The Art of Being in a Room

The Art of Being in a Room

The other day I stumbled upon a YouTube gem that I couldn’t stop watching all through its 40+ minutes. It’s a 2012 talk given by Stephanie Palmer at Google about pitching and doing well in high-stakes meetings. She cut her teeth as a Hollywood executive, and then worked as a consultant for individuals and companies in different industries. Let me tell you: the ideas presented in the video echoed my own experiences and challenges with a striking resonance.

After an internship on "Titanic" and climbing the corporate ladder, Stephanie became Director of Creative Affairs at MGM, overseeing the development of memorable movies like "21" and "Legally Blonde." Working in the middle of executives and writers (the business and creative sides of the equation, respectively), she noticed that the projects that got made more often weren’t necessarily the best, but those who were sold most convincingly.

At one point, she set her mind to have the studio add some quality to their slate. That led her to both reflect on what made a pitch stand out and help those representing great projects nail their meetings with decision makers. Post MGM, Stephanie wrote a book on the subject called “Good in a Room”, which is also the name of her company that provides coaching, lectures and consultation services.

Her transition further cements the universal relevance of pitching and other sales skills, which in Hollywood are perfected out of necessity. Let’s define it to be on the same page, just in case: a pitch is a one or two sentence summary of whatever it is that you’re selling. Distilling the insights found in the video, five core principles emerge, which I’ll articulate with my own thoughts and experiences in tech.

1. Start by Stepping Back:
Providing context is crucially important. Ideas can lose their luster when presented without “setting the stage”, making buyers not know what to expect or spend half the meeting figuring out what exactly is being talked about. Once, I saw an entrepreneur try to sell a blockchain-based renewable energy solution by rushing into its technical features. The room could barely keep up, a typical reaction to a run-of-the-mill pitch. Highlighting the critical need for sustainable energy sources would’ve helped, giving gravitas to and perspective on the need / niche / problem being addressed by the proposal. Imagine hearing a punchline without the joke’s buildup, or in the case of a Hollywood meeting, a story idea without knowing if it’s an absurd comedy feature or a hard sci-fi limited series. Context anchors your audience's expectations.

2. Write Your Pitch to Be Spoken:
The transition from page to speech is akin to translating between languages – each phrase in a pitch must be crafted for the ear, not the eye. The aforementioned presentation for the renewable energy project was also full of complex jargon that, while impressive on paper, became a burden for the speaker and listeners alike. Focus on shorter, conversational sentences that make your elaborate ideas easy to follow and identify with. Take the buyer on an entertaining journey, not a dry recitation of a technical manual. Most times, less is more.

3. Let the Audience Be the Judge:
Telling your audience how revolutionary your idea is can often lead to resistance – it’s about persuasion, not coercion. Lay out the facts and let them reach their own conclusions. You can assert the unparalleled benefits of your product by presenting statistics, case studies and user testimonials, allowing the decision makers to connect the dots. The result will surely be a marked increase in engagement and interest.

4. Sell Yourself as Well as Your Idea:
People invest in people, especially in ventures that involve years of collaboration. Highlighting your unique journey, passion, and qualifications lends credibility and relatability to your pitch. You can begin your presentation by sharing a personal anecdote about the genesis of your idea or the challenges you overcame while pursuing it, making the presentation more compelling. Think of the questions, “Why me? What are my particular strengths and experiences? What can I offer that others can’t?”

5. Embrace Pitching Early in the Development Process:
Figuring out ways to attractively present an idea right as you begin work on it can unveil insights and pivot opportunities early on. The process is also useful to anticipate flaws in its concept that might be due to lack of specificity or direction. Engage in mini-pitches with peers or mentors to gauge their reactions. A startup I advised reshaped its entire business model based on early pitch feedback, ultimately leading to a more refined, market-fit product and successful funding rounds.

In my experience, the art of pitching is not just about conveying an idea – it’s about storytelling, connecting, and resonating with your audience on a human level. As I discussed in a Forbes article about networking, the problem sometimes lies in letting anxiety or pride get in the way instead of putting the spotlight where it belongs: the buyer.

Stephanie alludes to this many times, especially when she talks about having realistic expectations for a first meeting or making the big mistake of not being able to listen. Better to be down-to-earth and a bit nervous than overconfident. It’s also important to have the right mindset, knowing that practice and patience makes perfect, and noes will eventually turn into yeses. It’s no use torturing yourself if an important opportunity didn’t yield the expected results. Learn, revise, adapt, and try again!

Stephanie’s celebrated book goes into much more detail about the art of being good in a room, but the above principles convey the basics. They point to the dynamic interplay between being informative and engaging, between showcasing a groundbreaking idea and relating it to the world. Ultimately, entrepreneurs intent on selling are inviting others into a vision, one that should have the potential to change lives.

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