The art of a successful pitch

The key to a good business pitch is clarity, empathy and preparation, according to columnist Dianne Buckner.

When was the last time you had to make a pitch?

If you’re in business, you likely made one today. Or yesterday. Life in the business world is filled with opportunities to pitch, whether it’s for investment, or to make a sale or just to get someone "on board" to do any one of the million things that need to get done in order to make an enterprise successful.

With so many distractions nowadays, it’s becoming even more challenging to grab someone’s attention and make an impression.

I’ve become somewhat of an expert on pitches. I watch closely as hundreds of them unfold every season in the Dragon’s Den, the program I host for CBC Television. In that setting, people are pitching for investment from the panel of wealthy entrepreneurs known as the Dragons. The stakes are high, and the pressure is intense. Only the best pitches get offered a deal.

As well, working for CBC News, I’ve participated in countless meetings where stories are pitched. With so many potential news events on any given day, senior editorial leaders need to be convinced that we’ll devote CBC’s resources to cover only the best and most important stories. That takes a pitch.

Of course, I’ve also made pitches in my personal life – convincing my daughter, for example, that a complete makeover of her room doesn’t have to be done this month, or selling my friend on the idea that we see True Grit this week instead of Biutiful. (I’m just not in the mood for subtitles – could it have something to do with my aging eyesight?)

The psychology of pitching

All of those experiences have led me to define a pitch as having two key aspects:

Number one: It’s a situation where you’re trying to get someone to do something that works for you.

Number two: In order to take that course of action, the person has to give something up. It could be time, or money or their own vision of how things could be done. If it didn’t require some type of sacrifice, you wouldn’t have to pitch! You’d just present a fabulous option to which anyone with half a brain would say, "Yes!" 

So how do successful pitchers do it?

It’s the subject of more than a few business seminars. And I’ve been amazed to see that the "elevator pitch contest" that first came into vogue during the dot-com frenzy still hasn’t died out. There continue to be regular events that address this type of competition. (Here are three: MaRsYoung Social Entrepreneurs of Canada and Ideas on Tap.)

I shouldn’t be surprised – the need to be able to communicate an idea or proposal in a brief yet compelling way is likely eternal. If anything, in these days of so many distractions, it’s becoming even more challenging to grab someone’s attention and make an impression.

Of course, reality shows like Dragons’ Den and pitch contests are artificial constructs; in real life, there aren’t such rigid rules. Even so, who would argue against being concise and creative in the way we entice others into participating in our plans?

The key, to my mind, is preparation. A person has to think hard ahead of time about the critical aspects of their proposal. Why should anyone – or a particular someone – buy in? What do you know of their concerns? What is it they are trying to achieve, and is there a way to align your goals so that by helping you they help themselves?

Remember to focus

We’re all self-interested. It’s in our nature as human beings. And everyone has their own priorities, which are just as critical to them as yours are to you. So you need to be able to explain clearly the benefits of buying into your vision. 

I had a boss at Venture who had a wonderful way of getting us to focus our pitches. If a reporter or producer was rambling around, trying to describe why a story was important, she’d ask, "What’s the promo?" What she was really asking was how would we promote the story on the preceding TV program: "Later tonight on Ventureare foreign companies buying up the oil patch? Find out how it will affect you, right after Sunday Report." Those little televised pitches could only be 15 seconds!

The thing about having to write the promo was that it actually helped us define our stories. And I think the same is true with business pitches. When you have to define your "hook" and fine-tune the reasons someone should do business with you, it makes you focus very clearly what you have to offer.

Many of the business people I’ve interviewed over the years have talked about the role of passion and enthusiasm. And I agree, the best pitches have spirit. But I’ve discovered that passion alone doesn’t cut it. We’ve seen countless impassioned pitches in the Den that have fallen short on the practicalities. And it was the same on Venture. We ran some heart-breaking stories of people who’d poured so much time and energy and money into business ideas that just weren’t founded on any kind of market research or intelligence. 

Combining passion with a solid business plan – and preparation - is definitely the basis of a successful pitch.

(Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network. Read her previous columns.)


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.