Part 5: ...part 4 (cont) - and how to improve pitches

Ever hear someone spout a blizzard of numbers, and at the end think: “Wow - you covered everything … but I grasped nothing”? Today’s email is the fifth in a series on ‘communicating’ (here are the others). Last month's was on repeatability - and it said we should give numbers. Many people don't though - often, summaries are a number-free zone.

Today we look more at numbers in summaries (albeit rounding numbers isn't mentioned).

Give a few numbers: I don’t subscribe to the theory that we can remember only three numbers. Many of us can remember more - if you play sports, think about your team… games played, won, lost, goals for, etc. It’s fine to convey more than three. Maybe five. Or six.

Strive for variety: give me six financial numbers and I forget them. Give me numbers that cover different units of measurement, and I remember them. “We need £1m to buy new IT. We get reports out 10% quicker. It’ll take two months to implement. We need five new staff. We got six tenders.” Five numbers. Different units of measurement. Easier to remember.

And – obviously - don’t convey too many: convey five that have variety, and there’s a good chance people remember them. Convey fifteen and people remember none. It’s not just diminishing marginal returns. It’s negative marginal returns. Years ago, someone said to me that the impact you make is not the sum of all your points, but the average of them. Convey four good points, and you’re doing well. Convey another three ‘OK’ points, and your impact - and repeatability - hasn’t gone up. It’s gone down.

People often convey too much. Especially in slides. To tell bosses that profit is £200m, we type on a slide: “Profit £200m”… then get nervous. The slide looks empty. Also, we like to show our workings, so we then fill the slide with the profit and loss account, plus comparatives too. Forty numbers on screen, plus associated labels (“Profit before goodwill and exceptional items”), just to convey one number: £200m. Someone once told me: “I ask my staff what the time is, and they tell me how a watch works”.

If struggling for repeatability, don’t resort to clichés (and if wondering how this relates to numbers, you’ll see soon): many tenders overflow with clichés – “we meet client needs, deliver innovative solutions, put clients first”. For three reasons, eschew such comments:

(1) No-one ever says: “Hey… this supplier says it puts clients first… let’s appoint them!”; rather, people sarcastically think: “That’s nice…”;

(2) The comments don’t pass the Not test – no-one ever says: “We don’t put clients first”;

(3) Assuming you actually do have some good points, these empty comments make things worse for you – they clutter up your good points, making them harder to spot. They lessen your impact.

Still, I suppose it’s easier to trot out tired hyperbole than bother with the tiresome task of thinking. After all, it’s not easy, this ‘thinking’ lark.

But we must do it. Admittedly sometimes it’s the Devil’s Own to think of something pithy. Effective. That has repeatability. But when you do, it’s the gift that keeps giving. You roll it out year after year. Maybe it’s a case study. A quote. A particular benefit or outcome of your product or service.

Or maybe a number. But numbers can be tough to find. After all, think about what I teach… how on earth can I quantify its benefit? Also, people are suspicious, numbers can backfire. “Client ABC Inc tried my Five Step System for better reports”, I trumpet, “and sold 30% more widgets.” Really? Maybe the recession had ended. Or prices were slashed. Or a big ad campaign had been done.

When talking to potential clients, I don’t resort to questionable numbers (“My ideas save you X% reading time!!!”). Nor resort to clichés. Rather, if it’s face-to-face, I show stuff. I show my Cabinet Minister Briefing document before and after. I spend one minute explaining how it sharpens thinking, helps writers’ points leap from the page, gives readers choice, and is a great script for presenters. It convinces.

What if it’s not face-to-face though? I don’t fall back on lazy clichés (“innovative solutions”…). Rather, I casually mention client names. And mention numbers. Not questionable ones, but decent ones: “In 2018, I travelled 100,000 miles teaching my stuff”. That reassures. And it’s got repeatability – the person to whom I’m talking can mention it to their boss.

Little Jack Horner's pie:  previous emails have shown a 'Pac-man' pie chart, a 'lemon meringue' pie chart, and a 'pyramid' pie chart (Fig 1). I was impressed recently when someone sent me a 'living room corner' pie chart (Fig 2). Nice. If you have any more to add to this growing 'pie' collection, do send it in.

Til next month.


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