5 Things Being a Theatre Kid Taught Me About Winning Pitches
I went to a liberal arts college where I majored in Theatre. This meant while other people were solving complicated math equations, examining the origins of Democracy, and peering at cells through a microscope, I was mostly lying on the floor pretending to smell an orange.
It was a glorious time.
I used to joke that my education prepared me for little more than bursting into song and being everyone’s favorite team member on Broadway trivia night at the pub. But to my delight and surprise, it turns out my theatre training was extraordinary preparation for a life in marketing. And so, I present to you five things being a theatre major taught me about crafting and presenting a winning pitch.
1. Know Your Audience
Every assignment has a target demo, of course, but I’m referring to your audience in the room. Are they conservative? Do they appreciate a joke? Does a large cast of presenters make them nervous, or do they like seeing there’s an expert crowd ready to service their account? Knowing who’s going to be in the room and what their attitude is will help you create an environment where they’re receptive to your presentation. In other words, if they’re there to see Hamlet, don’t put on Hamilton. (Actually, you could probably always put on Hamilton and no one would ever complain, but you take my meaning.)
2. Identify the Big Bad
In dramatic theory, you’ll hear this referred to as the antagonist. Here in marketing, we call it the barrier or obstacle. Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee refers to it this way:
The Principle of Antagonism: A protagonist and [their] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
It’s not enough to know what we’re fighting for, we also have to know what we’re fighting against. That can be as simple as a lack of knowledge or as complicated as deeply ingrained beliefs about what’s “right” and “wrong.” Bonus tip: The next time someone asks you what “the tension” is in an idea, think about the goal of your campaign and the opposing force preventing it from happening. Your tension is there.
3. Observe the Rules of Improv
The best brainstorms are those where people feel free to say stupid things out loud. Observing the rules of improvisational theatre will help create a space where stupid is not only ok, but desirable, because it means the team trusts each other and can be creatively vulnerable together. And with collaboration and insightful editing, stupid becomes brilliant. Maybe you’ve heard these rules before, but if not, here’s the version I was taught:
“Yes, and…” Abolish the word “no” from your brainstorms. Agree. And more than agree, build: “What if we had the client selling Slurpees on the moon?”
“Yes, and…there’s a special flavor that glows in the dark!”
Of course, eventually we must put on our client hat or legal hat or whichever hat it is that recognizes you can’t actually sell Slurpees on the moon. But, at least at the beginning when the team is just starting to explore, give it a shot and see what happens when you say yes to everything and then try to make it better.
Make statements This is a constructive way of saying please show up on time, close your laptop, put down your phone, and participate. There’s a time for “poking holes” and “pressure testing,” but before that, be part of the solution. Offer suggestions, tell stories, be bold and brave and let us hear all your outlandish, juicy, ridiculous creative ideas.
There are no mistakes I mean, yes of course there are. (The only copy of the deck was on your laptop and you left it on the F train? This is a mistake.) But when it comes to ideation there are only opportunities. Maybe Slurpees on the moon becomes a limited edition Slurpee you can only buy on the day of a rare eclipse. A “mistake” just might become your next big idea. (That’s how we got Post-It Notes, after all!)
4. Use Act Structure
If you have a super useful theatre education like mine, where you are TRULY EXCELLENT at pretending to smell an orange, you already know all about 3-act structure vs. 5-act structure and can discourse on Aristotle’s Poetics and Freytag’s pyramid, but if you are a normal person who did math and science and wore a color other than black in college, all you really need to know here is that your pitch should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I know, it seems obvious, but think about how often your presentation has a fascinating set up, an electric creative idea, and then fizzles to an end with a series of graphs and charts telling the client how long everything is going to take (always too long) and how much it’s going to cost (always too much) before concluding on a slide that reads, “thank you.” Don’t forget the BIG FINISH. Take them on a journey and leave them at a new destination, satisfied for the moment, but craving more. Let them beg to know how long it’s going to take (not too long!) and how much it’s going to cost (that seems reasonable!). At the very least, make your “thank you” slide clever.
5. Razzle Dazzle Them
I’m not talking about “pitch theatre,” although that’s a lot of fun. (At one of my former agencies we built a beach in a conference room to pitch a beer client. It was a hoot.) No, I’m talking about YOU. Razzle dazzle them with the conviction of your ideas, the confidence of your style, the way you know their business inside and out, and your genuine enthusiasm for the ideas you’re showing them. If you’re not naturally good at this, there are so many ways to learn. Take an acting class, take an improv class, join Toastmasters. Become excellent at presenting your ideas and you cannot fail, because ultimately, as the Kinks sang, everybody’s in show biz.
Now get out there and smell that orange.