8 seconds is all you have, so learn to pitch from this crocodile wrestler

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Martin Barnes is a pitch coach and the founder of 8Seconds2Connect. He helps people enjoy pitching and presenting, specifically founders who are at the very beginning of their entrepreneurial or business journey. His target market are people who have amazing ideas that keep them awake at night and those who have seen a problem and have a solution, but can’t seem to communicate it effectively.

For business owners to unlock the value in their business and enjoy telling the story of how their business can potentially grow, Martin helps them present and pitch their business ideas. He says cave paintings were the world’s first ever pitch, and the cave painting is the slide for that pitch. His imagination is that these cave people were in a cave with a torch and a cave painting, and the community of tribe people are there, and they are telling each other how to survive. That was 65,000 years ago, proving that humans are storytelling creatures. That’s how even the primitive people communicated, but it’s something many today have forgotten how to do. Thankfully, modern technology has provided the opportunities and the tools for people to tell their stories.

The perfect tools for pitching

Speaking of tools, Martin will make use of any tool for pitching: a whiteboard, a laptop, or even a smartphone, and he says ideas can be developed anywhere: on paper, on a whiteboard, on post-it notes, anywhere as long as you are thinking freely and can get into a creative flow state. Through a process of digitization, organisation, and editing, you can then choose PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, or whatever software you want to share that message. It’s very much process-driven, and it goes from analogue to digital, but the problem with that is people jump into creating a PowerPoint with half an idea and then hoping the PowerPoint will them help them organise their thinking. 

Before writing ideas down, the challenge is finding the right words to articulate what it is that makes the business special, and this is all about discovery, listening, and asking questions. Martin has a long list of around 80 discovery questions that he goes through with his clients, and they’re clustered within very tangible mechanical questions about what it is they’re doing, and then there are more emotive questions around why they’re doing it and whom they’re helping. Martin aims to get clients to go through this discovery phase where they can explore the questions from end to end and encourage them to talk, because it is the job of communication people to listen and then to identify where the story is. One client of Martin’s said that he is very good at helping people understand what they know, but packaging it in a new way. He is able to do this, because he has found that it’s often the thing that someone will say on the edge which is the most important, and so he keeps his ears open and collects the edges because that’s where the real insights are.

Martin focuses on helping founders overcome challenges in finding their voice and the narrative of the business more than other members of a company, because the founder is in the eye of the storm. Other team members of an organisation have their jobs, their goals, and their KPIs. Meanwhile, the founder is on the front of the ship with a compass, a map, and a destination, and he or she is in charge of figuring out how to get to where they want to be. Also, founders are able to see both the smaller and the bigger picture in terms of the business’ potential and growth, which is why the need to be able to pitch convincingly to their audience. 

One issue is that not everybody is comfortable or has the vocabulary to build their story, and so this is where the tools come in. Once you have a basic understanding of storytelling structure, you can then see the map. In line with this, Martin has developed a process called the three-beat mountain, which is a pitch structure, and it’s very loosely based on the three-act play. All stories are generally told in the same way, in a structural basis, but it’s the details of the characters in the drama that make it compelling. And so the three-beat mountain is a way of saying, "What do you want to say first? What do you want to say second? What do you want to say third? What’s your call to action? And don’t say any more than that."

Make personalised pitches

Technological advancements have propelled this generation into an era where AI can now do the writing for you, but the problem with AI-generated content is it can all end up coming across as generic. To personalise that and get the founder to stand out, aside from talking about structures and tools, another topic to talk about are the goals and the audience, because the biggest mistake Martin sees founders making is they make their pitch and use the same one for all audiences, but that shouldn’t be the case. A pitch needs to be personalised for every single audience group, and that occurs as soon as there is an understanding of how the structure works.

When creating a different set of messages and a different pitch for each audience, the CEO or the founder is then tasked to remain a consistent personality. That can be done by taking a step back and realigning oneself, identifying the values, the vision, and the mission of the business. Once those high level concepts are clearly understood, it becomes easy to craft the message for each audience. Again, it’s not about sharing everything. It’s about sharing what matters to the audience in front of you that will move you closer to your goals. Before, Martin wanted to get as much information transferred down as possible, but then he overpitched and failed, because his audiences would get overwhelmed. He learned that it’s important as a leader to first develop the mission and vision and then pitch the key points of that to the different groups.

On the 8Seconds2Connect website, he shares the window of opportunity to convince someone to either buy from you or invest in your business, because research suggests that you need to ‘pitch your pitch’ or have a hook that grabs people’s attention quickly. It might be futile to have a pitch and jump in with the best bits if people may have not tuned in yet. And so, borne was this concept of having eight seconds to connect. This also came as a result of Martin hearing about TikTok, social media attention span, YouTube video duration, and how people tune out very quickly. From that, Martin figured out a way for founders to hook people’s attention before they deliver the main message. 

Apart from the mainstream tools, Martin makes use of niche storytelling tools like Mmhmm which is a tool for making Zoom calls more interactive. It allows the speaker or the presenter to be bigger in the frame of their online pitch, therefore, they’re no longer a postcard stamp-sized image, but they’re actually part of the presentation itself. Martin’s part of the beta testing group, and he can feel the the higher levels of engagement through using this tool, which was one of many developed as a reaction to COVID and the fact that people are now pitching, presenting, and telling stories in very different ways than they were before COVID.

When people ask Martin what he does, he tells them he’s a crocodile wrestler, to which he gets a smile and a confused look. He explains that he has twins under three and that his life feels like he’s wrestling crocodiles, but when he’s not wrestling crocodiles, he’s a pitch coach. He’s said this with the British Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, with groups in the southwest of England, and he always gets a smile. Talking about crocodiles is what he says during his eight seconds to connect. He paints an incredibly vivid picture in the mind of his audience that they will remember, and that is key. Currently, he is working on an online course that will help people create an opening pitch that catches others’ attention, because the whole reason of having eight seconds to connect is that once you’ve got the attention of others, then you have a runway to sell. If you don’t have that attention, you won’t get anywhere.

Top tips for presenters

There are three things that a presenter controls as they pitch: they present what they say as their story, they control how they say it with their performance, their tonality, their eye contact, and then there’s their slide design. Martin believes the most important is story, then it’s performance, and then finally, it’s the slides. It’s a big help if the presenter is able to tell visual stories while the audience visualises it and the background image is amplifying the main message and not conflicting with it. Many people make the mistake of having too many images on a slide, because they want to show everything, but then what they say doesn’t really sync up with what they’re showing, and so reducing the visuals and choosing one emotive image that really resonates is way more powerful.

Often, clients will want to include as much information as they can for fear of leaving out something important. This is a valid concern, because a pitch and a presentation is an incredibly high value moment, because you have somebody’s attention. A lot of people will pitch the same information they have on their website, but Martin advises not using someone’s attention for what they could read much quicker on a website. Instead, use their attention to start building rapport. The presenter needs to have the confidence, the trust, and the bravery to say, "I do have more to say, but I don’t have to say it now." You are allowed to leave things out. It’s like if you’re meeting someone at a networking event and they don’t let you enter the conversation, you just back off. Those are the same rules. The point is if you’ve got a great hook, you create a level of interest, which means you don’t have to dump everything on the listener, because your goal is to build a relationship first. This is something Martin learned the hard way. Now, he reminds himself that patience is a virtue. If you are able to identify what your customer is looking for, then the narrative shifts to thinking about what it would take to make them into a hero. It’s not about you and sharing everything. It’s about the solution you could provide to them, and it’s given to them one piece at a time, so that they can have a sense of ownership over what you’re sharing.

Truly, Martin Barnes is a storyteller extraordinaire. To learn more about what he does and how he and his clients have successfully pitched to companies big and small alike, visit the 8Seconds2Connect website. There, he and his team introduce their methodology and share their insights. There’s also a free PDF which teaches one how to pitch online, because again, with the 2020 situation, the change of work, and the change of opportunities, people need to be confident when they’re pitching. With that, keep on telling stories and presenting to get more within those magic eight seconds.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Photos from 8Seconds2Connect

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