The Pitch Process

By The Drum, Administrator

March 30, 2005 | 7 min read

Why is it that in Britain, having the confidence to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk nerve-free is somehow resented? That it is something best left to the Americans or Jose Mourinho and shouldn’t infringe on the British reserve. However, in a feng shui-designed conference centre in the centre of London, Adline is speaking with a very confident man. By his accent alone, we can confirm he is neither an American nor Mr Mourinho. He is in fact, Steve McDermott – former creative director at Brahm.

The reason for his presence at the Energy Clinic today is that he has been hired to give a speech about presentation skills. It is part of the press launch of a new piece of interactive technology from Promethean AV Distribution, which is designed to relieve the so-called problem of “death by PowerPoint” (his words, not ours) and breathe personality into presentations.

McDermott, for those of you who aren’t aware, is no longer an ad-man. He is now a best-selling author (see How to be a Complete and Utter Failure in Life, Work and Everything), a leading motivational speaker (see his European Business Speaker of the Year trophy) and one-third of presentation coaching company, The Confident Club.

McDermott has nothing but praise for the new technology, however, Adline is keener to hear whether his work as a motivational speaker has given him greater insight into the world of advertising, especially the much maligned pitch process. So, having listened intently to his presentation (and learned a lot, it has to be said) we’ve dragged McDermott to one side to discuss his former career.

“I spent 15 years in advertising,” said McDermott, sporting a rather wry smile in the process. “I love the advertising industry. I just happened to find something that I was better at.

“I was never one of the creatives whose work would provoke a ‘wow, that’s incredible’ reaction,” he said, with the kind of honesty that’s at a premium in the industry. “We had those people in the department, but I was always more successful than them. Simply because I knew how to sell my ideas.”

However, while McDermott always had the gift of the gab, the benefit of hindsight has given him the opportunity to look back at past mistakes. “On reflection, we made some bad decisions when it came to pitching. We would always be looking for a gimmick – something that had a novelty factor – to win over a client. The trouble is, so often a client won’t appreciate it. They don’t think the same way that a creative team does.”

During the aforementioned presentation, McDermott had discussed personality tests, in particular, the ‘which shape best reflects your personality?’ aspect. The options for the said test are, a square, a circle, a triangle and a squiggle. At the far ends of the scale are the squares, the right side of the brain thinkers, and the squiggles, people who are prone to using the left side of their brains. Creatives are most definitely, and quite unsurprisingly, the squiggles, while clients, according to McDermott, can be any one of the shapes, “often the straight to the point, results-focused triangle.” He added: “It’s important to remember who you’re presenting to. There’s definitely a case when pitching to deliver a far more direct and straight to the point approach.”

Clearly dragging up old memories, talk turns to his experiences in the pitch room. “I remember one pitch. We’d created this little mailer,” commented McDermott, making a shape with his hands about five inches squared, “the trouble was, we were standing too far away from the people we were pitching to for them to understand what we had in mind. So we asked if we could approach them to show them what it was, and they said ‘no’. We couldn’t believe it.

“Anyway, we came out of the pitch thinking about how badly it had gone, when we bumped into another agency, which we knew beforehand, and who had pitched for the account before us. We told them how badly it went and they said that theirs went even worse. They’d created an idea for a new look for the firm’s branding. Being clever and realising that the office of the marketing team was on the second floor – and in the eye-line of a bus – they had arranged for their concept to appear on the side of a hired bus that would be driving past the window during their pitch. Anyway, all is going well and they’re in contact with the driver and hear he’s just about to pass the window, so they ask the marketing team if they wouldn’t mind coming to the window for a moment. But they wouldn’t get up to have a look. They just told them to get on with their presentation.”

Having put those days behind him, the latest step in McDermott’s illustrious career is The Confident Club, which he founded alongside fellow Yorkshireman and ad-man Phil Hesketh and Mancunian Paul McGee. The Northern trio work with CEOs, senior managers, sports people, politicians and television presenters, and specialise, according to McDermott, in “making people more confident.”

Among the firm’s many clients are a number of advertising agencies, who employee McDermott and his colleagues to coach their staff in the art of presentation. “When I looked back, there was so much I didn’t know because the training in this area was just never available in the industry. The Confident Club has been able to provide such coaching to people working at all levels of an agency.”

Conceptual thinkers, it would seem, don’t automatically make for great presenters. However, they’re not alone, as a recent piece of research into people’s fears, which McDermott has been involved in, highlights.

“Four per cent of us are afraid of parenthood and another four per cent are scared of the dark. Eight per cent are afraid of flying, or perhaps more accurately, crashing, and unemployment is feared by 16 per cent. Confined spaces is feared by 21 per cent while spiders scare 24 per cent of us.”

And now for the top three: “In at number three is death, with 28 per cent. At number two is the fear of heights with 34 per cent. However, at number one, with a whopping 42 per cent, is the fear of speaking in public.” What this suggests, as McDermott so humorously points out is that, “people would rather die than speak in public.”

If you’re one of those people, and are one of the ‘one in two’ Britons that presents as part of their jobs (another finding of the research), then don’t worry, McDermott has some valuable advice. “Make your audience wait. It’s your show, so take your time and remember to take a break. Silence can be more dramatic than turning the volume up, so use it. Also, speed up and slow down – remember to use pace. It’s important to create change for your audience and varying the tempo is one way of achieving this.”

After drawing for breath and taking one of those dramatic pauses he has talked about, he continued: “38 per cent of communication is tone of voice. Only 7 per cent is about what you actually say and 55 per cent is about physiology. It’s amazing how people fret about what is actually being said. Using your voice and the right body language is so important.”

We must admit, Adline has been feeling pretty comfortable throughout our little chat and has been hanging on McDermott’s every word. So if you want to up that conversion rate of pitches to new business wins, do it in style by wowing the clients and be an all round more confident person, then it might just be worth listening to what Steve McDermott has to say.

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