[L/M NET] Konstantin Weiss > “Don’t pitch. But if you do – here’s how to.”

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The best advice I got so far about pitches: don't pitch. Pitch is against the nature of user experience design process. But if you want and need to pitch anyway – here are some aspects I learnt so far.

Is there a pitch at all?

In most cases, there is no pitch. Instead, you are in one of these situations:

  1. There never was a pitch. The decision was already made and you lost.
  2. There never was a pitch. The client just wants an agency presentation but fails to communicate it.
  3. There never was a project. Not even a budget. The middle management is having fun.
  4. You have already lost the pitch. Because neither you have good connection nor preparation. Pitching would be a waste of time and energy.
  5. You have already won the pitch. The battle was won even before it took place, because you have good connection and preparation.
  6. There was a pitch. You did not recognize it. Because it was just testing your daily work.

What is your goal?

If you are sure there is a pitch and you want to pitch, ask yourself: What is it you want to achieve? – Do you want to present a solution that you are convinced of as the best one? Then don't be upset if you lose – the client wouldn't value your work anyway, so you and the client are not the best fit. But your time/resources will still be lost. – Do you want to win the pitch above all? Have in mind: you might end up paying with your nerves during the project. Many projects are doomed from the start because clients' and your expectations are not in sync.

Refine the pitch for audience

Your preparation and acting should depend on the people you are presenting to.

For the Top Management:

  • Be honest.
  • Address their goals.
  • Transcend their goals. Show them there is a bigger vision.
  • Ask uncomfortable questions.
  • Propose a solution.
  • Focus on the essence.
  • Show them you can handle the complexity.
  • Exercise uninteresting listening.

For the Middle Management:

  • Formost: Understand the middle managements real (egoistic) goals.
  • The IBM-principle: Show them that they can't make a wrong decision because you're the pick of the bunch. If the project fails, it's not their fault. They've taken the best agency there is. (That's how IBM was so successful in the past)
  • Make clear that choosing you will be appreciated by the top management.
  • Make clear that not choosing you will result in big justification to the top management.

For the Experts:

  • Be honest.
  • Don't overestimate.
  • Show that you respect their expertise.
  • Dive into detail.
  • Ask critical questions.
  • Treat them as your partner, who they actually are.

The ingredients of a pitch

Connections – 45%

  1. If you have deep relationships into the client's company + know the relationships of your competitors – pitch.
  2. If you have deep relationships into the client's company, but don't know the relationships of your competitors – consider a pitch.
  3. If you don't have relationships into the client's company – you are free to test what you always wanted to test, but never dared. Minimum risc. Minimum cost. Just do it! Pitch!

Concept – 10%

  • Take this for granted, you will not achieve an extraordinary solution if you follow all rules of the briefing. You may get an ordinary solution. So do your competitors. That's not worth the fight. Disobey. Come up with good arguments, why you disobey. You have a chance to win:
    1. You show deep understanding of the issues, not only symptoms.
    2. Your solution is thus surprisingly performative.
    3. You are hardly comparable.
  • Tell a scenario from the user's point of view. Mention that you are eager to understand the business and technology aspects of the project. But the user (normally) does not care. It's the users view that matters here, and you are their advocate. In the end, show how business goals are met as well as the tech feasibility.
  • Work on decent rhetorics. Address the obvious pain. Guide through your approach to your positions. Surprise with your manifestation, but make it damn rooted in the issues and positions.
  • Be a story teller. Look for the catharsis. And in between – make the audience smile.
  • Don't overestimate the concept. Most decision makers don't have much of a clue. Visual Design and Budget plays a much greater role.
  • Last: Show them that your idea is not boring common sense, but surprising.

Visual Design – 20%

  • 90% of all visual designs with finesse and balance fail. They are badly projected in the conference room of decision makers.
  • Consider a realistic design – and decide against it. Do rock 'n roll instead. Your references designate you as an expert, you don't have to prove it now. Instead, aim at their hearts. Emotion wins.

Budget – 20%

Concerning money I have to say: It depends so much on the client. The only rules of thumb that I know are:

  • If you are far too expensive, you're out.
  • If the client is a big company, don't be cheap. For them it's far too expensive if the project fails. If you are too cheap and the project fails, the client's responsibles will have problems to justify their choice. So in order to minimize the risk, they'll rather take somebody with a realistic estimation.
  • Don't forget the IBM-principle (see "Middle Management" above).

Luck – 5%

  • You can never be sure. You can't predict everything. Be prepared to lose anyway.

"I can't afford not to pitch"

Agencies easily say, that they cannot afford to leave out pitches. That's a valid conclusion, but not before considering this aspect: If you are a small agency, pitching is expensive. Even if it is a small one, it will bind – say – one consultant and a visual designer for a week. That's two weeks of manpower that you can spend on something maybe more meaningful. You could make a small project with a client you love for free, knowing that the output will be not designed by committee. This project may generate enough buzz to get clients just by appreciating your agency.

One last piece of advice

Use pitches (at minimum risc, minimum cost) to let your junior, but most promising people get the experience, smell the pitch air, get addicted to the sitaution, lose their nervousness, and learn.

If there is no need for that: avoid pitching if you can. Rather invest the energy elsewhere. Share your thoughts. Teach. Play. Make your own products.

My best advice is: invest in people you love to work with, no matter what positions they are in. It does not pay off in the short run. But after a while you'll have a great working environment and be able to do have great outcome. That's something, considering how much time you spend at work in your life.


Hopefully you enjoyed the advices. I'll be glad to know what you experienced and think.


Thanks to Benjamin Birkenhake, Tobias Jordans, Indra Schlachter, Lutz Schmitt, Marian Steinbach and Ralf Schwartz for the feedback to drafts of this article, as well as Saneef Ansari for correcting my poor English.

(ralf says:
For once please find my comments incorporated.)

Konstantin is partner of iA in Zurich. He consults and develops concepts focusing on User and Reading Experience. He blogs at konnexus about the impact of culture technologies and UX. Twitter: @konnexus