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Show runner, artist, robot or used car salesman? What’s Your Pitch Style?

by | Nov 17, 2014

Is your pitching style killing all your best ideas? Coming up with brilliant ideas is the easy part – selling them to complete strangers is hard. I’ve been doing lot of research for my MA thesis recently and whilst wading through papers recently one of my favourite finds of the past few weeks is a report from 2003 that was written by Kimberly D. Elsbach which appeared in the Harvard Business Review – a brilliant source of inspiration and insight if you’re ever feeling stumped. Today, Kimberly is Associate Dean at the University of California; back then she wrote a great paper about in the highly competitive arena of Hollywood movie making.

Over 6 years, in order to try and determine what made Hollywood executives say yes or no to a movie pitch, she set out to study their decision-making process. She wanted to know if quality of the story always at the heart of a successful pitch, or if there was more to it than that.

She found that the person on the receiving end of the pitch – she calls this person ‘the catcher’ – tends to gauge the pitcher’s creativity as well as the proposal itself. Elsbach concluded that a pitcher left an impression on the exec as to whether or not they were able to come up with workable ideas, and that this tended to “quickly and permanently overshadow” the catcher’s feelings about the idea’s worth. In other words, they weren’t just pitching their script, they were pitching themselves, too.

The author was keen to understand why great ideas in every field of business so often fall down when they are presented to senior management, so she took the findings she’d made in Hollywood to ‘the real world’. She attended product design, marketing and venture capital pitch sessions and conducted interviews with the decision makers.

The results were similar to what she’d found in the movies business. According to her report, what she discovered was that “catchers” subconsciously place successful pitchers into one of three distinct categories. They are:

  • Show runners – people who are considered to be very smooth and professional.
  • Artists – quirky types, who have a dash of the unpolished about them.
  • Neophytes – people who came across as inexperienced and perhaps a little naïve.

All three groups were successful pitchers, don’t forget – they all proved a hit with the decision makers. Which is, perhaps, a bit of a surprise. We all know that show runners tend to do very well when pitching, but evidently eccentric artists and enthusiastic newbies have a decent chance, too. And their chances of success rocket, Elsbach found, if they can make the catcher feel as if he/she is participating in the idea’s development, too.

To become a successful pitcher, then, the author concluded that you need to portray yourself as one of the three creative types as explained above, and to ensure that the catcher feels like they are part of the process. This, she says, will make you a “likeable collaborator” and works because the decision-maker is able to feel some of the love for the development of the idea, too.

But what if you’re not one of these three creative types? What if you’re “the pushover”, “the robot”, “the used car salesman” or “the charity case” – all pretty self-explanatory and all the types of people who see their ideas fall with alarming regularity into the “no” pile?

The answer – and it’s the only answer, really – is to work on your pitching, to rethink your style. The good news is that the most successful of all three pitching styles was the show runner, and that’s something you can practise at being better at. You can’t really fake or practise at being more intrinsically arty or being “new”, but you can improve on how you project yourself, how you speak; you can work on your body language and how you engage the audience.

So if you’re wondering why even your best ideas aren’t getting a fair shot, don’t give up. Think about how you can bring the person you’re pitching to ‘the catcher’ along with you and remember that decision-makers tend to say yes to people with charisma and whose ideas they think they can add to and enjoy being part of. You can read the full HBR article here.

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