The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills That Win Business

“We sell ideas in presentations – whether those presentations take place in a boardroom or a coworker’s cubicle – which means that presentations form the very building blocks of our careers.” — Sally Hogshead

What good is a great book if nobody reads it and spreads the ideas within?

What good is your product if I don’t know how it will improve my life?

Here’s a universal truth: You can have the best idea, the most innovative product, or the most beautiful work, but it’s rarely going to sell itself.

Peter Coughter has coached executives from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, GSD&M, BBDO, and more. His book, “The Art of the Pitch,” will help you sell your ideas.

Though the book is written from the perspective of an advertising agency executive, the principles within are broadly applicable to anyone selling their idea to someone else who can help bring it to life. There’s also some great first-person stories from famous ad execs on their best (and worst) presentations.

Below are more than 50 of my favorite takeaways from the book. Don’t be intimidated how many there are; just think of them as your cliff notes.

Mad Men: The Carousel

Everything is a Presentation

1. What is a Presentation?

The proffering or giving of something to someone — like a gift.

We could say that our ideas are the gift, but I prefer to think of it in another way — we are the gift. We are giving ourselves to our audience. We’re giving them the product of our thoughts, efforts and personality. We’re giving them who we are. We’re telling them our truth. That’s out gift to them.

A presentation isn’t public speaking. It’s a conversation. Only you’re doing most of the talking.

2. Everything is a Presentation

It’s all a presentation. You’re always being judged. People are forming opinions of you, opinions that are hard to change.

3. Presentations are Opportunities

Think about presenting as an opportunity. An opportunity to share your thoughts with your audience — to give them the gift of you.

4. Share Your Best Idea First

If you’re dependent upon a client someone approving your ideas, the first one you show them is the one that has a chance to be great.

5.  On Convincing the Client That Your Ideas are Right:

Do an ad for your ads. It just doesn’t matter how good the idea is unless you can persuade the person on the other side of the table to feel the same way. Take some time and figure out how to sell it.

6. What Makes An Effective Presentation?

  • Is a conversation:
    • A lot of people want to appear “professional.” What they end up accomplishing is being boring. Forget about being “professional,” and start being yourself.
  • Be yourself
    • Since we’re trying for a conversational style, there probably SHOULD be some mistakes.
    • Presenters who are too slick, too good, too polished, too sure of themselves come off as something less than sincere. Audiences want authenticity, not a game show host.
  • Tell stories
    • Make it a story. Make it fun. Make it human. Make it conversational. Make it personal. Make it matter.
  • Know Your Stuff
    • Great presenters are so in tune with their audience that they know exactly how they are responding.
  • Make it personal
    • If a speaker recounts a personal anecdote, the audience often feels a kinship with the presenter because they relate the story to something that happened in their own life.
    • Presenting is the art of seduction, not debate. People make decisions emotionally.
    • Your message has to be crystal clear.

It’s Not About You

Without the audience there, there is no presentation.

Photo Credit: TEDxSydney 

7. The most important factor:

The most important factor in the equation of presenting is the audience. Without the audience there, there is no presentation.

8. On Putting Yourself in the Audience’s Seat:

Most people find presentations boring. Ask yourself, would I find this interesting? Would this hold my interest?

9. On Ruthless Exclusion:

The audience does not care about how much we know. The audience cares about how interesting what we tell them about what we know is. The audience’s ability to assimilate and retain information is limited. You’re only going to be able to make two or three key points.

You’re not going to bludgeon the audience into submission with a blitzkrieg of facts. It’s not carpet bombing, it’s a surgical strike.

The audience will not remember the vast majority of what you say. But they will remember what they thought about what you said. And what they felt about you said.

10. On the Gift of Time

“I apologize for the length of this letter, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” — Mark Twain

The meeting should be as long as you need it to be to say what you need to stay in order to get what you want. No longer and no shorter. Use half the time and give them back an hour of their lives. They will love you for it. Time is the rarest of currencies these days and valuable beyond belief to today’s overworked, stressed-out executives.

 11. On the Presentation as a Dance:

Think of a presentation as a dance. You’re leading the audience, but they’re participating. And having fun.

It has to be a show. It has to be time that they consider well spent. It cannot be boring.

12. Don’t Talk to Strangers

Find out everything you possibly can about who they are. You never know what nugget you may be able to mine that leads to a major breakthrough or helps you make a warm connection with frosty project.

Why are they coming to the presentation and what do they expect to hear? You’ve got to know why they’re there and what they expect. You can’t break the rules until you know the rules.

Even when you’re supposed to be talking about yourself, you should be talking about the client.

How We Connect

13. On What You Say vs. How You Say It:

The audience does not remember a lot about what we actually say. In fact, the average audience member will only remember about 7% from the actual words you speak, (Mehrabian, 1967).

The way we say something is more important than what we say. The audience is deciding, “Do I like this person? Do I trust her? Do I want to do business with her?”

14. Tell Your Audience What to Think:

Most audiences don’t know what they like or dislike and have to be “told” what to think.

15. On Your Slides:

  • Simplify, simplify, simplify.
  • Use visuals, not words.
  • Do not read the slides.


16. Why It’s Critical to Connect:

For every ten “great” pieces of advertising that get created, maybe one is produced.

17. It is Cool to be a Good Presenter:

There’s one immutable truth to the advertising business: the best presenter usually wins.

The Power of Emotion

Ken Burns: The Emotional Archaeologist

Photo Credit: valkyrieh116
18. On Being Yourself:

Who you really are is far more interesting than who you think they want to believe you are. Being someone else (or the kind of person who gives a “presentation”) doesn’t work. This isn’t acting, this is business.

19. The Essence of Selling is Emotion:

Your audience will choose you (and consequently your idea) not because of what you said you would do, but because of how you made them feel. Virtually nothing is sold on the rational, analytical level.

Ken burns does not describe himself as a filmmaker, historian, author or director. He calls himself “an emotional archaeologist.” Whatever the subject matter, there is a way to make it meaningful and relevant to our audience. There is a way to capture our audience’s imagination, and persuade them to our point of view. That way is through the use of emotion.

20. Great work has to be sold.

And it isn’t easy to do so, because great work is unexpected. It’s often unlike anything the client has seen before. It’s risky, bold, and daring. It’s easy to sell mediocre work. Mediocre work is expected, looks just like most of the other work in the category, won’t get anyone fired (at least not right away), and is, most of all, safe.

21. The secret to selling creative is framing:

Frame your argument in a such a way that you eliminate possible solutions until the only solution possible is yours.

Eliminate the obvious solutions(s) and take the audience by the hand, leading them to a point where the only possible solution has to be yours. Sell the idea of the work, then sell the work.

How To Be

22. On the Physiological Differences Between Fear and Excitement:

The way we feel and the way we appear to the audience are exactly the same when we’re afraid and when we’re excited.

The feelings of nervousness that we are experiencing simply do not transmit to the audience to anywhere near the degree with which we feel them.

23. On Knowing Everyone’s “Stuff”:

Not just your part of the presentation. If you’re presenting with teammates–and that’s the way the vast majority of presentations go down today–know everybody’s part; the entire presentation. You never know when you might have to bail a teammate out.

“Know it.” Do not memorize.

24. On Showcasing the Creative Process:

“Showing photos of the messy creative process can build empathy and showcase hard work before presenting key ideas.” – Chris Jacobs

25. On Telling Jokes (As Part of Your Presentation):

Being funny is great, but what we should not do, under any circumstances, is tell jokes.

26. The Importance of Thoughtfulness:

Thoughtfulness is one of the most important attributes we can possess. This is extremely important for young people.

Choose your language carefully. Take your time and answer in measured sentences.

27. The Four Things Clients Want the Most:

Insight, Conviction, Wisdom and Courage.

(RIP Mike Hughes)

28. The Way We Say Things:

No one knows if one idea is better than another if it isn’t presented in a such a way that it is clear to the audience the idea is better.

Remember: They will remember what they thought about what you said.


29. On Using Technology:

“We told stories, and to paraphrase David Ogilvy, we didn’t lean on technology like a drunk leans on a lamppost, for support rather than illumination.” – Gareth Kay

30. On Presenting Authentically:

Don’t impersonate someone giving a “presentation.” Think about “having a conversation” versus “giving a presentation.”

31. On Knowing Who You Are:

By claiming to stand for so many things, they didn’t stand for any. My clients unanimously liked the people who knew who they were. The people who had a point of view and could articulate it with clarity, conviction and grace. You have to have a point of view.

Death by Deck


32. A deck is not a presentation.

There is no story. No drama. No entertainment.

33. The words on the screen are a distraction.

You are the message.

34. On the power of simple, clear visual aids:

You must ascertain the most concise way to communicate that message and that the most concise way may be for you to talk about the truly important material while information that supports your argument is on the screen.

35. On Solving Someone’s Business Problem:

The deck is the last thing you do, not the first.

All of that data doesn’t belong in the presentation — it belongs in the leave behind. Assemble all the data, information, facts, figures, and anything else you need to explain and justify your argument. Write it up as a leave behind. Then go through that document and create a deck that simply, clearly, and –dare I say?–elegantly presents your argument.

36. Audiences Crave Good Endings:

Thank you is a crutch. (Don’t use it on your final slide).

Organizing the Presentation

37. What is Your Presentation Trying to Accomplishing?

Do not begin to organize the presentation until you have unanimous agreement on what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’ll do it.

38. Formulate Your Argument with Support Points to Make Your Case:

One excellent way to wrestle the presentation to the ground is to lay it out on a series of Post-it notes, in the manner of a storyboard.

Ideally, each of these frames representing one idea builds on the last frame and foreshadows the next frame.

39. On The Exception:

Reading a quote off the screen is one of the very few times that it’s acceptable to read the words that are on the screen.

The ACTION format:

  • A = Attention
  • C = Capsule
  • T = Theme
  • I = Information
  • O = Open to listen
  • N = Next Steps


Start with the next steps. Before you do anything, establish what it is that you want out of the presentation.

The capsule is two or three sentences that sum up the entire presentation. They should fit on an index card.

A likely scenario could be that once you’ve agreed on what you want, the Next Steps, you then then begin to assemble all of the Information you will need to make your argument. Then, you establish a Theme that will hold it all together and create an Attention-getting device. By the way, this device may very well foreshadow the ultimate purpose of the presentation. Toward the end of the process, you should be able to write the Capsule, and you must always be Open to listen.

40. Only use as much time as you need to present your thinking.

Give them back half an hour and they will love you for it. Almost all presentations are too long anyway. Remember the concept of ruthless exclusion.

“I always try to finish earlier than expected,” says Anne Bologna.

41. On clarity:

“Tell’em what you’re going to tell’em, tell’em, and then tell’em what you told’em.”

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

42. On the Importance of Rehearsing:

Not rehearsing isn’t just setting yourself up for failure, it’s idiotic.

43. Virtually all presentations are new business presentations:

Even existing clients are evaluating the purchase decision they’ve made, no matter how long ago. And don’t think for a minute that your competitors aren’t actively courting all of your existing clients.

44. On Rehearsing as a Team:

By rehearsing together, you will make the presentation better. You’ve got four or five smart people in a room listening to everything and critiquing as they go. That’s how it gets better.


45. On the Importance of Punctuation:

Listening to anyone more than a few minutes is difficult, and damn near impossible if they don’t punctuate effectively.

46. On Pausing:

Silence will make you appear to be confident and in command.

People tend to remember the last thing we say before we become quiet. So, make one of your key points, and be quiet.

47. Ask Questions. Get People Involved.

One technique that I continually use is to start with a question. The very first thing I say, the thing I want to use to get their attention is a question. “Why are we here today” “Why is it important we do this” These kinds of questions get their attention right away and cause them to begin to think, which is good.

48. On visual aids and props:

“But it’s the work that’s the star,” people often say. Not really. Selling the work may in fact be why we’re doing the presentation, but in order to buy the work, they’re going to have to buy you.

49. On Eye Contact:

When you have something important to say, you must be looking at someone.

You will see that by making effective eye contact, you are causing your audience to pay closer attention.

50. Invest in a Remote.

Without a remote, you must look down and push the buttons. This breaks eye contact with the audience at the two most important parts of your slide–the first sentence and the last.

51. Coffee is for Closers:

Agencies that win a lot have a closer. Who’s yours? If you don’t know, find one.

You Never Know

52. On Surprise and Delight:

If you do what the client, or new business prospect expects you to do — they will be disappointed.

53. Learn From Every Presentation:

Each presentation, win or lose, is a renewable resource that should be built upon.

54. A Great Story Can Move a Tough Audience:

Storytelling is one of the keys to winning over an audience.

55. In summary:

  • Work hard
  • Question yourself
  • Exclude the extraneous
  • Have meticulous preparation
  • Grab the audience’s attention right from the start
  • Have the courage to stand up and express your point of view


And do yourself a favor even if you don’t check out the book. Visit your local library or book store, pick up the book, and read the afterword.

Many people choose to settle. It’s too scary to be really good. It causes one to stand out from the crowd, and most people really just want to blend in.

Public speaking is scary. Opening ourselves up to scrutiny by pitching our ideas is scary. Standing up and taking action is scary.

When I encounter that fear, I remind myself of a quote my wife has on our bathroom mirror: “Only dead fish go with the flow.”

If you’re interested, here are my other book reviews. Apologies for the chronological list. That page has grown significantly and is in desperate need of re-organizing.