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How to Pitch a Project

Q: My partner and I just started our own firm and we’re pitching our first big project in a few days. Do you have any tips?

Yes I do. I rock pitches. Everyone who pitches work should think they rock pitches. Otherwise, you’re gonna make some weak-ass pitches. And no one wants to sit through those. Including your prospective client.

For those who don’t know, a pitch is when you go talk to a prospective client and persuade them to work with you. There are usually several teams pitching the same project. Your first mistake is to believe you’re pitching against them. You’re not. You’re pitching your ability to do the project right.

Also, I’ve promised never to lie to you so I’ll tell you this: pitching work is nerve-wracking. It sucks. You’ll start out being terrible at it, but with enough practice, you’ll get better. Slowly. Like a turtle. You won’t even notice it at first. Then one day you’ll be in the middle of a pitch and realize you forgot to throw up that morning—progress isn’t always pretty.

Pitches can be subjective as hell, too. There are too many variables. Some of which you have no control over. Like what did your client have for breakfast? Are they worried about something else? Is their brother-in-law in trouble again? Do they have a buddy at a competing agency? You can nail a pitch and still lose a job for a crazy-making reason. That said, we’ve also won jobs because we were the buddy at the competing agency. Or because the client got some good news right before we went in. And I’ve also walked out of pitches thinking I’d blown it only to get a phone call a few days later finding out we’d been awarded the job. So I figure it’s all a wash.

That said, I got some tips to help you out. Does following these tips guarantee you’ll get the job? Not by a longshot, but they improve your odds of walking out being able to say “I did everything I possibly could to improve my chances.”

Go get ’em, tiger!

It’s not about you

It’s never about you. No one cares about you. (Except me. I love you dearly.) No one cares how many awards you’ve gotten. No one cares you won a Webby six years ago. No one cares if you wrote the book on client services. People want to know if you understand and can fix their problems. Remember that these people have probably fought tooth and nail to get the budget for this project. They have a pain point and they’re shopping around for the right person to help ease their pain. Show them you’re that person.

No one wants an ER doctor who spends an hour showing you examples of their past work. So tell them who you are. Spend no more than two minutes talking about yourself or your studio in a way that inspires confidence, and make the rest of the conversation about them.

“But Mike, they told us to bring examples of other projects!” That’s right. Because they’re looking for their new website in your portfolio. So go ahead and show them a couple of recent projects but tie them to problems they have. For example “Here’s Acme Novelty. Acme had a workflow issue very similar to the one you described. Here’s how we fixed it for them…” They’ll feel their pain point melting away.

Confidence is contagious

As much as pitching may make you uncomfortable, you only have to sit through one. The people on the other side of the table have to sit through a bunch. And it’s laborious. They’ll hear a lot of bad pitches this day. They’ll talk to a lot of nervous people. Have some empathy for what they’re going through as well. Don’t be boring. Be the pitch that doesn’t suck. Be the pitch that makes them think they don’t have to go through any more pitches. Be the pitch that makes them think they’ve found a lifelong partner and never have to go through this process again.

Your confidence is for their benefit. And it’s contagious.

Ask good questions

The key to every good pitch meeting is to get the client talking. They’ve waited a long time to get this project started. They’ve probably suffered under their current site for way too long. And this is the moment they’ve been waiting for. And not only do you absolutely need to hear what they have to tell you, they’ll feel great telling you. It’s like the burden is moving from them to you. And once you have it they won’t want it back so they might as well just hire you. So make sure you walk in with a bunch of good questions to ask.

“What kind of site do you want?” is not a good question.

“What impact do you see the new site having on quarterly earnings?” is a good question.

Don’t minimize their problem

Here’s a good story. We once took a red-eye across the country to pitch a project we were really excited about (Pro tip: never pitch after coming off a red eye). We knew going in they had a fairly complex editorial workflow issue. Fixing that was the main goal of the project. So we partnered with someone who was really fantastic at editorial workflows. During the pitch, they described their problem and we shot back that it would be a piece of cake to fix. And honestly, with the talent that we’d assembled it would have been. But we minimized their problem. They felt like they were pushing a ten-ton rock up a hill every day and we made them feel like it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t get the job.

No matter how easy you might think it is to fix someone’s problem, remember that their pain is real. Acknowledge it. Then fix it.

Don’t bring spec work

This is one of the most stupid and selfish things you can do as a designer. Stupid because you don’t yet understand the problem you’re being asked to solve in any meaningful way. Selfish because the pitch meeting now becomes about this golden turd you just dragged in with you. It’s supposed to be about the client. But instead of having any meaningful discussion about what the client is trying to accomplish we have to discuss something that doesn’t have anything to do with anything. And now you’re being judged on guesswork instead of your problem-solving skills.

“But Mike! People ask for it.”

I’ve gone to plenty of pitch meetings where the client asked me to bring spec work. And I use it as an opportunity to tell them why I didn’t bring it and how it would have been detrimental to what they’re trying to do. The truth is that I have no idea how to solve their problem yet. That’s going to come from having a lot of conversations with people. And from doing a lot of research. What I do have is a process I believe in, one that’s worked time and time again. And I tell them that anyone who walks in telling them they already know how to solve the problem is lying to them.

And just like that, I screwed anyone else who might be coming in with spec work that day.

Make it a kickoff

The best way to show people what it’s like to work with you is to start working. Forget that it’s a pitch. Treat it like a kickoff. Let the conversation flow and gently guide it right into interviews. Make the pitch meeting the first step of the discovery process. Someone mentions Sam in engineering? Ask when you can speak to Sam in engineering.

Look, your client wants the pitch process to be over as much as you do. They want to get started. So show them what that looks like. And show them that you’re able to take the project by the horns. Just don’t overdo it, this technique takes a lot of nuances. It’s an advanced skill.

Don’t make a thing

For the love of god, don’t make a special thing to give them. If your company has written a book, great. Give them a copy. Even better, give them a copy of You’re My Favorite Client! (Always be selling.) If you have stickers, t-shirts, pens, give them some. But don’t hand them a bespoke craft project to remember you by. They’ll feel awkward as they throw it in the trash. And then they’ll be too guilty to ever want to see you again.

Don’t sweat the deck

If you’ve made it all the way through the deck you’re not getting the project. The sooner you’re not paying attention to the deck and just having a normal conversation the better your chances of landing the project. So put a few things together. A couple of slides about you. A couple of slides about them. A couple of slides of past work. But don’t make the pitch meeting about the deck. The goal isn’t to finish the deck. The goal is to get the work.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I don’t show any tattoos until after the job is signed. You’re gonna have to decide how important that nose ring is on your own.