The following is excerpted from “Brag Better: Master the Art of Fearless Self-Promotion“ by Meredith Fineman, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Meredith Fineman, 2020.
Natalia Oberti Noguera is founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels, a network of women investors that’s changing the face of angel investing and creating capital for women and nonbinary femme social entrepreneurs. She emphasizes that pitching is not as black-and-white as a lot of us think.
She remarked: “I remember when Dahna Goldstein, founder of PhilanTech [a Pipeline Angels portfolio company that was acquired by Altum], shared with me how ‘Pitching is the start of a conversation.’ I love this perspective. Pitching isn’t always a zero-sum game of either you win or you lose. Even if an entrepreneur doesn’t secure funding after pitching, the people in the room may be able to provide helpful feedback and/or introductions, including to potential investors and customers/users. Practice makes pitching—and bragging—better.”
Oberti Noguera hears pitches all day, nearly every day, and she asserts that it’s something you should iterate on constantly. I know that I do.
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Pitching is selling yourself and asking for something in return. It can mean pitching your business to a prospective client, pitching your article to a journalist for a guest post, or simply pitching an idea to your boss to gauge their interest. Technically, it means “a form of words used when trying to persuade someone to buy or accept something.”
Pitching is an art form perfected by publicists, and it is key to Bragging Better.
The most important part of pitching yourself and your work is the story you tell and the timeliness of it. Humans digest storytelling—that’s how we process information, learn to form opinions, and see the world. The better a story holds our attention, the more likely we are to recall it, tell it to others, and remember it for years to come. Every great PR pro knows this—and here’s what they do to tell the best story possible.
You need to be as concrete and specific as possible. You may know that Bragging Better can be hard, but if I don’t include something like the following in my description, it’s just not as effective: “Have you ever been in a business development meeting and not been able to sell yourself or felt bad about your pitch? Well, that’s what I’m here to fix.” Not only does a turn of phrase like this put my work into terms people can understand, but it also allows them to empathize with the problem and consider it for themselves. Or if I say, “Do you ever feel like there’s someone in your industry that always gets the recognition, when you know more than they do? Aren’t you sick of that?” (This always works resoundingly). Sometimes I lead with frustration around our environment, like, “Do you feel like everyone is yelling and we are rewarding them? I can help you navigate that system.” (The answer is always yes).
Pitching well demands that you use as many illustrative examples as you can so that people can latch on to you and your work. Make your stories specific, colorful, and thoughtful. Show, don’t tell, or at least show and tell. We consume stories through vivid storytelling; you know that a key issue will be better remembered through a riveting Netflix documentary than through a series of wonky articles. It’s how we process and remember things.
In a now-classic psychological experiment from the late 1960s, researcher Allan Paivio found that when people were shown a rapid series of images and words, they were better able to remember the images than the words. These findings and many similar studies led to what is known as the dual coding theory, which states that verbal and visual information are processed differently in our brains. The theory states that coding some piece of information both ways—using words and images—increases the odds that we will remember that information later. And even within the verbal realm, several studies have shown that concrete words are more memorable than abstract words. So, when you’re bragging about your accomplishments, make sure your story comes alive with vivid vocabulary and visual imagery.
The most important part of a pitch: The why
Why should this person care? What’s it to them? That might seem harsh, but that’s crucial. I often sit on the other side of pitch emails, and I see companies mess up with long, copy-laden pitches that are clearly pasted from a large marketing document. I am bored. It has nothing to do with me; who I am hasn’t been considered, and I am not being offered anything interesting. You just put me on a long list of writers that cover business and women’s issues, sometimes travel. This not only doesn’t work, but also ends up having the opposite effect—it creates negative sentiment.
You need to make your pitch worth someone else’s time. Your pitch should be designed to advance your career, but you need to make it worthwhile to them. Maybe they desperately need your skill set and expertise. Maybe they need your voice on their panel. Think about that. You need to assume that someone who is receiving these pitches is receiving them by the thousands. Yours need to stand out, and they need to be solid and thoughtful.
What makes a good pitch
There are several crucial factors that make a pitch good. The pitch should be each of the following:
- Concise: Nothing is worse than a pitch that is too long. The ideal is about five sentences, maybe two paragraphs if you really need to. Get to the when, where, what, why and “so what” as quickly as possible. Assume someone is reading this on his phone, on a packed subway car, late for work. With that mindset, what are you going to tell them as fast as possible? Only exactly what he needs to know. You can never be too concise.
- Relevant: If that person, who is sweating profusely on the subway car, cramped and anxious, is reading something irrelevant, then he is going to plunk your pitch directly into his trash folder, and it might make him mad. Your pitch needs to be relevant to the person reading it. Either it’s a topic they cover or something they’ve written or spoken about, or they are the right point of contact within an organization.
- Thoughtful: A little bit of kindness and consideration goes a long, long way. It’s important to not provide a laundry list and to be tight with your pitch. But it’s also important to show someone you’re pitching that you’ve read his or her work. It endears you to them and shows that you know who they are. Investor and author Fran Hauser sees a lot of founders miss out on including the key part of the pitch: themselves. Hauser says that when founders “start their pitch by talking about the product, they don’t realize how important it is to talk about themselves. That emotional connection is so important.” You don’t want to be robotic. You want to connect with whomever you’re pitching to.
- Actionable: What is the one thing you need? Can you describe it in one sentence? The worst thing is to receive a pitch with no action item. Whether you’re asking for an article that you wrote to be published, or you’re asking for an interview, or a spotlight in a company newsletter, you need to be clear about what you want.
Treat everyone you’re pitching like they’re in a hurry on a cramped subway car in the middle of the summer. It will keep you on your toes, consistent, concise, thoughtful and ready for anything.
You can spend only so long on your end figuring out what the best story to tell about yourself and your work might be. I’ve told many different stories about myself and my business over the past decade, and I’ve learned when to tell each story, but that is only because I’ve made mistakes and told some bad stories. Perhaps I wasn’t reading the room or had not figured out my audience.
Start testing those waters, and as you modify your pitch you will learn a lot about what sticks. Sometimes what sticks goes beyond just numbers or a pretty picture.
“Brag Better” is available now wherever books are sold and can be purchased via StartupNation.com.
Originally published June 23, 2020.