How to succeed in pitching by trying really really hard

Jul 17 2014

Alsey Davidson's teammate Nat Tan pitches an idea at a May 2014 event.

Alsey Davidson’s teammate Nat Tan pitches an idea at a May 2014 event.

After pitching my team’s idea more than 20 times, I’ve learned a few things about the art of selling something to an audience.

I’ve never had to “pitch” anything before this spring. Not only does “pitch day” sound a lot cooler than “presentation day,” but it’s also a lot different.

The first thing I learned is that a pitch is a performance. You’re selling your product and you have to make the audience fall in love with it in five minutes. Back when we first started pitching, John Clark, executive director of the Reese News Lab, told us to start with a story. Every good pitch I’ve heard in the lab has an opening narrative. If you want to hear a particularly awesome story, listen to any pitch by lab intern Matt Plaus. He’s the king of storytelling.

Another thing I learned is that it’s OK to be nervous. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, you could completely blank on your part. It’s happened to a few of people in the lab on pitch day; the worst part is the awkward pause, and then everybody forgets about it two minutes later.

You also have to go into the pitch realizing that you are the expert on the topic. Your group will know the most about your product because you’ve been doing the research.

Even so, there will be some things your team hasn’t looked into. When someone in the audience asks you to try an outrageous idea that you’ve never researched, the best answer is: “That’s a very interesting idea. We’ll look into it.” We learned that answer from John, and I’ve definitely had to use it more than once. The best part about giving that answer is looking up and seeing John smiling in the back of the room.

No two pitches will be the same, even if they are for identical ideas. People will ask different questions every time. Your idea will also change between pitches, maybe even a few days before you have to give a really important presentation. But it’s best to stop messing with your script a couple of days before you give it.

Practicing your pitch is good, but you can over-practice. Before my first big pitch day back in April, I probably practiced my script over 100 times. When I got to the big day, the nerves set in and I started second-guessing myself. I learned from my mistake; for the second big pitch day this week, (which was arguably a lot more important) I practiced a lot less. When the time came, I wasn’t nervous because I knew my script well but not too well.

I’ve also learned that the pitch is just a way to get to the Q&A session. You want to give just enough information in your pitch to make the audience want more. If nobody asks questions at the end, you probably did something wrong.

And the last thing I learned about pitching: Buzzwords are dope. Synergy is the ultimate buzzword; if you can fit it into your pitch somewhere, it will make it at least 100 times better. (Just kidding on this last point!)

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