Winning the pitch hinges on your ability to perform a crucial task: communicating to your prospect that you bring more value to the deal than your competitors.

This value takes different forms:

  • Knowledge you’ve gained from experience

  • Proof, through case studies and client testimonials, that you’ve successfully solved similar problems in the past

  • A work process or approach that’s led to success and which few could replicate

  • An insight or point of view cultivated over time that indicates you may have cracked a code that still leaves others stumped

It all sounds pretty straightforward—the stuff pitches are made of. So why do the majority of agencies lose the pitch more frequently than they win it?

Because, there’s a fundamental disconnect between how we communicate our pitch and how our audience receives it. 

Outsmarting the Lizard Brain

The root of the problem lies with our lizard brain, which, as the name implies, has been with us ever since we evolved from sea creatures to crawl around on dry land. Our lizard brain is responsible for keeping us alive and intact by sensing danger and reacting to it through basic instincts like fear and aggression.

It takes its job very seriously, but it’s not so good at complex problem-solving.

Next came our mammal brain, which is responsible for emotions and helps us create social bonds with each other.

Finally, as we evolved into primates, our brains developed the neocortex. This highly evolved part of our brain is responsible for things like complex problem-solving, reasoning, languages, and abstraction.

The way we receive all incoming messages mirrors our evolution. When messages come our way, we filter them first based on survival (“does this represent a threat or something safe and pleasurable?”), then social relationships (“do I like this person better now that she’s opened her mouth?”), and finally problem-solving (“weighing the evidence and the data presented, does this offer me a solution I need?”).


lizard brain filter.png

The problem is, we do the complete opposite when we sit down to think about how to make our pitch.  

That’s because pitching involves explaining abstract ideas and concepts, and when we have to do that, we go straight to the abstract problem-solving part of our brain, the neocortex, for help. And, it obliges us by spitting out something like this:

“We are a next-generation brand response agency, offering a full suite of performance marketing and media services. Our focus is to align strategic planning, world-class analytics and flawless execution to produce positive business outcomes for our clients in tangible and measurable ways.”

Your client’s lizard brain perceives this abstract, jargon-y, complicated language as a threat and will react in one of two ways.

It will either decide to run (this is the “flight” in the flight-or-fight response). In the case of a pitch meeting, this takes the form of distraction, like when everyone seems to be looking at their iPhones and not listening to you.

Or, it will do its best to summarize the information it’s receiving in order to conserve energy towards its primary responsibility of keeping the body safe and alive. That may mean that important parts of your pitch, which you worked so hard to craft, are omitted or mangled by your audience.

Our neocortex wants to transmit information that is abstract, sophisticated, comprehensive, and informative. The lizard brain wants to receive messages that are simple, clear, nonthreatening, and intriguing.

Unseating your deeply entrenched intellectual tendencies is going to take time, discipline, and the willingness to believe you may have been doing this whole pitching for new business thing all wrong for years.

Here are a few guidelines to get you off to a good start:

1. Commit to one objective for each interaction.

Early on, your objective may be simply to get a response to your email or a meeting set on your calendar. Later in the cycle it may be to eliminate competitors or to come to an agreement on fee. Resist the compulsion to offer more information than is required. You may think you are being thorough or generous; the lizard brain will see it as a threat.

2. Stay focused on what’s in it for them.

Go a little deeper than you might expect. Your clients are not really looking for “a collaborative strategic partner to take marketing to the next level.”

They’re looking for praise and glory and a salary bump. They’re looking keep their jobs, or offload responsibilities, or ditch an incumbent agency that’s turned out to be so difficult to manage.

Be ready to strike emotional triggers. Remind them of the consequences of not making a change and describe to them what presentation expert Nancy Duarte calls “the new bliss” that awaits them.

3. Keep it simple and provide verifiable proof.

The lizard brain doesn’t deal well with abstract concepts. Be as concrete and specific as possible. Offer case studies with strong results and positive client testimonials. Nevertheless, check yourself against guideline #1 and don’t overwhelm them with data. Case study results lose their effectiveness when they’re a recitation of statistics divorced from a narrative.

4. Add an element of novelty that piques interest.

This can take the form of an unexpected or contrary point of view on a persistent problem (think of those click-bait headlines promising how you’ll shed pounds on a bacon-only diet). Or a few well-placed stories. The lizard brain loves a good story. Stories transform abstract concepts into tangible ideas.

What about clever stunts and gimmicks? Maybe, if you’re good at that kind of thing – and I’ve known many agency leaders who are. Cleverness is often in the eyes of the beholder, however, so this can be a high-risk approach.

5. Make it clear what you want from them and when you’ll set them free.

If your objective is to score a face-to-face meeting with them, be direct and ask for a meeting. Once there, prepare a pitch that’s shorter in duration than the time you’ve been given and provide them some way of navigating where they are at any given moment, whether it’s a written agenda or a set of visual clues in your slides.

You may have been born to pitch badly, but you don’t have to die that way. Use your primate smarts to disarm your prospect’s lizard brain and deliver a pitch that it can’t ignore.