This article was originally posted to BrightCarbon.com.
For my sins, I belong to an Amateur Operatic Society. Operatic Society is something of a misnomer, though, as what we actually do is put on amateur musical theatre productions. Last week, six months of rehearsals and hard work culminated in a week of performances of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Jim Steinman’s Whistle Down the Wind at a local theatre in my home town of Leicester.
I am delighted to say that it was an absolute triumph, with unbelievably positive feedback from those that came along and saw it. Whilst my modest role in the chorus as ‘angry mob member with rake’ was undoubtedly a highlight of the show for my friends and family, I am under no illusions. It was the extraordinarily professional and compelling performances of the principal characters, born out of talent honed by dedication and relentless practice, which really wowed our audiences and got them telling all their friends about just how great a job the Society had done.
So, what’s all this got to do with pitch presentations? Well, at BrightCarbon we offer a service that supports organisations in delivering pitches for high value contracts. The build-up to a performance that has only a single opportunity to really impress an audience got me thinking about just how similar this all is to preparing for and delivering an important pitch presentation. Below are a few pitch presentation tips that come from my experience in amateur dramatics and musical theatre.
The starting point for any successful show is choosing the right cast. Just because Bill or Flo have been members of the Society since the year dot doesn’t mean they should be automatic shoe-ins for the lead roles. The requirements for each character is different and so it’s all down to a rigorous auditioning process, where each eager and hopeful participant has the opportunity to prove he or she is ideally suited to his or her chosen role.
Hard choices have to be made though. Fundamentally, delivering what’s best for the audience – i.e. the customer – is the most important consideration. Amateur societies rely on ticket sales to fund shows, which with theatre hire, musicians, stage sets, props, costumes, licence fees, etc. are pretty expensive events to put on. To survive, societies must convince audiences that theirs is the show to see because, with only a week of performances to recoup costs, word of mouth is absolutely critical to getting bums on seats.
The same goes for selecting your pitch presentation team. Simply because Ed is Head of Development and knows what Development does and how it does it inside out doesn’t mean he should automatically represent the department in a do-or-die final pitch. Of course, he may well be the ideal candidate but, if he simply is not, or, for example, if you know the audience has real empathy with another Development team member, wouldn’t it be better to leverage Ed’s undoubted expertise during preparation but allow the audience’s preferred ‘star’ to deliver on the day? Do you really want to blow your one-off chance of securing that important deal just because you don’t want to hurt Ed’s feelings? Of course, you don’t.
OK, you’ve assembled your perfect cast and so, what next? Firstly, you need someone to oversee the project; someone with the vision to stand back, absorb and interpret the basic content – for a show, the script and the songs, for your pitch, your customer’s needs and how you will address them – and present this in a manner that will draw in and engage the audience and make them think ‘wow, these guys really know what they are doing!’.
Interestingly, the show Director is almost always appointed from outside of the Society. We recognise that having the vision to interpret the material and understand what the audience needs to see and hear in order to get the very best from the performance is a real skill. So, we tend to choose an expert with a proven track record in delivering results. In addition to providing much needed specialist expertise, an ‘outsider’ also will assess what needs to be done and then allocate the most appropriate resources to achieving this based solely on merit, without any heed to internal politics and irrelevant history. He or she will then coach and cajole the cast members to make sure they deliver the very best performance possible. To a great extent, this mirrors the role a BrightCarbon consultant plays within the pitch process.
Once the Director has been appointed and the cast chosen, it’s then simply down to practice, practice and more practice. There is no short cut. To put on a successful and memorable show, all concerned must attend rehearsals as needed and practice the words, the lyrics, the harmonies, the dance steps, and the stage directions, until they are 100% confident in what they need to do and when they need to do it. Rehearsals culminate in a full dress rehearsal the night before the show opens to a paying audience.
No-one in his or her right mind would walk onto stage to deliver a performance without knowing exactly what they are supposed to say and do, and without working everything through with the rest of the cast to ensure everyone knows precisely what is expected of them and how everything will come together to deliver as near to a perfect performance as is possible.
Even worse, imagine if the lead character – the pivotal role on whose performance the show and the plot hinges – doesn’t bother to attend rehearsals and learn the script, but reckons he or she is so experienced and talented that they will just ‘wing it’ on the day! Also, just picture what would happen if each member of a show’s cast made up their own scripts, based solely on an outline of the story, and the first time they delivered it all together was on opening night! Maybe in some avant garde circles the resultant mess might be considered ‘art’, but I’m sure you’d agree with me – a recipe for disaster, right?
Sadly, this kind of approach is all too common in many, many pitch presentations – even though the contract may be worth a significant amount financially and/or strategically to the company pitching, and despite the fact that much time, effort and money may have been spent already in order to get the chance to deliver a final presentation to clinch the deal!
Often, pitch team members work in isolation, only coming together on the day of the pitch itself or, at best, maybe the day before. Frequently, the person leading the bid is ‘far too busy’ to spend any quality time with the pitch team ahead of the event. Time after time we hear of presentations being knocked together the day or even the night before an important pitch, often being tweaked and fiddled with well into the small hours, thereby giving the presenters no chance to learn and practice delivering the content.
And, of course, this assumes it is the right content too. Are you simply regurgitating your bid? Are you busy explaining how great you are and how you will deliver the contract, or has someone – your ‘Director’, as it were – worked out what your audience really needs to hear in order to recognise how they will derive more benefit from choosing you rather than your competitors?
Set and Props
Of course, the stage set and props are integral to making a show come alive and be memorable. Actors simply standing on an empty stage delivering their lines would hardly be compelling viewing. Introducing an impressive backdrop and props that help them to tell the story effectively makes all the difference and ensures the audience is fully engaged throughout. Similarly, an effective visual presentation that complements what your pitch team is saying and helps them to communicate your key messages to your audience helps turn what could be a dull ‘lecture’ into an engaging and compelling experience that they will remember.
The Show Must Go On
When the show goes live and the cast is finally on stage performing in front of a paying audience, there’s no stopping part way through and starting over because someone has made a mistake or forgotten what comes next – they have to make it all the way through to the end, regardless. Relentless rehearsing certainly does help to ensure that the potential for mistakes is kept to an absolute minimum, but it also means that in the event of an unexpected problem – someone forgets a line, for example (it happens to the best of us!) – the rest of the team is well placed to provide cover and on 99.99% of occasions, the audience will be blissfully unaware that anything has gone wrong.
The same principle applies to your pitch presentation. If the whole team is well rehearsed and knows precisely what everyone else is doing, in the event that someone makes an error or forgets what they need to say next, it’s easy for others to cover for them and, again, your audience will be none the wiser. Overall, though, it’s not about delivering a word-perfect rendition of your pitch – indeed, you’d probably be surprised at how much paraphrasing of the original script goes on during a show and how this varies from performance to performance. The critical issue is to ensure your key messages get across, rather than to learn a script parrot fashion. As long as your audience hears and understands these key messages, you can consider your performance a success.
A Summary of Pitch Presentation Tips
So, in summary, what are the key lessons that those about to deliver a pitch presentation can learn from successful theatrical productions?
Make sure the right people are selected to play the appropriate roles on the day.
Select an expert ‘Director’ who can manage the big picture, who understands what your audience needs to see and hear and who will make sure all your team members know precisely what they are meant to do and when they are meant to do it.
Rehearse properly – and make sure senior people with parts to play rehearse too, and don’t just fly in an hour before and mess things up.
Sort out your supporting presentation. Make sure it is not simply your ‘script’ applied to slides – typical death by PowerPoint – but visual and engaging, so that it truly complements the performance of your team members.
Don’t try to remember the entire presentation script, and don’t worry if a word is out of place. The audience need the key messages, and won’t notice a minor mistake.