All of us, at least some of the time, practice the art of the pitch. We pitch our ideas and projects. We pitch our company's products or services. We pitch ourselves. For CEO Ronald Tetteroo, the challenge before him right now is to pitch — in six adrenaline-jolting minutes — everything that he's spent the past decade working on.
This pitch is easily the most high-stakes presentation of Tetteroo's career. The venue is Demo '99, an invitation-only gathering of the techno-elite — more than 800 top high-tech executives, analysts, institutional investors, VCs, and select members of the media. During Demo's two-day-long main event, in Indian Wells, California, Tetteroo and 39 other overachieving leaders of young companies will pitch what they hope will be the next generation of grand-slam gadgetry. The show's more illustrious alumni include Netscape and 3Com. Make a drop-dead pitch at Demo, and you make your company a contender.
But the reality is that many, if not most, of Demo's pitchers never deliver the goods. They just get eaten alive by the event's Darwinian world order. It all begins with those six go-for-broke minutes under Demo's harsh spotlight. Drift even a few seconds over the allotted time, and Chris Shipley, the show's trigger-happy executive producer, will yank you from the game.
Tetteroo is no Bill Gates. No one knows this Dutch techno-evangelist, the former drummer of Hermes House Band, a disco group that rocked the Netherlands in the 1980s. No one has heard of InfoRay, his Cambridge, Massachusetts startup. Tetteroo will get his six minutes, but he has only about 30 seconds to make an impact.
He knows that a breakout performance depends on preparation. With just a week until Demo day, Tetteroo will write and rewrite a dozen scripts. He will analyze myriad takes of his videotaped performance. The goal is to make it all look effortless. What follows are lessons from Tetteroo's pitch-in-the-making and a firsthand account of what it takes to knock 'em out.
Rule #1 Know your audience.
At 9 a.m. on the Monday before D-day, Tetteroo slips into a fully equipped "war room" at InfoRay's headquarters. The conference room — hardwired with several laptops, a video camera, and a mega-monitor — is where pitchers prepare for a big game. The pitch-making team is assembled: two PR execs from Alexander Ogilvy, InfoRay's worldwide-marketing manager, and the pitch coach, Betsy Komjathy.
Komjathy is a partner at Rogen International Ltd., a communication-skills training outfit in New York that has coached rookie and veteran pitchers alike at such hard-hitting companies as Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and Sun Microsystems. Tetteroo assures Komjathy that he's done his share of big-league presentations in Europe. In fact, he and the PR team already have a script. To the casual observer, the pitch appears well in hand. But Komjathy is skeptical.
For starters, Tetteroo wants to kick off his pitch with a drum solo. He's certain that a 36-second salvo will rouse the crowd and mark him as a break-the-rules stud.
Here's his plan: Tetteroo will bang out a quick riff and announce that he had been a professional musician who had played just the drums. He'll then segue into his pitch: Because of advances in software technology, he's no longer merely a drummer — he's a one-man symphony. The point is this: His $150,000 enterprise-wide software, dubbed Info X-Ray, searches a company's data resources and rapidly fetches and organizes once hard-to-get-at business info — thereby opening unimagined information-gathering realms for corporate decision makers.
But this "creative" opener is a gamble, cautions Komjathy. Misreading your audience is an unforgivable sin. A blitz on the drums might just put off the 800 less-than-playful strangers who will be at Demo.
"If you want to take a risk, play your solo at the end of your sell. If you bomb at the beginning," she warns, "you might never recover. People will remember you as the guy who played the drums, not as the guy who rocked the world with the first true business-data portal."
At least as important as knowing your listeners, says Komjathy, is billboarding the action that you want them to take in. "What do you want the Demo crowd to do?" she asks Tetteroo. "Buy your product? Be your partner? Or hire you for a wedding gig?"
Rule #2 Focus on the message.
Five hours and four scripts later, and even Tetteroo, a former marathoner, is weary from rewriting. At last count, the pitch is running two minutes over. The key messages aren't popping. There's too much techie jargon, and there are too many limp sound bites.
But the more the pitch team knuckles into the script, the less progress it makes. "You can't say it all in six minutes," says Komjathy, sensing that Tetteroo's presentation is getting tight. "So don't. Focus on two or three key messages. Make e them simpland convincing. How do you do that? Give us evidence to back up your message."
Komjathy's point hits home. In a rewrite of script number three, Tetteroo adds that the software does in weeks what it had once taken years and millions of dollars to accomplish. "Exactly," says Komjathy. After another draft, Tetteroo casually explains that just as the microchip has made PCs possible, so the Internet and intranets have made the business-data portal a reality. "Okay, now I get it!" says Komjathy.
Unfortunately, the endless parade of scripts — and Tetteroo's near-verbatim recitations of them — aren't helping Tetteroo make the material "his own." Komjathy pulls the plug on the laptops and goes to a flip chart. In 10 minutes, she reorganizes Tetteroo's message from top to bottom, using colored markers to draw rectangular boxes that she calls "message containers."
The "opening" box represents Tetteroo's drum-playing solo (which he insisted on, despite Komjathy's concerns). Within a "subject" box are the phrases that he'll use to announce the "InfoRay business solution." Three "agenda" boxes contain the "what I'm going to tell you" message. The "body" boxes beneath each agenda item make up the "I'm telling you" part. Then comes the "summary" ("what I just told you") and, finally, the "conclusion" ("what I want you to do").
Komjathy's outline isn't fancy, but the visual script does the trick for Tetteroo. He tries a fifth and final run-through, and it's a keeper. His pitch is as clear, compelling, and comprehensive as it can be under such time-crunched circumstances.
"We've made progress," says Komjathy. "I like this. This feels good," says Tetteroo. Now the tough part: stage presence.
Rule #3 Know thyself.
"What feedback have you received after speaking to large audiences?" asks Komjathy. She wants Tetteroo to think seriously about his physical skills. What is his body or his voice saying? More important, how do others perceive him? According to research conducted by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, 55% of what audiences remember relates to what they see, 38% relates to the way the information is presented, and just 7% relates to what a speaker actually says.
"People say that I'm energetic and passionate," says Tetteroo. But right now, as he's about to champion the InfoRay revolution, he's neither. His mistake is a common one: He's rehearsing the pitch as if it were a rehearsal. "Do it as if it counts, or else you're just wasting time," coaches Komjathy.
She shows Tetteroo a video of his most recent performance, and he begins to understand what she sees. "You're scanning the room," she says. "You need to make direct eye contact. Great speakers don't address crowds; they talk to individuals. Deliver a complete thought to one person in the audience," she suggests. "Then pause, glance at the script, grab the next thought, and share it with a new person in another part of the room. The pitch should play out as a series of one-on-one conversations."
Back to the videotape: Tetteroo's hands are floundering around his hips. "If I had clogs and a hat, I'd be the perfect Dutch farmer," he moans. He's also shifting his weight from side to side — which makes him seem unsure of himself.
"Use your voice," pleads Komjathy. "Raise it, lower it, slow it down, speed it up. And try more pauses. A well-timed pause lets a point sink in far better than any adjective."
Komjathy tells Tetteroo to try another run-through, this time sitting down. Everything about the pitch changes. Once he's freed from worrying about where to put his hands and how he should move, his face relaxes, his eyes brighten, his voice becomes animated, and even his language becomes more vivid.
"You're no longer a guy making a presentation," cheers Komjathy. "You're a guy talking about a really hip product."
Rule #4 Be nervous on the day of the presentation (that means that you're ready).
Day one of Demo '99, and 20-plus contenders have already presented. The theatrically backlit stage looks like something from a Rolling Stones tour. Easily 100 feet long, the setup includes a talk-show-like lounge area for host Chris Shipley and Godzilla-size video screens that loom at each end.
Shipley introduces InfoRay's Ronald Tetteroo at 9:15 a.m., and two NBA-style "shot clocks" blink to life, poised for the six-minute countdown. Drumsticks raised above his kit, he grins and unleashes a cranium-crushing volley.
Six minutes later, the InfoRay camp breathes a collective sigh of relief. Tetteroo didn't choke. Drums, slides, and the software demo went off as planned. Unlike several other presenters, he didn't have to ad-lib to the audience about what it was supposed to be seeing on the computer — but wasn't. He even gambled on an unrehearsed software maneuver and won. (On the downside: He was so thrilled by his ad-lib that he briefly forgot what to say next.)
A tape of Tetteroo's performance shows real improvement. "Your enthusiasm, passion, energy, and genuineness come through," Betsy Komjathy says. "That's big.''
The audience's response to Tetteroo isn't harsh, but the feedback is consistent: The drums weren't effective. He didn't establish their relevancy. Jim Forbes, executive editor of DemoLetter, says Tetteroo took an unwarranted leap when he assumed that an IT crowd would appreciate a drawn-out musical analogy. (See Rule #1.)
"You never know about these guys," says Forbes. "They might be listening, or they might be thinking about the strength-to-weight ratio of the drum head."
Julene Hunter, VP at Chroma Graphics Inc., a Web graphics firm, and one of Demo '98's top presenters, thought that Tetteroo lost some contact with the audience by pitching solo. He had to punch the keyboard (to manipulate the software demo) and to woo the crowd at the same time. Most presenters had a colleague play mouse jockey while they focused on their message. (See Rule #2.)
Others in the audience were astounded when Tetteroo announced that InfoRay had $10 million in venture-capital financing from the Mayfield Fund. Several VCs wondered what that prestigious firm had seen that they hadn't.
In retrospect, the funding part of the message — a confirmation of credibility if ever there was one — should have come earlier in the presentation, says Michael Schuh, a general partner at Foundation Capital.
But in the end, there is a surprise: At the closing ceremonies, Tetteroo is named one of the show's six "Demo Gods." Presenters must satisfy two criteria to earn that title, explains Chris Shipley, who polls attendees and designates a few favorites herself. First, Demo Gods must show near-contagious levels of enthusiasm. Second, their message must be crystal clear. Apparently, Tetteroo met that twofold test.
Try to win over individuals, not the entire room, Komjathy had told him: That will make a difference. And it did. Tetteroo may not have won the crowd, but he pitched a perfect game to someone who counted.
"When you share a stage with pitchers from 39 other companies, doing something memorable helps drive your message," says Shipley. "Tetteroo was memorable."
Contributing Editor Todd Balf (firstname.lastname@example.org) also writes for Men's Journal and ESPN magazine.
Action Item: Practice Pitch
In every competitive pitch, there's a winner and a loser. Betsy Komjathy, a partner at Rogen International, recommends creating a war room to help you triumph over the enemy. The war room is any place where the pitch team can brainstorm, research prospective clients as well as competitors, strategize, and rehearse. "It's a place for incredible creativity and focus," says Komjathy.
A virtual war room allows telecommuters to work together on a pitch. Using Goldmine 4.0, people can post ideas, share research, and trade PowerPoint slides. That way, team members will be up to speed when they gather for a real-time run-through of the pitch: They've already worked out a battle plan in their cyber war room.
— Marni Futterman
Coordinates: $180. Goldmine 4.0, www.goldmine.com
Sidebar: Pitch Coaches
Taking the time to prepare your pitch is the key to its success. But who's got that kind of time? The following training workshops specialize in arming you with face-to-face pitch tools for winning new business.
Decker Communications: Decker's two-day "Presentations . . . and Beyond" workshop gets high ratings for its comprehensiveness. Students deliver 8 to 10 videotaped presentations, 3 of which are privately coached. Decker also offers a highly acclaimed four-step process for brainstorming, structuring a message, and orchestrating an overall presentation.
Coordinates: $1,135. San Francisco, www.decker.com
McAlinden Associates: This group's two-day Communication Skills Workshop provides small groups from the same company (their 1:3 instructor-to-client ratio is among the lowest in the business) with a variety of tools, including live-pitch material and as-many-as-it-takes private videos. Among the points emphasized: organizing material so that it is compelling but doesn't sound like coach-speak.
Coordinates: $15,000 and up. New York, www.mcalinden.com
Rogen International: The Rogen Presentation Skills Workshop customizes sessions for as many as eight participants and features daily presentations with extensive feedback. The company emphasizes face-to-face skill building, which is backed by Rogen's research and field testing.
Coordinates: $4,000 to $10,500. New York, www.rogeninternational.com
Sidebar: Quick Pitch
Planning a pitch for a chance run-in with a potential customer may sound subversive. But the fact is, almost anywhere is better for winning business than the space between the four walls of a corporate boardroom.
Betsy Komjathy, of Rogen International, is so adept at winning business on the fly that her colleagues tell her that she should never leave the Delta Shuttle. According to Komjathy, the best business developers follow five tips that you too should know.
1. Never open with "What do you do?" It's a lazy question, and it leads to a dead-end conversation.
2. Listen for clues that tell you how the person looks at the world. The better you understand a potential customer's experience and values, the better you can customize your pitch.
3. Don't carry on about yourself. Top business developers are succinct, natural, and compelling: Whatever they say about themselves is relevant to the listener.
4. Don't be too quick to direct the conversation to business. Chat about a general business topic — perhaps something in the day's news — before making a segue into your agenda.
5. If someone is disinclined to chat, act accordingly. It's better to show restraint, to exchange business cards, and to leave a good impression.
Coordinates: Betsy Komjathy, email@example.com
Sidebar: Pitcher's Game Plan
When the purpose of a pitch is to nail a deal, your strategy should be to win before you make the presentation, argues Rogen International CEO Neil Flett, the author of Pitch Doctor: Presenting to Win Multi-Million Dollar Accounts (Prentice Hall, out of print). Here are six of Flett's tactics for locking up an early victory.
1. Don't focus on pitching all of your company's credentials. Instead, emphasize what your company can do for the prospect.
2. Never ask a potential customer information-gathering questions. Instead, gather data from other sources, and then ask questions that show that you already know the customer.
3. Don't keep your game plan secret until the presentation. Run your idea by an unbiased member of your selection team. If it gets a good reaction, you can build on it. If it's a bomb, you'll still have time to fix it.
4. Know your weaknesses, and assume that your rivals will share them with a potential customer. Be ready to counter such criticism.
5. Listen and learn. Listen for clues from your prospect that you can use to take a pitch in a new direction. Turn the conversation into a collaboration.
6. Find reasons to stay in touch. Make sure that the pitch meeting ends with a reason to follow up.
Coordinates: Neil Flett, firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.