Pitch More Faster Read Versus Listen

As part of our Do More Faster book tour, we’ve been having a pitch session each day called “Pitch More Faster.”  During the hour, we hear four pitches that are five minute each and give direct feedback / suggestions on the pitch itself (not the content or the business, but the pitch.)

In my experience, most people suck at the five minute pitch.  It’s really hard to do well.  There are lots of variants of suckage, including cramming a 30 minute pitch into 5 minutes, doing a 5 minute pitch for the first time (and having no comfort with the material), or talking at 732 word per minute and being impossible to follow.

We’ve done Pitch More Faster in about ten cities now and it’s been really interesting.  I think we’ve been helpful and have found that when everyone is in the room (e.g. all four companies that are presenting) the conversation becomes even more impactful and robust as by the fourth presentation everyone is weighing in with feedback.

I’ve noticed one consistent thing in virtually every presentation.  It’s what I call the “read vs. listen” problem.  Most of the presentations have slides with lots of words on them.  Since the presentation is only five minutes long, the stuff being said is important.  Most presenters know not to simply read their slides, so they say things that are not necessarily on the slides.  And that’s the essence of the problem.

I learned a long time ago (probably junior high school) that I learn by reading, not by listening.  In college, I was a “go to the minimum number of lectures that I can get away with but read everything” guy.  As an adult, I’d much rather read and write email that talk on the phone.  When someone wants to explain something to me, I’d much rather they just email me.  And when I want to really understand something, I need to sit quietly and read it (or about it).

Furthermore, when you talk to me, if you don’t keep my attention, or if I don’t purposely focus on you, I drift quickly.  If you’ve ever interacted with me, you may have noticed the look in my eyes when I drift.  It’s sort of the equivalent of my eyes rolling up into my head.  It’s definitely a me problem, not a you problem – it’s just hard for me to process a lot of verbal information for a continuous time.

Now, map this to the five minute pitch context.  I can concentrate on you for five minutes.  But if there are words on the screen, I go straight to the words and start reading them.  And then I can’t hear anything you are saying.  If there are a lot of words, I spend all my time on it trying to read everything and absorb it.  And I hear nothing.

It turns out there are a lot of people like me.  Many of them don’t realize it.  When you are presenting, you probably have a mix of “readers” and “listeners” in the audience.  In a five minute pitch, you want me to listen the entire time since your goal is to get me to engage and want to spend more time with you.  So the words on the slides are a distraction.

I’ve long been a fan of minimalist slides – a few words and/or a picture to use as a guide for whatever is going on.  I never completely understood why – now I know.  If I close my eyes the next time you are presenting to me, it’s because I’m trying to concentrate, not because I’m falling asleep.

  • I notice that the general advice here is consistent with some of the more specific things you mentioned in the DC Pitch More Faster session, all of which really resonated with me. It left me wondering about other situations in which these presentations are used though.

    The more a presentation moves to the narrative/minimalistic model (which relies heavily on the presenter), the less helpful it becomes as a "deck" to send around in advance of meeting. I wonder to what extent this advice applies for such asynchronous communications, if a different approach is required, or if it is worth even sharing a presentation at that stage.

  • 3messages

    There are people that prefer to read, some prefer to listen and others prefer pictures. I'm sure there are other 'preferences' but this should suffice for this comment. I guess your post identifies an important point along with a dilemma. The point is when presenting or pitching make sure you know your audience and ensure your materials and presentation style match with the 'preferences' of the audience. So I think the dilemma is, how do you determine the preferences of the audience? I know your post is specific to your preferred style but is there an elegant way determine this for others. Unless there is a mutual friend who may know or there is some sort of public knowledge available, i.e. a blog posting, this could be difficult to learn ahead of time. You could try the direct approach but some people may not have any idea what you are talking about and could put you at a disadvantage from the get go. Any suggestions?

    • I suggest a book called "Made to Stick" for ideas on how to deal with this problem. Remove the words from the slides and use the techniques in "Made to Stick" to keep your audience. Like Brad says, he can listen he just prefers to read and if he likes what you said he probably will then read some emails or a few documents from you.

  • That's very interesting Brad, I never realized there were other people like me who prefer reading over listening.

    The upshot of your analysis seems to indicate the perfect pitch is either only spoken or only visual. Since a silent presentation seems outright weird, we arrive at your conclusion to have mainly pictures on the slides (a là Fred Wilson).

    I agree entirely. If you're interested (and not because I'm looking for funding – because I'm not) here is me employing these techniques to try and cram 5 years of work into a 5 minute pitch.

    I'd be curious to hear if you think it worked. Thanks.

    • It's nice to realize you aren't alone in the world! Your presentation at Guidewire was solid.

  • I'm an avid reader of your posts on MIT Technology Review. There's great research on the different ways people process and exchange information. For example, the work on multiple literacies. My own research looked at the relation between visual and text based learning. For example, by observing how something is done rather than reading about it. We also tend to also process and retain visual information faster and more efficiently than text. Hence, "a picture is worth a thousand words". Apropos, this phrase was not coined by Confucius as widely believed. Rather it was the pitch of an early 20th century ad man selling billboards for the outside of the new fast trolleys being installed across the USA.

  • Hey Brad… wow!.. you really nailed this one. I am the same way that I find myself drifting to the written content if there is one, rather than "hearing it". I can absorb more and digest the content quicker if I read it, and perhaps even learn more. I always thought of myself as a "bad listener" because of this; and have tried to correct it, but it is not natural for me.

    In my opinion, for a 5 minute pitch I would rather see pictures and/or graphs (clean) and engage the audience whereby they only need to glance at the pictures as needed to stay with the relevance of the pitch. Stay away from excessive written content, leave that for the handout after the pitch.

    Waiting on your book to arrive. Hope to see you soon.

  • Jim Pollock

    I've evolved my presentation style to a compromise between the Steve Jobs Minimalist (1 picture or 3 words per slide) and the Superfluous (a Dissertation per slide) to arrive just north of the Jobsian style. I tend to put 3 bullets of 3-4 words each as the headlines with a simple image to amplify my key points. Then add 5-7 words of greyed out text as sub-bullets when needed. They don't detract during the pitch, but add just enough meat that the slide is usable when distributed post-meeting to those that want to share the flow with other colleagues.

    Good post.


  • Speed-dating decisions apparently take place in 3 seconds — unconsciously. Advertising engagement takes place in 800 milliseconds.

    • Audrey

      If I want to just get information I can do that a LOT faster by reading a paragraph than by sitting through a video (usually of someone reading bullet points) that takes five minutes to get around to about 4 bullet points.

      Most of the video material I see (ESPECIALLY training ones) are complete wastes of time when that information can be provided in less than a minute most of the time to people who are able to read.

      It is a scary phenomena to watch as so many seem to believe that a video is always necessary when it is just adds to the overall time burden (and in my case I get either utterly distracted or quite peeved waiting around for ANYTHING in the video that was not handed out on the bullet points). Why do I need to sit for 5-10 minutes and wait for someone else to slowly explain something I can read quite well in a fraction of the time? The worst are the "webinars" metastasizing everywhere these days…..

      I have known people to quit jobs over this…..

  • Melissa

    What you've hit on is what education/psych researchers have for years been calling the "learning modalities". There are three: visual, aural, and kinesthetic. Most people are visual-dominant, as apparently you are. Early research led to exhortations to teachers that they find a way to teach their material in all three ways to reach all three kinds of learners. More recent research is starting to suggest that the nature of the material itself lends itself to one of the ways best, and teaching style should align with the modality most appropriate for the material, rather than the learner.

  • Pete

    Will there be a pitch session in Raleigh?

    • There won't be – I'm spending the day at Launchbox.