Alex Kalinovsky is the founder and CEO of AgileEngine, a top-3 ranked custom software development and design company.
Several years ago, I was pitching my company, AgileEngine, in a room of 10 people. This was a big potential client, and a successful pitch promised a large multi-year contract.
Everyone was excited to hear me talk about our tech expertise. Then, at some point, somebody questioned one of our approaches, which led to what seemed like it was going to be a short, interesting and highly technical debate. Five brilliantly delivered arguments later, the challenger still wasn’t fully convinced, and the excitement in the room gave way to dejected faces and checked-out minds. The time ran out, and we didn’t discuss what we could actually do together and define the next steps, so I left the room empty-handed.
Since then, I’ve pitched more than 1,000 times. Needless to say, debating technical details hasn’t been a part of any of my pitches. I also noticed that when pitching software solutions, technical details don’t generate a lot of excitement. There are five factors that, in my experience, contribute more to the level of excitement in the room and, consequently, to a successful pitch than product features or selling points.
1. Create a strong initial impression.
I started my first company at 17, authored a book, swam from Alcatraz and coded the world’s only tool that automatically converts Java apps to web applications. Including some of these facts in my introductions gives an impression of uniqueness and legitimate accomplishment, which, in turn, creates a halo effect over my pitch.
Like it or not, hot cognition is a thing, and people subconsciously form opinions about you and your offer before you even start presenting. With a solid, memorable personal introduction, your audience’s hot cognition will work for you, not against you.
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2. Lead the conversation.
Here’s another thing related to hot cognition: Lead the conversation and the chances for your ideas to be accepted skyrocket. Be reactive, and people will ignore your pitch.
On a technical level, I’ve found that leading conversations is much easier with detailed high-quality slides that gently guide everyone through the pitch. On an interpersonal level, frames are set via maintaining a cheerful but, at times, defiant attitude. In more practical terms, this also means steering the conversation into my area of expertise — which we’ll get to in a second.
3. Ask what your audience defines as a win.
The way most people describe their expertise is along the lines of: “We’re great at delivering solutions A, B and C.” A much more impactful way to phrase this is: “Seeing that your challenges include A, B and C, here’s what’s worked for our clients.” Now, the trick is to understand what “challenges A, B and C” specifically mean for your audience. This requires the ability to ask good questions.
Our team at AgileEngine is serious about discovery sessions in which we explore our potential client’s business goals and challenges early on. We also maintain a knowledge base of our prominent deliverables, like tripling our client’s ROI — everything impressive gets documented. Armed with the information from our discovery sessions and knowledge base, our sales experts can ask key questions early in the conversation and tailor the pitch.
4. Make sure your presentation stands out.
A while ago, I was preparing for an intro call with prospects from Estée Lauder, the e-commerce giant behind brands like MAC and Clinique. I happened to have a Clinique lotion, so I took it from my bathroom and had it on my table. After my intro, I said, “I’d love to hear a little bit about you and what you would like to get from this call.” Then, I pulled the lotion into the frame and continued, “while I make my skin look silky smooth with this wonderful Clinique #4 lotion.” The whole group exploded with laughter. Later, they said it was one of the most memorable pitches they’ve ever seen.
Props like this distract your audience from their daily grind, sparking positive emotion — an effect you can further reinforce with storytelling. The guiding principle in this respect is simple: The feelings a pitch evokes matter more than the information it conveys.
Another method I use is to position my offer as a prize. People subconsciously want something that they can’t have or need to qualify for. This is why I never hesitate to ask my prospects to list their selling points that I can use when pitching them to our developers.
5. Don’t overstay your welcome.
Most attention spans expire in 20 minutes, which defines the maximum duration of the pitch. I always strive to pack the key information, supported with visuals, props and storytelling, into the first 10 minutes. The second 10-minute half is for questions from the audience, closing thoughts and agreeing upon the next steps.
Like everything worth doing, pitching requires continuous improvement. Revise your pitches to focus on positive emotional impact and be mindful of the impression you give to the audience. But most importantly, have fun, and your excitement will shine through your pitch.