Winning business through storytelling
Senior Consultant Sandra Davis explains how clear storytelling can improve your pitches and help you win more business.
Storytelling and professional services. Not what you would call the most obvious of partners. But unlike some one-hit-wonder business buzzwords, storytelling has stayed the course to become ever more familiar in the corporate world.
Because far from some new-fangled fad, storytelling has defined communication for millennia. And so long as business consists of humans selling to humans, telling a clear story about your offer will remain key to success. After all, engaging your audience can be the difference between a pitch that succeeds — and one that fails.
And winning new business has never been more important. The pressure to land new business is growing across professional services. Firms need to compete harder than ever before. New competitors are emerging. Technology continues to rewrite the rules across the sector. And in just one example of firms trying to up their visibility, search giant Bing recently announced that ‘lawyer’ is now its most expensive keyword.
Getting your story straight
I have worked as a presentation coach for over 10 years. I have helped train individuals and teams from businesses across the world, from financial services and law to construction and consultancy.
And during this time I have seen a huge range of pitches, from the woeful to the wonderful.
I have been shown pitches without any reference to the people being pitched to, and pitches stuffed with so many clichés that there was no room for anything else.
But I have also been shown pitches that are clear, memorable, and absolutely focused on demonstrating how the client’s problem will be solved.
So if there’s one thing I have learned from this, it’s that standing out from your competitors isn’t just about having a clear and compelling story. It’s also about telling it in an equally clear and compelling way.
Innovative. Market-leading. Deep industry expertise and comprehensive global reach.
We’ve all grown weary of hearing the same old corporate speak. But in a world like professional services, it can be hard to avoid cliché and talk about your offer in a way that’s honest, distinctive, and unique to your business. Even harder is finding a way of describing your business that everyone can get behind — and deliver confidently to external audiences.
This is an even bigger problem in pitching. With such a small window to communicate who you are, the temptation to fall back on the cliché and the overblown can become almost irresistible. But remember: no one ever signed on the dotted line after a sentence like ‘we are an innovative, full-service firm with global capabilities.’
Instead, we need to give evidence of how we are innovative and global. That’s why one of the most powerful phrases in any pitch or presentation is ‘for example…’.
Using hard facts might not seem like something that firms struggle with. After all, it’s something that senior business leaders and partners do every single day.
But we believe that facts are only one type of evidence — and that they’re only really useful when backed up by more emotive language to appeal to both IQ and EQ.
It’s by using a combination of hard facts and emotive language that you really bring your pitch-winning story alive. As a communications consultancy, we coach our clients in the four distinct types of evidence by grouping them all together under one easy to remember acronym:
Facts: Facts establish size, scale, and what’s at stake
Observations: Your expert perspective on the marketplace and the issues faced by your clients
Anecdotes: Stories that bring your ideas to life. Relevant business stories are even better
Metaphors: Metaphor, simile and analogy cut through the waffle to create shortcuts to understanding
Simple, right? Now let’s see it in action.
Let’s use the recent visit of President Xi Jinping to the UK to tell the story of the changing Sino-British relationship.
Fact: In 2005 the UK’s economy was bigger than China’s. In 2015 the Chinese economy was almost four times the size of the UK’s.
Observation: David Cameron and George Osborne have taken a clear decision to hitch the country’s economic fortunes to China.
Anecdote: But this isn’t the first time that China’s come to the rescue of Britain. In fact, President XI’s speeches included stories of Chinese sailors rescuing British prisoners of war in World War II to demonstrate Sino-British cooperation.
Metaphor: President Xi’s visit marked a momentous geopolitical shift — and the moment when the US’ closest ally hitched its economic future to the wagon of the world’s new superpower.
By using a few simple storytelling techniques, we’ve told our audience a far more engaging story than would have been possible with just a dry statement of the facts.
I hear you. What’s the changing Sino-British relationship got to do with pitching in professional services?
Well, let’s use a little FOAM to imagine we’re pitching on behalf of a fictional consultancy firm called Blade & Moore.
Fact: Blade & Moore is a consultancy firm based in London that specialises in advising start-up companies looking to grow quickly
Observation: Starting up a new company has never been easy. And with only 10% of start-ups making it beyond five years, the pressure on start-ups has never been greater.
Anecdote: Blade & Moore was once a start-up. Fifteen years ago we had two employees and one client. We’ve never forgotten what it’s like to start off — and it’s because of this that we can advise others on the challenges and opportunities they face.
Metaphor: No company ever succeeded on its own. Every great business has always needed support. At Blade & Moore, we act as half cheerleader, half head coach to give our clients the confidence and support they need to make it.
This is an approach we encourage all of our clients to take when preparing for a pitch. Because whether it’s finance or pharmaceuticals, shipping or law, we believe that every business has evidence of why it stands out above its competitors — and why it should be winning pitches. All it takes is a few extra ingredients from your sector or practice area — our observations, anecdotes and metaphors — to elevate business facts into compelling stories.
5 classic pitching mistakes to avoid
1 – Make your team the hero, not the PowerPoint
Your pitch document is there to support, not lead. Too often teams make the mistake of focusing on their presentation — and forgetting their audience.
2 – Recycling old material
Open. Edit. Save As. It’s tempting to use previous presentations for future pitches. But unless it’s truly aligned with the needs of your audience, your proposition won’t feel genuinely tailored.
3 – Not backing up
Bespoke service. Innovative solutions. Everyone makes promises in pitches. But as there’s nothing worse than an empty promise, make sure to provide proof points and points of view to demonstrate just how your service is bespoke and your solutions innovative.
4 – Failing to connect
Your audience are people. And so are you. So what could be more important than showing your prospective clients that you are pleasant people to work with, not just sector whizzes.
5 – Making it all about you
Pitches are never about the people pitching. They’re about your clients and their needs. Failing to address this will sink your pitch.