What Breaks -- or Makes -- a Presentation

Excerpt: Save the Jargon and the Radical Risks; Be a Leader By Respecting Client's Culture

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When he isn't jet-setting across the globe to throw an Effies bash or develop new partnerships on behalf of DDB Worldwide, Cleve Langton is writing down everything he knows about making friends in the ad world. He just released "New Business Lessons from Madison Avenue," a no-frills guide to drafting the perfect pitch, from start to finish. With 20 years of pitching new business behind him, Langton is chock-full of juicy tips. Here's an excerpt. Let us know what you think, or even just share your own best new business tip. -- Matt Kinsey

Winning new business requires the ultimate combination of persuasion, showmanship and mastery of strategy and execution. It also demands a keen understanding of the elements that make the difference between winning and coming in second. In the quest for new business, success hinges upon that critical and pivotal moment, the presentation.

Some presentation makers and breakers are obvious; many are not. One of the more subtle, but deadly, presentation killers is presenting a recommendation that is strategically sound and highly creative but pushes the tolerance for risk a bit too far. The excerpt below, taken from my book, "New Business Lessons From Madison Avenue: Proven Strategies and Tactics for Professional Services Companies," examines that and other presentation makers and breakers -- and provides advice for knocking it out of the park. It is a how-to guide for every step of the new-business process, including development of the new-business plan, the key elements for successful prospecting, and the strategies and tactics that are critical to success in the pitch.

Risk of Going Counterculture
You loved the idea, your prospect's target audience loved the idea ... but you lost the pitch because your client didn't buy it.

Why? Because a lot of times you sold him something he couldn't or wouldn't buy because it didn't fit his company's corporate culture. He knew the CEO or the board wouldn't support it, no matter how innovative the idea.

Frequently, in the heat of a review, both sides want change and want to take risks. The chief marketing officer or chief communications officer wants radical change, and they get into a temporary state of euphoria or machoism. This happens all too often with midlevel clients who overstate their ability to effect change. Being innovative and provocative in your presentation is great. Going against a long-standing company philosophy or style is like diving into a shallow pool. Suki Thompson, a seasoned consultant in London, makes it very clear: "Clients talk about wanting a revolution but they'll generally only buy an evolution in a pitch.

"They will buy a revolution only when they're working comfortably with you."

Reading CEO speeches and the company's annual report are great sources of information on what truly makes the company tick and what the tolerance for change and risk really is. Most large companies have relatively narrow parameters of what's acceptable and what's not. Unless there's a very dramatic business imperative, most CEOs don't step out of their circles of comfort. The annals of lost pitches are littered with great (possibly business-doubling) ideas that just didn't fit within the corporate culture.

Use the corporate culture screen for both the work you present and to guide the casting of your team. Doing it wrong in either case can doom your chances of winning.

Alan Pottasch, PepsiCo's creative guru and a legend in the business, taught me a lot when I worked with him. With respect to cultural fit, he expressed it this way to me: "Always strive to break new ground, but break it in the context of the client's culture and tolerance for risk. New ground is great . . . shallow ground is foolhardy. Always push to limits, but not when the commitment is too thin to support its weight."

Julie Roehm knows a lot about the importance of cultural fit, based on her experience in senior marketing positions at Chrysler and Wal-Mart. Julie expressed it to me this way:

"Cultural fit is an essential element in the pitch process. It is why 'chemistry checks' and 'tissue sessions' are critically important.

"Frequently, a recommendation might be absolutely right for the brand, but absolutely wrong for the company culture." Well said, Julie.

"If I expose the work too early, it will destroy the drama of the final presentation." That's the most frequent objection to litmus-testing ideas with the prospect during the pitch process.

Like anything, overexposure dulls the image, but underexposure leaves an image that's poorly defined, or worse yet, partially or totally off target.

No architect ever builds a house without client sign-off on the basic plans, yet a number of professional services companies (particularly ad agencies) do work in isolation from the client's guidance or approval during the new-business process. This is done either out of fear of asking, arrogance or ignorance, but it's clearly not worth the risk.

The element of surprise is good in a mystery movie, but it can backfire in a presentation unless your prospect buys into your basic direction and premise.

The Germans have a great expression, "Schulterblick" -- "schulter" meaning shoulder and "blick" meaning to look.

Allowing your prospect to look over your shoulder to see parts of what you're doing builds confidence and trust.

It also builds mutual ownership, which is critical in a pitch situation.

Most successful pitches have the client's fingerprints all over the critical elements of the pitch so that it's partially presold.

Surprise your prospect only within tested parameters.

Partnership vs. Leadership
Most professional services firms think partnership is perceived as client nirvana. The reality is maybe yes, maybe no. Overemphasis on partnership can conjure up images of walking hand-in-hand down the yellow brick road with your prospect. That used to be a nice image but today it also communicates redundancy of effort, and money and time that the client doesn't feel he or she has to waste.

Alan Thompson, an experienced consultant in London, makes it very clear: "I think 'partnership' is out. It's a hackneyed phrase that is seldom delivered. It also smacks of doubling costs in too many areas. Leadership is much more compelling.

"The professional-services firm has to listen actively and act appropriately by making decisions where they need to be taken.

"They need to lead more than partner."

What clients really want is leadership in areas in which they are underdeveloped or have no expertise. All too frequently, we talk about the critical role the client must play in our systems or processes. That's great to a point, but don't make it seem ponderous and overly time-consuming.

Puffery: The Soft-Pitch Killer
Call it puffery, call it innocent exaggeration, call it exuberance or pride –– whatever you call it, too many adjectives (a.k.a. exaggerations) undermine credibility and are silent pitch killers. The problem is a lack of modulation. Great songs and great dramas have high points and rest periods. If everything is at a high level all the time, nothing emerges as important.

The same thing applies to the words you use in your written submission and in your presentation. If you describe everything as "superior," "unique," "best," "only," the reader or listener tends to discount or even discredit everything you say. The truth is that very few systems or capabilities are truly "unique" –– they may be good, but your competitor generally has something comparable. The test for using what I call "super-superlatives" is if you can't prove it's absolutely superior, don't say it. If you want to validate a system or capability, demonstrate its value in the context of a case history where you can show that your system or capability delivered demonstrable results on the client's business.

Another way is to get third-party endorsement from a current client. When clients use super-superlatives in testimonials in support of your firm –– as long as they don't overdo it and come across as shills –– it can be very compelling to the prospect. Hyperbole is received one way when it's said by the client, and the opposite when it's said boastfully by the services firm.

Joanne Davis, a professional services search and marketing consultant in New York, wraps it up nicely: "If I had a dollar for every agency that said they have a 'unique' process, I could buy a BMW." Enough said.

As Martin Jones and Paul Phillips, savvy consultants in London, so aptly put it: "The more hyperbole you have, the more desperate and unconfident you look. The most confident agencies don't need to exaggerate. Understatement is far more powerful and believable than overstatement." David Wethey, a consultant also based in London, sums it up well: "Unique," "best" and "only" are extremely powerful when they're true. Unfortunately, frequently they're not."

One final point on the adjectives, disclaimers and seemingly harmless statements. Avoid statements that begin with the following:
  • I think ...
  • In my (our) opinion ...
  • Gut feeling tells us ...
  • Honestly ...
  • Quite frankly ...
These qualifying or mitigating statements weaken your statement or premise. They are meant to emphasize or support, but they do the opposite. They detract credibility rather than enhance it.

Caution on Jargon
PSL, ERL and KSL are my wife's and kids' initials but they have as much meaning to CEOs, even CMOs, as do a lot of service-industry jargon and acronyms. Most professional services firms have an industry jargon that's all their own and indecipherable to the outside world. That's fine until the jargon is used in presentations and your prospect doesn't have a clue what you're talking about. And worse yet, since he or she generally doesn't want to acknowledge he doesn't know what you are talking about, key parts of the presentation can be misunderstood.

Impossible, you say. Not at all if your prospect CEO came up through sales or finance and has no clue what advertising, direct mail, PR or promotion jargon means. Jargon is the silent meeting killer. We all use jargon as a way to streamline and shortcut communication but, in truth, it's more of a short circuit than a shortcut. Industry jargon is insidious and it becomes unnoticeable to you.

Jargon generally creeps up in two forms. First is the "of course everybody knows what that means." Second is the "I'll show them I really know my stuff" jargon. If you want to really feel how annoying jargon can be, go into your local mass merchandiser and try to buy a flat-screen TV. You'll get pixeled and "high def'ed" to death, and you'll probably come away totally frustrated and confused. Learn the lesson that built and then rebuilt Apple –– keep it simple and user-friendly and jargon-free.

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Excerpted with permission from "New Business Lessons From Madison Avenue: Proven Strategies and Tactics for Professional Services Companies."

Cleve Langton is corporate exec VP-director of business development worldwide at DDB Worldwide Communications Group. He is founding chairman of the New Business Committee of the AAAA and is chairman of the Global Effie Committee.
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