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Pitch perfect: the experts' guide to selling an idea

A pitch is often all there is between an individual and their film getting made or their business receiving funding. Having a good idea can be the easy part – selling it to strangers requires nerves of steel and more than a working knowledge of the art of persuasion.

Ad agency adam&eveDDB has pitched for and won some of the biggest ad accounts in the UK since it launched 10 years ago. In one of its first major pitches, the agency won the John Lewis account and continues to make the Christmas ads that send the country into meltdown every year.

With this kind of experience, pitching is now presumably a breeze. Not so, says David Golding, one of the agency’s founding partners, who is still “terrified” before a pitch. “It’s utterly nerve-racking to have that mini Olympic 100 metres, where you’ve devoted yourself to training for this thing for a long time and you don’t want to stumble out of the blocks.”

Deborah Meaden has witnessed that fear on hundreds of faces over 12 series of Dragons’ Den. She says: “I make allowances, but if they can’t get their act together, that would worry me. I would think: ‘Gosh, they’re not going to cope very well in difficult situations in real life.’ I’m learning about them, so it’s not a good thing if they can’t recover.”



Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden has witnessed hundreds of pitches. Photograph: Andrew Farrington/BBC

The same is true in adland, says Golding. If people are nervous and cannot present, “the client is left thinking: ‘These guys didn’t have much faith in their own work,’ and that’s very important. Confidence is important.”

That is where training can come in helpful. Emma Zangs and Mariana Marquez founded Metaspeech, which runs online courses teaching tech companies how to pitch more successfully. Both are choreographers and use their background in dance to help clients to communicate better.

Zangs says that movement, correctly controlled, can help combat nerves. “A lot of the time when we are pitching, it’s very overwhelming. There is a lot of adrenaline, so the body can become very agitated or very numb.” She suggests putting feet flat to the floor, if sitting down, and using hand gestures and head movements to calm down. “If the movements are aligned with what we are talking about, the brain has a lot more space.”

Part of the battle is feeling good while presenting. Zangs says that human beings are very empathetic: “If someone is anxious or very excited, we feel that as well. That’s very important in our training, to always think: ‘How am I feeling and how am I making the person in front of me feel?’”

Golding, for one, tries to relish the opportunity to pitch to a client. “I remember someone telling me once, with a job interview, that you could either look at it as a terrifying moment where your whole life turns on it, or as one of the few opportunities in life when someone is going to spend half an hour just talking about you.

“We prefer to look at a pitch in that respect. We’ve got an opportunity to talk to a brand owner and they are fascinated by what we think.”

He says that the chemistry between the people pitching is crucial. “One of the biggest points of difference between a successful pitching team and an unsuccessful one is the extent to which the client thinks that team is a unit, that they get on brilliantly together.”

Across industries, sincerity is the one thing everyone appears to want in a pitch. Nicola Shindler, founder of production company Red, which has been behind everything from Queer as Folk to Happy Valley, says: “If you genuinely love something, you’ll talk about it in a way that shows how it would work on television. It shouldn’t be flash; it should be sincere. You’ve got to believe it.”

Nicola Shindler, founder of Red Production Company, has been behind Queer As Folk and Happy Valley



Nicola Shindler, founder of production company Red, says you have to show sincerity when pitching. Photograph: Paul Heyes

She says that Last Tango in Halifax was a tough sell because it was a relationship drama about two families, rather than a cop drama or another genre piece. “What Sally [Wainwright, the writer] did so brilliantly was set up the idea of two people who fell in love when they were 15 and hadn’t seen each other for years. They met up and on one day fell in love again and decided to get married. Once she talked through the beauty of that story, everyone was won over.”

There is a danger of being reductive in a pitch, says Shindler. “You come up with a brilliant phrase about what it’s going to be. Actually, things are so much more complicated than that. Nothing is ever two sentences. It’s characters and moral complexity and all those things.”

One way to tackle that is by talking it through. Shindler says that pitching is much more conversational with UK broadcasters, compared with those in the US. “You hope that through the conversation they can start to see and hear how complicated it is.”

By contrast, all Meaden wants from a pitch is clarity. She says the most successful pitch she ever gave was when she borrowed “lots of millions of pounds” to buy Weststar Holiday Parks. “I was very clear on being able to explain not only what it was I was doing, but also what I wanted to do, why I needed the cash and why I was the person to do it with.”

Meaden is not, however, looking for a perfect pitch from the entrepreneurs that approach her. She recalls young entrepreneur Jordan Daykin’s appearance on Dragons’ Den, when he presented his product that was supposed to fix heavy items to plasterboard walls.

“What I loved about his pitch is he actually had a catastrophe in the middle of it. Peter Jones went over and pulled the radiator off the wall and said the GripIts don’t work. Jordan very clearly explained, it’s not the GripIts that don’t work, the plasterboard was slightly damp because it was left out last night. He just carried on explaining why this was such a good product and that blew me away,” she says.

Meaden invested and Daykin has gone on to be one of the most successful entrepreneurs to come out of the programme. She says: “Sometimes it’s the errors that make it an outstanding pitch. It’s the things that go wrong and how well it’s recovered.”


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