All the World's a Stage

The Role of Pitch Theater

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Michael Girts Michael Girts
For better of for worse, I often find myself thinking like an actor.

I majored in theater in college, and I moved to Chicago to study improvisation and tackle the phenomenal theater scene this town has to offer. And while my new big-boy job at Leo Burnett means I spend a lot less time on stage and a lot more time in my cubicle, performance is still very much a part of what we regularly do here.

Earlier this month, I had my first chance to sit in on a new-business pitch. I watched members of our executive committee pitch Leo Burnett to the CEO of a prospective client. I was certainly interested in watching our people pitch our agency credentials, the thinking behind our strategy and our proposed creative executions. After all, that's what we had been working on for weeks and weeks.

But I was much more interested, however, in watching the prospective client react to our presentation. It was fascinating to watch their body language. When did they nod? When did they lean and whisper to each other? Whose attention had we captured? Whose head was down in his laptop the entire time?

In the Los Angeles Business Journal, one pitch consultant talked about how many of these agency reviews can be "major dog and pony shows."

"I'm a great fan of intelligence," he says. "Often, the bigger your stunt, the smaller your idea."

I'm a big believer in simplicity. Leo Burnett in particular is a very down-to-earth, Midwestern-type ad agency. Still, I think there's something to be said for a little bit of pitch theater.

I watched the moments when the prospective client was enthralled. I saw us capture the CEO's attention when some speakers engaged him. I watched other moments where we lost the room's attention -- where our point wasn't presented clearly or enthusiastically.

Style matters. Tone matters. Casting matters.

I've heard the theory that rehearsing makes a presentation seem, well, rehearsed. Like that somehow makes you seem less authentic.

I strongly disagree with that point of view. Yes, as a presenter, you don't want to sound memorized. But a well-rehearsed presentation makes the presenters seem prepared, polished and self-assured. And when it comes down to it, a client is often buying the people in the room every bit as much as they're buying an idea or campaign.

In the world of sketch comedy, they call it knowing your "beats." You don't memorize a script word-for-word. But you know the beats -- the major points -- that you need to hit in order for the comedy to work.

A well-rehearsed presentation is far more likely to hit the right beats and to make your one or two major points more clearly and more succinctly. This lets your audience know that you're a confident and credible source who (1) values their time and (2) believes what you're saying.

I agree with the pitch consultant who's wary of too much flash or too much fluff. The best and brightest people can whittle down complicated ideas to a simple statement (says the blogger near the end of his long post).

Still, a little bit of pitch theater can go a long way toward winning the people in the room. And you've got to win the people to win the business.