in: Career, Career & Wealth, Featured

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

15 Deal Breakers to Avoid When Pitching an Idea

Vintage businessmen at conference table for meeting.

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.”

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