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5 rules for creating a winning pitch story

Every pitch needs a story. Skip the storytelling phase and you might as well feed coins into a one-armed bandit. Your chances of winning will be about the same. But you can’t go with just any story. You need the right one. And you can’t just pull it out of the air. You have to build it plank by plank and lay each plank carefully in place. Engage in shoddy story construction and your edifice will collapse — along with any hope of winning the pitch. Here are five rules to help you tell the client a story they can’t refuse.

1. Make an outline. Seriously, make an outline

Would you set out on a road trip without a map or GPS? No you would not. And yet, most pitch teams embark on the story-planning process without an outline, which is tantamount to driving cross-country without a navigational device. Creating an outline before you dive headlong into the evidence-gathering phase (the Middle of your story) will help you avoid getting hopelessly lost. I give my clients a Story Outline worksheet (a copy of which is included in Pitch) to help them navigate the process, but you can easily construct your own outline. Remember to leave space to state your thesis and conclusion (the Beginning and End of your story), and the three areas you plan to cover evidence-wise.

2. Write a synopsis that taps into the client’s needs

If you want to find out more about a book, you go on Amazon and read its synopsis. It tells you the story in a nutshell and helps you decide whether to press ‘Add to Cart’. When it comes to creating a synopsis for a business pitch, I suggest you distill your story’s key messages into three simple statements, and arrange them in a logical sequence. A synopsis should always consist of three statements because it’s easier for the brain to absorb messages in threes. Of all the considerations to keep in mind when creating your synopsis, this one’s top of list: make sure you tailor your synopsis to the client’s needs. For instance, I worked with a team once that was pitching on a contract to manage communications for a bank after a restructuring. The client’s priority was to ensure stability and reassure its employees in the wake of change. Here’s the synopsis our team devised, along with an explanation for how each synopsis part answers the client’s need.


(Message: We’ll dispel rumors and give bank employees the straight facts.)


(Message: We’ll allay employees’ fears and explain how the restructuring will affect them.)


(Message: We’ll help employees adjust to the new reality and look to the future.)

3. Persuade with proof, not hot air

Salespeople love to brag. They brag because they’re proud of their product or service and they think it’s the best way to convince a client to buy what they’re selling. But if you try to back up your story with boasts, you’ll fail. You need hard evidence. And you have to think long and hard about each piece of evidence you choose to support your story. Is it relevant? Does it link to your thesis? Every time you select a piece of evidence, ask those two questions. If the evidence doesn’t pass muster on both counts, get rid of it and find an alternative.

4. Think about your evidence through the client’s eyes

You may find a piece of evidence compelling, but you’re not the client, which is why you should avoid the temptation to jam every fascinating fact you come across into your pitch. Far better to examine every piece of evidence upside-down and sideways from the client’s point of view, select a few relevant items, and go deep. Your goal is to tell a targeted story, not make a gumbo.

5. Strive for an A on the BBQ Test

So you’ve come up with a brilliant, targeted story. Your last task is to perfect it in the telling so it comes trippingly off the tongue. The absolute best way to accomplish that goal is by imagining someone who was present for your pitch explaining to someone who wasn’t present why you won the contract. If you can tell your story so succinctly that Person A chatting casually to Person B at a barbecue can easily explain why you won the business, congratulations. Your story is pitch perfect. The BBQ Test (aka Elevator Pitch) is an incredibly valuable tool to test-drive the effectiveness of your story before you pitch because it forces you to crystallize and internalize it so completely that telling it becomes second nature. Always aim for an A on the BBQ Test before the big day.

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