15 Deal Breakers to Avoid When Pitching an Idea

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 24, 2011 · 32 comments

in Money & Career

You’ve finally gotten a meeting with the people who can turn your dream into a reality. You can’t wait to walk into that room and sell them your idea. You’ve read up on the first part of this two-part series which covered the nuts and bolts of making a pitch, and you feel pretty prepared.

Awesome. But here’s one of the most important things you need to know: The buyer is not looking to say yes. They’re looking to say no.

This is hard for the seller to understand. You feel like the buyer is just waiting to hear your world-changing idea. You’re one guy, with one idea, and you’ve been working on that idea for years. It’s all you think about.

But the buyer sees dozens, hundreds, even thousands of guys just like you every year. You’re a dime a dozen. For them, saying no is the easiest option. Saying yes involves risk — of their money and reputation — and it involves time, hassle, and responsibility. Saying no simplifies their life and lets them get on with their day. Basically, buyers are looking for any reason to turn you down.

Because of the number of pitches they get, all buyers develop ways of slotting sellers into yes and no categories. Your train can be chugging right along, but if you raise a deal breaker red flag — they’ll throw the switch and put you on the no track. These flags can be really small things, but they’ve probably found that 8 out of 10 people who exhibit those traits end up being a nightmare to work with. And they’re not willing to gamble that you’re one of the two who are exceptions to the rule.

Sure, buyers’ deal breakers aren’t fair — not at all. Your idea might be truly fantastic, but you’re having a terrible day and thus blow the pitch. But buyers can’t give every pitch the same attention and thus develop a sorting system by necessity.

Even though buyers’ deal breakers aren’t fair, they are happily pretty easy to avoid. Here are 15 pitching pitfalls to avoid stepping into, as gleaned from Stephanie Palmer’s Good in Room (as an executive at MGM, she ruined many a screenwriter’s day) and my personal experience on both sides of the desk.

1. Arriving late. Showing up late demonstrates that you don’t respect the buyers’ time. Here’s a good maxim to live by: “If you’re on time, you’re late.” There are always going to be unexpected obstacles to getting into that meeting room — there’s surprisingly heavy traffic on the way there, you have to park a few blocks away, you have to go through a security check in the lobby, the office is on the 50th floor, and all the elevators are full. So you should plan on pulling into the general vicinity of the meeting place 15 minutes ahead of time. If you don’t encounter any of the obstacles just mentioned, then when you get to the office early, tell the receptionist you’re there, but that there’s no need to announce you until 5 minutes prior to the meeting time. Then just take a seat in the waiting area and review your notes.

2. Dressing inappropriately. Dress in line with the standard of the company you’re pitching to. If they’re a traditional, conservative business, wear a suit. If they’re a modern and casual business, wear khakis and a sport coat. Consider wearing something blue, as this color engenders a feeling of trust.

3. Taking the wrong seat. People are strangely territorial about their seats. Just try sitting in the wrong pew at a small church (families actually used to “rent” a pew back in the 18th century for the privilege of having their name emblazoned on it).

Sit in the wrong seat at a pitch meeting, and someone may have to awkwardly say, “That’s my seat.” Or they may say nothing, but sit through the meeting feeling a bit put out by your perceived presumptuousness.

Where they’d like you to plant your kiester may be obvious — but if it’s not, then simply ask, “Where would you like me to sit?” when you walk in.

4. Getting their name wrong. Everyone loves the sound of their own name, which is why using someone’s name is one of the easiest ways to build rapport. Conversely, getting someone’s name wrong is one of the quickest ways to stop rapport-building dead in its tracks.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many emails we get addressed to “Brent and Kay.”

When you get someone’s name wrong, you show you really don’t know much about the company you’re pitching to or that you’re inattentive to details. It can also make you seem highly disingenuous if you follow your name-blunder with, “I’m such a big fan of yours!”

5. Not addressing the pitch to everyone in the room. If both the president and the VP are sitting in on the meeting, don’t only address your remarks to the president, and slight the veep. Talk and make eye contact with everyone in the room, from the lowliest note taker to the head honcho.

6. Acting nervous. Maybe your idea is great, you prepared for the presentation like a champ, and the nervousness you’re exhibiting is simply from a fear of public speaking. But there’s no way around it: nervousness translates as incompetence and weakness. The buyer will wonder if you didn’t prep enough or if your idea is so risky that even you don’t have full confidence in it. Either way, you’ve just made your job ten times harder. And you’ve made their job more difficult as well; they might like your idea, but feel like they can’t introduce you to the higher-ups.

Nervousness can be manifested through fumbling with materials, technical glitches, excessive “ummms” and “uhhhs,” and super sweaty pits. If the latter is a problem for you, wear a jacket and/or wear a clinical strength deodorant.

7. Starting with an apology. Whether for your lateness, your nervousness, or something, else, this is quite possibly the weakest opening you can give your pitch. Let the first words out of your mouth be a show of strength and confidence.

8. Giving your own opinion of your work. Don’t say, “This is an awesome idea that is going to change the world.” Let the idea speak for itself.

9. Telling the buyer how they’re going to feel. Don’t say, “You’re going to love this” or “I have an idea that’s perfect for you.” People hate being told what they think or how they’re going to feel.

10. Jumping into your pitch too soon. The first thing you want to do is build rapport with the buyer. Jumping into your pitch before you build that rapport is like trying to dive down a Slip ‘n Slide before you’ve turned on the water.

11. Talking money too soon. If you’re looking for a big investment, and you talk about that nut too soon, the buyer is going to feel immediate trepidation and view the rest of your presentation through the lens of, “This better be good to warrant that amount of money!” It heightens their expectations considerably. But if you dazzle them with your presentation, by the time you get to talking money, they’ll see the number through the lens of, “Whatever it is, we’ll make it work. We have to make this happen.”

12. Offering phony flattery. A company recently made me a pitch. They began their Powerpoint presentation with a slide that said, “The Art of Manliness: World’s Best Online Magazine for Men.” A spreadsheet they sent us was entitled: “Art of Manliness World’s Best Data.” Did I mention that the meeting reminder they sent called the meeting “Art of Manliness+World’s Best” and the password was “TheBest?”

To me this came off as desperate and over-the-top. A little flattery is good and builds rapport. But too much comes off as insincere and desperate — as it will make the buyer feel like what you’re selling needs to be unduly padded.

To flatter with class, compliment the buyer on something specific they’ve done that you liked, especially something that the average joe who doesn’t know a lot about the company wouldn’t be aware of.

13. Not giving enough context. In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath discuss what they call “The Curse of Knowledge.” The Curse of Knowledge describes the fact that when you’re steeped in a subject, you can easily forget that others are not as familiar with it as you are. Something may seem so basic to you that it doesn’t even warrant mentioning, but for someone else, it can be a brand new idea. By assuming that the buyers know things that they don’t, you may omit key facts from your presentation. The buyers’ resulting confusion will then lead to writing you off.

If there are spots in your pitch where you’re not sure if you and the buyer are on the same page, simply say, “Are you familiar with X?” before launching into your next point. This also keeps you from boring the buyer with information they already know.

14. Using terminology the buyer isn’t familiar with. This is related to the point above. We had a television/film agent who would talk to us with lots of Hollywood lingo that a couple of Oklahomans could not follow. And that’s part of the reason we switched to another agent.

15. Saying just “I don’t know.” Instead say, “I don’t know. But I will find that out for you and send you an email with the information later today.”

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amber B October 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Bravo! Yet another great source of very useful information.

2 Daren Redekopp October 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Excellent. The Heath book, “Made to Stick,” is fabulous. This kind of information transfers wonderfully into other situations as well: whether you’re trying to float an idea at work, with friends, or even family (wife & 3 boys).

3 Jeremy October 24, 2011 at 3:05 pm

How was Apple so successful by breaking rules 8 and 9? Think of nearly every Apple keynote address, and they tell us exactly how awesome these products would be and how we would feel using them.
Other than that, great resource!

4 Gary October 24, 2011 at 3:42 pm


Perhaps because in keynote addresses, they were addressing people who had presumably already been “sold”. Fan boys just want to hear how great the product is going to be.

5 Brett McKay October 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm


Selling an idea is different than selling a product. A product you can see and you can show off the features and people don’t mind if you tell them they’ll love it.

But people are very prideful about the workings of their mind, and take umbrage if you think you can predict what’s going on in their cranium. This is why a car salesman can say, “You’re going to love this car,” and even if you don’t, you don’t care. But if someone says, “I know you’re going to love this idea for how to improve your business,” you feel a little peeved. This is also why people always say that the best way to convince someone of something if to make them feel like it was their own idea.

Also, when you’re as successful as Apple, you can pretty much do whatever you want–like have a wardrobe that consists exclusively of black turtlenecks and jeans.

6 Mike October 24, 2011 at 6:54 pm

These are great points for just about any sort of presentation. I have the opportunity to help community lay pastors improve their teaching and one of the hardest things for a person to weed out of their communication is the use of verbal fillers ,like, ummm, y’know it is just so much a part of our everyday speech. The best way to stop it is to prepare well and even give the message to a microphone and listen to yourself. We use them, like, way more than we realize.

7 jeff October 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm

You didn’t mention anything about the content of the idea, just the circumstances of the meeting. If all you have to work with is situational management, you must not have much of an idea. I’ve had to listen to idea men before and the hardest thing for me is not to tell them to shut up and tell me what they have, because unless it is Jesus with a bullet I’m not going to be impressed no matter how they present themselves.

8 Mark October 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Great article. Selling in a group presentation situation is one of the hardest sales arts to master.

Understanding your products or services, and pitching well is only part of the story though. Equally important is understanding the job roles the people you are presenting to do and having some insight into their relationships, both with each other and to the decision making process. Most parties in the room will have some input in the final decision and so understanding their individual drivers is important.

In my opinion, there are two key drivers behind corporate purchasing decisions:

1: The desire to look good (Greed)
2: The desire not to look bad (Fear)

However, these drivers will manifest differently for different position holders. For example, a CEO might want to look decisive to his subordinates, grow the business, increase production or productivity, maximise stockholders returns. A CFO, by contrast, may have different goals that will impact how he is viewed for example, reducing wages, costs, improving cash flow etc.

Understanding all of the decision makers and their professional goals and relationships will help you to tailor your pitch accordingly. If there are several selling points then consider how these drivers are impacted by each and explicate how at each point applies or does not apply to each position holder in the room. I have found that this will hold each persons attention much more effectively that eye contact and conversational trickery.

Only genuinely considering the implications for all parties will get the whole group on side. While there still may be some resistance to change you are in a much better position to overcome objections if you have considered these things.

9 Dan Smith October 24, 2011 at 10:32 pm

There are several on this list that I still need to master, but I can confidently say that I’ve finally got #16. It took a promotion in the Navy and the grueling 7 week induction period to figure out that I needed to provide information, and if I couldn’t, to provide a real response. I feel like I’m more equipped to sell ideas in the future even if I’m not absolutely prepared for every last question that might be asked in return.

10 Don Vincenti October 24, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Very very good . Again you add to our knowledge. Thanks for all you do

11 Brent Pittman October 25, 2011 at 12:02 am

My name actually is Brent and I also get called Brett and even Frank sometimes. Yes, please get my name right if you want to sell me something.

12 'Jalmitra'Vijay Kedia October 25, 2011 at 2:09 am

A wonderfully summarised Do & don’t for everyone.
I am working in the field of rainwater Harvesting & have a new concept / idea of harvesting rainwater. I have been avoiding many of the above except (8,9, &14) &. i thought that i should avoid these also in future.
But thanks for your reply to @ jeremy,. Being an idea ( and not a product) i need not change.

13 George P.H. October 25, 2011 at 5:33 am

Good post, I agree *so much* with the name thing. My full name is uncommon in the country I live in, and I hate it when people confuse it with another name or shorten it. Lateness is also inexcusable.

Here’s one thing I hate that I didn’t see on the list: time wasting. I hate it when someone’s pitching an idea and spends an hour trying to sell it to me before getting to the facts.

I want to know the basic, fundamental info: how it works, how much money is required, and what the ROI is. I do *not* want to listen to waffle and sleazy sales-talk for an entire meeting.

14 Extreme-Exercises.com October 25, 2011 at 5:53 am

A note on dressing appropriately: I’ve always heard that you always want to dress only slightly better than the people around you. This will give you a stronger more dominant position. If they are really casual, wear business casual. If they are suits, than make sure to have a tie and stunning suit jacket.

15 Darren October 25, 2011 at 8:28 am

Wonderful article that applies to SO many things. Just this last Sunday a gentleman gave a sermon (our church has a lay clergy so we all take turns) and the first thing he said was “Brothers and sisters, I apologize for not being as prepared for this as I should be.” So I got up and went outside for 15 minutes and visited with the latecomers.

One slight variation on 13: “Are you familiar with X?” can be a tough question because to an insecure person it could mean, “Are you dumb?” And you never want a decision maker to feel dumb. I use a slightly different phrasing: “Have you had the opportunity to learn about X?” No ego hit in saying no…because you haven’t had the opportunity. When I am selling someone a kayak, I always ask “Have you had the chance to paddle the X River?” If they say no I have an opportunity to educate them.

Regarding 7: This has bugged me for YEARS. Sales reps pull out an widget and say “You’re going to love this.” For every single freaking widget they pull out of their samples.

Now I have a solution.

“You’re going to love this.”
“Let me decide that for myself, okay Mr. Loman?”

Regarding 1: My dad put it this way:

If you’re early, you’re on time,
If you’re on time, you’re late.
If you’re late, you’re screwed.

16 Matt October 25, 2011 at 11:56 am

Another good alternative to “I don’t know”: “I’ll get back to you.”

17 Bobby October 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Didn’t realize running a website required an agent. Brett, at what point do the business aspects of this website start to diminish the fun?

Also, solid article

18 Cliff Woodbury October 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm

GREAT list of “Deal Breakers”! I’d add one: “Diving in before knowing what’s in the pond”….meaning presenting before questioning. Nothing turns me off more than someone pitching me before they know anything about what we do, what keeps us up at night, and what we really need! How can you sell or convinceunless you know (for sure) what needs you’re attempting to fill.

Again, GREAT stuff! Thx!

19 The Dutch Dastard October 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm

GREAT article Brent! uhhh…….Brad i mean….

For point fifteen: If you have to answer a question with “I don’t know, but i’m going to find out for you”, there’s one thing you can do to give that greater legitimacy: whip out your note block and actually write it down. This is looks like you just take a little step out of the presentation-facade to your actual business, and then back to your presentation. People SEE you already taking action, instead of just promises.

20 StephanieB October 25, 2011 at 6:18 pm

A lot of these deal breakers seem like common sense when I read them, but I bet when in the situation, it can be tough to be spot on.

I am in the military, so some of these things have become part of how I live my life. On time means fifteen minutes early for example. Lots of great things here that I will keep in mind all the time at my workplace!

21 Bruce Williamson October 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Overall a good article.

ut don’t forget to ask question if you’re the recipient of a sales pitch. If the salesman uses jargon that you don’t understand ask him. They’ll be happy to explain and it makes them feel good as if they’re being helpful.

22 Steve C October 25, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I’m curious if someone could expand on #10. The situations I’m picturing usually have some sort of obvious point where you are supposed to start presenting. I guess I’m looking for examples of how to build rapport before the presentation.

23 Chris Nelson October 26, 2011 at 12:27 am

As advice goes, much more useful that the post about the “impalement arts”.

24 The Dutch Dastard October 26, 2011 at 4:50 am


Facepalm! Please respect that this is a FUN site too, and has serious as well as just ‘manly’ stuff which you will probably never use, but is fun to know or try. Have you tried jumping from a driving car yet? I haven’t, but it was fun to read about it…..

25 Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy October 26, 2011 at 2:48 pm

I’m reading “Pitch Like a Girl” right now, and I was very curious to see where the Art of Manliness and my book disagreed. The answer is….nowhere in this post! I’m surprised, and interested to see that the men’s and women’s points of views agree on these basics.

26 ARP October 26, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Re: Names. NEVER shorten a name (e.g. don’t call an Andrew, “Andy” or “Drew”) or call someone a nickname, even if others do, unless invited by that person.

Re: Dress. I would typically advise dressing 1/2 to one full step above the participants. If they’re business casual, go with a sport coat; if they wear sport coats, go with a suit. If they wear a suit…well just wear your best suit and stay conservative.

Re: Elevator Pitch. Make sure you have a 30 second version of your pitch absolutely mastered.

Re: Audience. If you can figure out who will attend, find out. Or at the very least imagine who is likely to attend and think about their motivations. Will your idea cause a lot of work for the IT group? Explain the long term benefits, or why its not so bad, etc.

27 Biz Checks October 30, 2011 at 2:21 pm

For me the number one deal breaker, and it happens surprisingly often, is when someone pitches me an idea and their pitch is all about them, or their story.

Don’t care at all, unless it’s somehow integral to the business. 99.5 % of the pitch needs to be about convincing me how I’m going to benefit from backing your idea. Period.

Everything other than that lowers the chances of a successful pitch.

28 Allan White October 31, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Great post and discussion. I’ve been working on the Art of the Pitch more the last few years, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with great presenters designing their media & slides. You guys (all of you) are reminding me of the fundamentals! Thanks all.

29 Allan White October 31, 2011 at 11:33 pm

@ Biz Checks: great point. To me, the answer to that challenge is research: try to find out as much as you can about the audience. What kinds of business problems are they facing? If you can, a phone or short meeting beforehand can really help your prep. You can also discover that they may not need what you’re pitching — saving you a wasted effort.

30 Caesar Aguinaldo November 1, 2011 at 11:35 pm

The key to everything is confidence.

Kudos to the site for such an informative article.

31 P.M.Lawrence November 8, 2011 at 1:53 am

Never call anyone by his or her first name unless and until you are invited to do so. This isn’t how your culture works, so you are going to do it the way you are used to? Then you are utterly indifferent to whether the other person’s culture is like that. It’s friendly to use first names? No, it’s friendly to use them with friends, and using them uninvited is pushy (like using “tu” in French or “du” in German for “you”).

Remember the old joke about “Do you know the difference between a living room and a lavatory?”, “No”, “Remind me never to ask you back to my place”. In the same way, if you don’t know the difference between being friendly and being pushy – remind me not to let you get too close.

32 William November 10, 2011 at 6:46 am

I don’t know about including those negative professional examples – seemed to me a bit sandpit. Otherwise incredibly impressed and content that this long overdue publication keeps on truckin.

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