Every pitch is a story

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The purpose of a pitch is not to sell what you do. It’s to explain in the clearest terms why someone should look forward to doing business with you.

Tell your pitch as a story
Don’t pitch to your prospect’s greatest wish. They already know that. Pitch to their greatest fear. Tell them the story of how you will help them overcome the risks they face to emerge triumphant.

If you haven’t already done so, watch Nancy Duarte’s inspiring TED speech about how to structure a great presentation. As she says, every great presentation needs a combination of facts, insights and story. A pitch presentation, and indeed a pitch document, are no exceptions. To paraphrase Nancy, a pitch is your opportunity to change your own world by changing someone else’s.

If you don’t want to follow Nancy’s great structure, try the Pixar story approach:
Once upon a time there was ___.
Every day, ___.
One day ___.
Because of that, ___.
Because of that, ___.
Until finally ___.

Or take a leaf out of Get Them to See It Your Way, Right Away by my dear friend Ruth Sherman (better yet, read the whole thing):
State your main message
Add key points
List benefits
Examples, stories and vignettes
Summarise and specify next steps

Different pitches need different approaches. The key thing is that you take people with you on a journey that is motivating, challenging and at the same time reassuring. Increasingly, I actually construct pitches in the same way as you might think about the storyboard to a movie (sometimes I even base them on a movie), with transition moments, reveals, twists and of course a great ending. (Actually I got the idea to do this from Ruth. It’s in her book.)

Here’s another fun idea. Take the same facts and try telling your story in a number of ways to see what makes it most effective. It will also help you land on the right structure. Then get people to pitch the storyline back to the team in a three sentence synopsis. You’ll be surprised how different storytelling can change the tone, the feel and the fit. Here’s an example of three very different approaches:

  • Titanic (bold, dramatic, epic)
  • Annie Hall (quiet, reflective, questioning)
  • CSI (detailed, problem-solving, subtle)

Choosing the one that’s right will depend on the nature of the project, the personalities of the people, the risk perceptions, the confidence they have in you … all manner of things. But trying out different approaches in-house will help you find a distinctive and deliberate voice to pitch for that business to that client in that situation.

Finally, don’t just think about the presentation itself. Very few people just turn up to see a film that’s playing. They come to see a movie because they’re excited to see what they’ve heard so much about. Maybe they’ve read a review or seen a programme or their favourite blogger has mentioned something.

In the same vein, to lift the “look forward” factor, I think you should, whenever possible, divide a pitch into three stages that span either side of the presentation meeting. The great advantage of this approach, when it’s done well, is that it effortlessly elongates the story:

The trailer – what are you going to do (if you can) before you even get to pitch in order to interest/excite the people you’re meeting. What are they going to see or hear that convinces them you are credible, interesting and worthy?

The presentation itself – how will you stage it, where will it be held, how many people will speak … detail, detail, detail.

The popcorn – what are you going to give them during the presentation or afterwards to remember you by? It could be a gift. It could be a pure piece of theatre. It could be both. One of my all-time favourites was a pitch I heard of where the presenters wanted to underscore that the prospect was currently losing a million dollars every hour on a project. They announced this by ringing a small bell. Exactly 60 minutes later in the presentation they rang the bell again. After the presentation, everyone received a small bell in a box with the chief contact’s business card. Wow.

Photo of “Tell your story” by Wadem, sourced from Flickr

Further reading
The first look to look for in any pitch situation is the intention

10 thoughts on “Every pitch is a story

  1. Great advice. There are so many ways to tell (sell) your story. I specialize in what you call the ‘trailer,’ using metaphor and imagery to make complex stories clear, memorable and intriguing so that your audience says “tell me more.”

  2. Great ideas, and so happy to see a mention of Ruth! I heard Craig Valentine give a wonderful presentation on storytelling a few weeks ago. He’s another resource worth checking out. I always like to remember: people respond to people, and we reach and teach through stories. Thanks so much for the advice, Mark.

    1. Hi Carol. Thanks for your thoughts. Nancy Duarte makes a lovely point about stories – that they are how we get involved. She contrasts this with how we react to reports. So many pitches feel like reports. They present the facts, they don’t get people involved. Craig Valentine is someone I will definitely follow up on. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks Mark – I really like the bell story! Sounds like a great way to make the message “sticky”.

    I also like your analogy of a trailer, movie and popcorn. I’m a strong believer in doing a promo beforehand, as detailed in the link below. (If you scroll down to the next section on that page, there’s also an idea for a trailer of self-running slides…)

    I don’t want to flood you with links, but if you’re interested there are a few examples of theatre-style presentations on my blog. (I’m thinking of the TED videos by Jamie Oliver and John Bohannon.) So please see the Video category if you’d like to watch them.

    Your 3-sentence idea’s interesting too. Here’s a similar idea I like as a structure for mini pitches – please see the table shown at this link:

    Lastly, I completely agree with Carol about Craig Valentine. He has a year’s worth of free weekly tips at, and his blog’s excellent too:

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