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Don’t enjoy pitching? Bring discipline to the process.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think developing a pitch should be a fun, rewarding experience. Ideally, coming up with a pitch allows you to solve problems in a creative fashion and billboard your services for the client. You should walk into a pitch with a spring in your step and out with the feeling that you nailed it. But when was the last time the thought of working on a pitch inspired anything but dread?

I blame the RFP process. Anyone who’s ever been forced to submit to its time-sucking, nit-picking drudgery knows the process is broken and outdated. When you shove people into a bureaucratic straitjacket, put a chokehold on their creativity, crush their pitching spirit and drain them of every last drop of inspiration, guess what? Their pitch will be uninspired.

One of my biggest complaints about the RFP process — and I have a long list — is that it engenders passivity. By its very nature, it forces pitch teams into a reactive posture. (Even the language around it is passive. People don’t say they’re developing a proposal. They say they’re working on a response.) By the time they’ve deciphered the corporate and legal Swahili in which most RFPs are written, and made their way through a mind-numbing list of questions, not only have they lost their focus, they’ve lost their will to live.

You can’t develop a pitch — at least not one you can take pride in — when you’re down for the count. You have to be actively and thoughtfully engaged in the experience. And the best way for that to happen, I’d argue, is by bringing discipline to the process. Otherwise, you wind up engaging in subjective, go-nowhere debates with your colleagues. I’ve seen teams sit around for hours and spitball about what they think the client needs. They base their entire pitch on speculation. But if you’re just guessing, why even bother to have a discussion? You could save yourself the time and exercise the same degree of control over the outcome by consulting a soothsayer.

What if, instead of making wild guesses, you did some research and came up with a strategy based on what the client actually needed? What if you found out the names and needs of the key decision-makers and influencers, for instance? What if you requested a few minutes on the phone with the client so you could get to know them better and therefore propose a solution that better suited their needs? What if you prepared for that call and asked them targeted questions designed to elicit the specific intelligence you required?

Without a method, there’s only madness, because if you have no idea where you’re going, sooner or later you’ll hit a dead end. Then you’ll become paralyzed. And pitch paralysis is definitely not fun. One client confessed to me that his team was 200 hours into the process without a strategy to guide them before they realized they couldn’t service the client. Had they taken the time to develop a clear, evidence-based strategy at the outset, not only would they have avoided days spent swirling in the vortex, they’d have realized their position early on. Aside from the colossal waste of time and human resources resulting from a scattershot approach, imagine how demoralizing it is for a team to flail about without any direction.

The information-gathering tactics I mentioned above are only a few of the many ways you can gain control over the process and make it work for you. A logical, goal-oriented approach when you’re formulating your strategy, developing your story and preparing your presentation not only provides direction and keeps things moving forward, it frees up a great deal of creative energy. People start asking questions, making discoveries. Pretty soon the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place. As the pitch begins to cohere, the sense that things are coming together stokes enthusiasm.

I see this phenomenon with my clients all the time. Initially, some people resist the idea of imposing a methodology, because when you bring discipline to a process, it can mean more work. But they soon discover that when they have a specific task in front of them, and the tools to accomplish that task, the work becomes purposeful, productive, and engaging. Then it doesn’t feel like work anymore. It feels like fun. Which, as I said, is what pitching should feel like.

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