Hi, I'm Cliff Atkinson - an author, speaker and consultant who can help you unlock the true value of clear communication

How to gain the edge to win your next pitch

The COO of a $1.1 billion company recently walked into a meeting room with his team to give a pitch worth $25 million annually.

They had spent years preparing to bid on the contract, and today was a pivotal moment, when he and his competitors each had an hour to make a positive impression and persuade his audience to award the bid to the best candidate.11080482376_602d236a44_b

There was no guarantee his company would win, so his team needed an edge that would increase their chances of winning, and they brought me in to help them find it.

After working together for a week, his team gave the pitch, and when he walked out of the room he immediately sent an email to his CEO saying,

This was the best presentation we’ve given in 5+ years, and I’m confident we’re going to win.”

He reported that the message was clear, the presenters were authentic and compelling, and the visuals were “AMAZING“.

He had found the winning edge he was looking for, and now his company is applying what the team learned to all of the 50+ pitches they deliver per year.

If you’d like to increase the chances of winning your own high-value pitches, try out the three core principles we applied to this remarkable pitch to gain a winning edge:

Start strong. One of the biggest mistakes presenters make is to begin with a whimper rather than a bang, so lose the agenda slide and start with a story instead. Plop us in the middle of a dramatic scene that your audience feels is familiar, where someone like them faces a high-stakes challenge and the way forward is uncertain. The right story will trigger the brainstem of audience members to feel connected, safe and trusting of you, and set a solid emotional framework for the rational argument you will make when you get into the details of the presentation next.

Make your structure your strategy. What are the three most important things you want your audience to remember when they walk out of the room? Many presenters never ask this critical question that could help them distill their message from many good points to the few most important ones. Try this technique: Write down the top 3 reasons your audience would say no to what you’re proposing, then make your response to those concerns the 3 major sections of your pitch. This approach melds your persuasive strategy into your pitch structure, and crafts one seamless, powerful line of argument.

Use a prompt, not a script. Memorizing the first moments of your introduction can help you make sure you nail it, but presenters who memorize their entire pitch most often come across as formal, stilted and unnatural. Instead, embed your story across the sequence of your slides and use simple graphics in a coherent way to prompt and guide your story from one frame to the next. It’s a paradox that the less you have on your slides, the more you bring to a live presentation experience, because you fill the space with your natural authority on your topics rather than confusing lines of text and a jumble of charts.

Not every presentation is worth the trouble of transformation, but when you have one that is, it’s worth the investment to make sure you deliver the best one you’ve given in 5+ years.

How to (Finally) Fix Your Company’s PowerPoint Culture

Recently a senior executive at one of the world’s largest banks contacted me to tell me about a problem he faced.wrench powerpoint

“Cliff, every day the best and brightest on my team are pitching me new projects, products and budgets,” he said. “I know my team is brilliant, but the way they’re pitching me is not.”

When I arrived at corporate headquarters to audit what the team was doing, I saw they were using – you guessed it – slide after slide of lists of text and a jumble of charts.

As I talked with the executive about the situation, he confided, “I’m frustrated because I have to work too hard to figure out what my team is trying to say with this firehose of information.”

He explained that at first he found himself interrupting presenters, asking them to get to the point. Then he sent links to articles about using graphics more effectively. Finally he drafted a set of guidelines to establish some minimum standards when they presented to him.

But, “It didn’t work,” he said. “In fact, it only got worse to the point that I saw our productivity dropping and the quality of out decision-making slipping.”

You, like my client, might face a similar situation today: you’ve come to realize that you have an entrenched “PowerPoint culture” at your organization that gums up the gears of progress instead of cutting through the clutter and delivering results faster and better.

After working with scores of corporate and legal clients over the past 15 years, I’ve discovered that PowerPoint culture can be notoriously resistant to any and all heroic efforts to fix it. Yet, I know it can change with commitment and perseverance.

So when the bank executive asked, “Can you help us?”, I was happy to reply yes, and together we took on the challenge.

Here are three central lessons we learned that may help you to fix your own PowerPoint culture at your organization:

Lesson 1: Fix the thinking and you’ll fix the slides. Buying a corporate subscription to a stock photography site will not make overloaded slides better – it will simply result in a confusing story that now has pictures. Overloaded slides are not a graphic design problem; they are a critical thinking problem. When you see an overloaded deck, you’re seeing the need for training on how to distill complexity to its essence, craft a logical argument, and tell a story. PowerPoint is simply making an existing skills deficit worse. So forget about the tools, and focus first on training your people to be better thinkers. Granted, it’s not as easy find training in critical thinking as it is in graphic design, but it’s crucial that you begin with this fundamental skill. When your people think clearly, they can’t help but communicate clearly – whether they choose to use PowerPoint or not.

Lesson 2: Fix the handout and you’ll fix the presentation. A vexing problem that organizations face is that years ago they made an unconscious choice to do away with reports and memos, and to replace them entirely with PowerPoint. In short order, information-dense pages of text were replaced with an information-light medium in the form of slides – but without the corresponding training in distilling complexity to its essence (see Lesson 1, above). The conflicted result has been decks that work poorly both as printed documents and as displayed slides. A few smart organizations have come up with a solution by using the Notes Page view as a standard for PowerPoint communications. This approach includes a clear headline at the top of the slide that summarizes the main point, a simple visual below in the slide area (which produces clear and simple slides), and additional detailed information in the text box on the bottom half of the notes page (which produces more robust printed or PDF handouts). The decision to shift to this approach needs to come top-down from headquarters as part of an organizational roll out, to establish the standard for everyone to follow. Otherwise, the entrenched culture will quickly stifle any individual efforts to try something new and improved.

Lesson 3: Redesign a deck and you present better for a day; redesign the process and you present better for a lifetime. Much of the blame for overloaded slides is placed on individual presenters, reportedly for using the tool as a “crutch.” Yet individuals are using the tool according to the norms and expectations of the culture around them. When the senior executive at the bank realized the problem was not about individual tastes in fonts and graphics, but about strategic concerns of speed and quality of decision-making, he dedicated substantial resources to solve the problem culturally. This translated into an approach that began to measure the impact of PowerPoint overload across his group, and continued to track how fixing the problem brought about tangible improvements in the form of increased speed, higher engagement, and better quality decision-making. This ensured that across the board there were reproducible processes in place that gave the entire team the training, skills and resources to be the best communicators they could be – through the rest of their careers, rather than for just one day.

At the end of our project at the bank, the executive shared, “Cliff, thank you for bringing about real change in our company culture – this has made a big difference.”

One of the practical realities of our age is that communication has shifted from a soft skill to a hard skill. The ability to find your point and get it across clearly and effectively is at the bottom line of every enterprise today.

As more organizations begin to dedicate resources to training its people to be clear thinkers and effective communicators – no matter what tools they use – we will (finally) fix our collective PowerPoint culture.

Throw Out Your Sales Pitch and Win More Business


If you’re part of a team that delivers pitches to win new business, you’re keenly aware of the value of the brief and precious time you have to meet in person with your prospective clients.

Yet, with millions often at stake in new and recurring revenue, you would be surprised to learn that many organizations don’t invest much in making sure their in-person pitches are as effective as they can be.

Some of the most common mistakes that sales teams make when they pitch are:

  • Doing the same thing they’ve always done, because it worked in the past
  • Orienting the pitch around them, rather than their audience
  • Neglecting the primal role of emotion in decision-making
  • Starting and closing with a whimper rather than a bang
  • Losing control of the narrative arc of the pitch

If you’ve fallen into any of these familiar ruts, it’s time to shake things up and freshen up your approach.

Here are 3 things you can do to begin:

  1. Start with a “black box.” Let go of the past and view your block of time and physical space like a black box theater, stripped away of everything you’ve done before. What could you do here that’s completely new, fresh, interesting and effective? How could you use projected image, sound, lighting, props, infographics and video to craft a well-designed, immersive experience?  What would it look like if you were to transform the pitch environment from a stuffy room into an engaging theater of persuasion?
  2. Do a mind meld. If you still have slides with headlines that read “About Us,” “Our Capabilities” and “Our Team,” it’s time to send those back to 1999 where they belong. Instead, create a new set of slides that your team uses internally for planning and strategy, with a photo and profile of each decision-maker involved in the approval process, both inside and outside the pitch room. Print the slides, tape them to a wall, and discuss with your team: What do we know about these individuals who will be in our audience? What’s going on in their minds? What are the reasons they would say no to our proposal? As you merge minds with the real and specific people who will be in the room, it will become easier to distill and tailor your content specifically to their needs.
  3. Anchor in a story. With your audience profile complete, it’s time to orient the entire narrative arc of your pitch around taking them from Point A (a challenge they face) to Point B (where they want to be). It will take the collective smarts of your team to come up with the single best story that will drive your pitch from a strong start to a strong ending. Once you find it, you’ll have the clear direction that helps you decide what goes into the live meeting, and what remains in printed materials. A winning story makes the audience the main character, appeals to emotion, accelerates understanding, clearly articulates benefits, increases memorability, and makes it easy for those in the room to advocate for you when the pitch is over.

Are you willing to throw out your current corporate sales pitch, if it means the possibility of winning more business?

For many companies facing increasing competition in a crowded marketplace, the answer is yes.

Podcast: What you can learn from high-stakes presentations

What can you learn when you look under the hood of million-dollar presentations?

Listen in on this podcast where Amiel Handelsman interviews me about the key lessons anyone can learn from high stakes presentations.

Amiel is an executive coach, change consultant and author of Practice Greatness: Escape Small Thinking, Listen Like A Master, And Lead With Your Best.

Click to visit podcast page

Bringing your audiences into resonance

brains2A recent research study discovered that during lower-quality speeches, the brain activity of audience members was out of sync.

During higher-quality speeches, “listeners as a group were more coupled to each other, suggesting that powerful speeches are more potent in taking control of the listeners’ brain responses.”

What are your favorite ways to bring your audiences into resonance?