (your prospects will be on their phones).
First, don’t think about tech until you have your strategy sorted, which should essentially be: here is how we win and how much risk we need to take.
Second, stay away from anything tech and instead brainstorm. You need every possibly relevant thought on a flipchart. This divergent thinking needs an effective, assertive facilitator holding the pen or you’ll narrow things down too early because the boss always has a meeting in ten. (If you are the boss buy into this and lead the way.)
Third, choose your themes wisely not quickly. Take your time and be willing to change your mind. Visuals will eventually look seductive, but anyone can do those. It is your narrative that fires the imagination of your prospect. Cluster ideas into groups, send groups off to work them up and have them present back. Repeat as necessary and be prepared for robust debate.
There are many ways technology can kill your chances: too many slides; too much detail on those you use; defaulting to whizz-bang tech options in the run-up at the expense of working on what you will say; not knowing how to use the tech you’ve chosen; amateur hour on the day when you don’t get the basics right.
Today you can be seduced into thinking everything should be done in no time and tech is the answer. You should be efficient, of course, but less is more when it comes to tech… and more is more when it comes to prep.
Half-way through the morning session one of the directors said, “we should tell them to start again” meaning the client burning £12 million and revising a £350 million scheme. A quick poll showed this bold strategy had support.
There were a few wobbles, with suggestions that three options might be offered. But no: “you should start again” won in the strategy stakes.
And won the contract.
Strategy is a fancy word for knowing where you are heading and how you’ll get there. Everyone must get on the same page, so have all your debates before the boardroom. Here’s what you need to consider:
What are your chances?
You need to calibrate how brave you should be and take a definite line. If you are one of two with a 50/50 chance you’ll take a different tack than if you’re one of five and unknown to the prospect.
Now choose your line. Write it down. Go back to it as you make progress, lest you forget what it is. With every iteration become more fearless and confident.
What are your themes?
You’ve done all the necessary research, but that’s just background. It might contribute but it’s not the story; neither is your business’s CV. Find key themes that will demonstrate how you will change their lives for the better. And every word of all three (or four or five) themes must reinforce the line you’ve chosen.
Who makes the team?
Imagine the board room, panel at the far end, your colleagues sitting beside you. The next hour could be life changing. What, precisely, happens next?
Choosing your team and where they fit will ideally be self-evident, but if it’s not, pick the team that has the best chance of winning and keep sentiment to a minimum. If someone is a poor presenter but must be in the team, work hard on their skills and give lots of support; if you have an outstanding presenter who is semi-attached to the project, find them a role.
How will you open and close?
Nobody listens to every word, but everyone takes note of the start and finish. Your pitch should be started and finished by the most senior person in the team, who ideally will be a terrific three minute storyteller.
If the opening is outstandingly good, the person up next needs to be mindful of getting caught in the headlights, so work hard on this handover (work on all handovers).
The big fella, a site agent, was going to win the pitch for the team. He just didn’t know it yet. That was clear to me from the outset because he had the lot: under-stated charm, intelligence, a story, youth and a great voice. Not a public speaker, he was terrified. Fortunately we had a fortnight in hand. Good material, a mentor on the team and a few run throughs ensured he was pitch perfect. The client loved seeing the site agent front and centre, as that’s who they would work with every day.
Remember that balled-up scoring sheet? You get it out the bin once the genesis of your story is set and use it to check you’re hitting the right notes.
Throw it away early on or you will be tempted to slavishly follow it when you should be brainstorming. But at the right time it will tell you the site agent should be front and centre, inform what you must say to help you win and tell you about the logistics you need to get right.
Because you’re going to keep to time… yes?