Improvising in the Boardroom

I’m ready to admit something: I don’t really prepare for a client pitch. Well, OK, that may be a slight exaggeration. Sometimes I pre-load some web pages in a browser in case there’s no Internet access. If I’m going to show logos or before/after shots, I have been known to throw some images in a PDF template. But I don’t write speeches. I don’t have elaborate slideshows. I don’t really “present” in the traditional sense. So what do I do? And why don’t I run out of the room to throw up when they all turn to me and someone says “we’re really looking forward to seeing what you have to show us?”

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One of the bands I used to play in was a free improvised music group called Unstable Ensemble. We would tour the US once a year, and every night the music was different — we just sat down and played.

What I learned from the Unstable years, more than anything else, is that playing music well is about listening. “Open your ears,” we used to say. You hear what the other players are doing, you start to see where they’re going and — when the time is right — you join the conversation. You adjust your playing as you go based on the feedback you’re getting from the other musicians. And the further you go down the road, the clearer the “plan” becomes. Once you’re really all in synch, everybody can see the ending coming a mile away.

This is improvisation. You may have some vague plans about what you’re going to do when you sit down. But you’re always listening, watching, and ready to throw all your plans away if a better avenue presents itself. What you really bring to bear in the moment is not a rehearsed plan, but the sum total of your cumulative knowledge and experience to that point.

In a client meeting, I take a similar approach: I allow the whole group to lead. I listen, and let my potential new clients talk about themselves and their organization. What they think the project is, what they think the problems are. When it seems like the right time, I begin weaving in themes from my own knowledge and experience: how we might approach their problems, examples of similar things we’ve done for other clients, or examples of relevant solutions that other talented people have created that come to mind (explicitly credited, of course). I always try to keep one eye on people’s reactions, and help adjust our trajectory appropriately. When everyone seems bored, it’s time to move on to another subject. When everyone’s suddenly rapt, maybe I should expand a little on what I’m talking about. Following these cues helps keep the experience closer to an interesting conversation, rather than a hit-or-miss presentation.

In college I saw a video of Bill Evans, the famous jazz pianist, talking about improvisation. His primary message was this: to be a great improviser, you must learn music theory and technique so well that it’s automatic. You relegate it to the unconscious, freeing your conscious mind to make creative decisions in the moment.

Meetings are the same. They are a performance, but you are not the only player. If you know your subject well enough (you should, you live it every day) you don’t need to sweat it. Just bring your brain and, just as important, your ears.

I once pitched to a potential client against two large international marketing firms. After we won the (for us) considerable contract, our contact there confided in me that the other firms had superior “dog and pony shows.” But after interacting with us in a less-prepared, conversational manner, he was convinced that we would “get” their project and the challenges involved more than the others.

Ultimately your clients don’t need to be blown away by a fancy presentation. They need to see that they can work well with you for the coming months, or even years. Don’t give them a presentation, give them a demo. This your opportunity to say to them, “this is what we’re like to work with, this is how we listen, collaborate, solve problems.” Wouldn’t you rather hire someone you knew you could work well with, rather than someone you knew could put together a wicked-hot Keynote presentation?

So forget the slideshows. Open your ears. Improvise. Be genuine — the person that you are every day in your job — right there in the room with them. Then you’ll win the clients you should win. And, hell — let someone else have the ones you shouldn’t.

5 Reader Comments

  1. I’ve been using improvisation for years to make me more comfortable in facing fears. I never “study” for an interview anymore and feel like I pull them off much better.

  2. IMHO, it is not improvisation, you made these events to a experience and knowledge driven workshop. And that is exactly the way which works best for me.

    In 90% of all cases, our potential clients have nothing but are more or less diffuse picture of the next project. There are goals and a strong hope that the things get done as they are expect them. With a prepared presentation, i’am caught up in slides and it is even harder to act flexible.

    But this is no way for people without a lot of experience and knowledge (i sometimes like to adress them as competence-simulators), so marketing people might get lost at this improvised track.

  3. More often than not, when talking to clients, I’m pleasantly surprised at how smart and knowledgeable I am :-)) Really, it’s a sort of Zen thing. Once you make the experience that smart questions from well prepared clients lead to smart answers and a pleasant, interesting dialogue for both parts, you broke the spell that binds you. Some clients have no clue, which is second best, but then you get to lead the pitch–if you know your stuff, that’s ok. The problem are people who try to give you a hard time–happens occasionally, but surprisingly many people just want to get a job done, as you do. A notebook and internet or else, your past projects with a local web server are often quite enough to illustrate technicalities or give your clients ideas on how they like things to be done–or not, which is helpful, too.

  4. a silly face with two hyphens and and a para ending with a dash resulted in a long, uncalled for strike through, maybe a sort of Zen thing, too.

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