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The Art of Pitching

I'm very pleased to see that New Business magazine have published my article about my observations on pitching within the TV series The Apprentice.

The latest series of the Apprentice came to the end of its television journey here in the UK with the inevitable media focus on entrepreneurial business skills and, in particular, the art of pitching.

Almost every episode of the popular, business-based cross between a reality program and a game show features the contestants having to make a pitch.

They pitch for business, pitch for orders, pitch ideas and they pitch to keep their jobs in the boardroom showdown at the end of each week's task. What's interesting is that, every week, Lord Sugar says that he's not looking for a sales person, yet every week the task involves selling something; either low key, selling products to individuals, or high stakes pitching to the buyers of major retailers.

What does this mean? Is buying and selling all there is to running a business?

Fundamentally, what defines a business is profit. I don't mean that profit defines how good your business is, I mean that profit is what distinguishes a business from a public sector organisation, charity or foundation. Yes, these organisations need to raise capital to cover their operating expenses, but they are not driven or measured by the delivery of raw, financial value over and above that.

Fundamentally, every business has to buy raw materials, add value and then sell some kind of finished product. It might buy graduates, add training and then sell accountancy services. It might buy equipment, add support expertise and sell an IT service. Or it might buy electronic components, add design expertise and sell computers. All of these examples point to one principle; that business is indeed about buying and selling.

While Lord Sugar may have the contestants buying and selling waste materials, biscuits, fruit or illuminated teapots, what he is actually doing is stripping business down to its raw essentials.

Where does pitching fit into this? Every week, we hear one or more contestants saying, "I want the opportunity to do the pitch", or, "I delivered the pitch", or, even "I pitched it to him", referring to the point where a contestant asked a builder if she could have another copper hot water tank. The contestants vie for attention, trying to win the team leader's favour so that they can do the pitch. Is pitching really that important to the success of the task or business? Or is it just an opportunity to "shine"? And how closely does the fiction of a TV game show fit reality?

One thing that we never see in The Apprentice is Lord Sugar pitching. Is this another sign that a pitch is no more than a ‘beauty parade'?

Let's first look at what a pitch is. It is a sales cycle compressed into a very short space of time, perhaps as much as twenty minutes, or as little as three.

Whilst sales is an interactive process, with a good sales person listening much more than speaking, one of the difficulties in a pitch is the buyer's expectation that the sales person does all the talking, while they listen and make their minds up. If the sales person doesn't get it ‘right', no deal.

So a pitch isn't made ‘off the cuff', it's the culmination of a great deal of hard work, understanding the needs of the client or target market. One of the biggest problems that the contestants in The Apprentice face, week after week, is clearly identifying their target market. All too often, they start with an idea, or a name, instead of a target customer.

Advertising is an even more condensed form of pitching. In an advert, you're broadcasting, "This is the product, are you the right person to buy it?" It's a product led pitch, and it relies on getting in front of as many people as possible, preferably within the target market.

And so we end up with two types of pitch; client led and product led. And Lord Sugar's bias is very towards the client led pitch. Every time he talks about his own business career, he talks about customers; major retailers and consumers. Yes, he sees himself as operating in a particular market, but what he really seems to focus on is what the buyer needs. Yes, he had to pitch products, but he didn't pitch blindly. I would bet that every pitch he delivered was calculated and targeted to meet that buyer's needs.

Does Lord Sugar still pitch? In a way, yes. At the start of each week's task, he pitches to the contestants. You might think that they can't really say, "no thanks", but he is still aiming to get their buy in, to clearly communicate what he is looking for. Every week, he is very specific and gives a big clue about the success of the task. And every week, the contestants overlook that clue and get wrapped up in their own excitement, politics and desire to be in the limelight.

What clues are you missing from your clients because you're too focused on what you want to say? What needs are you failing to meet because you're too wrapped up in your own? Pitching is just a small part of the sales cycle, or it encapsulates the whole process, depending on how you look at it.

How important is the skill, really?

That all depends on how much you want to win.

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