There are plenty of traps to fall into when pitching. Three of my favourites – The Knowledge trap, the Logic trap and the Illustration trap, fall into the ‘say what you mean’ category and are the subject of this blog.

The Knowledge Trap

I was driving through Chichester the other day, and noticed that the Council had erected new signs in the town centre: “Think Bike. Think Biker”. Well it made me think all right. Presumably “bike’ is bicycle and ‘biker’ is motorbike (or motorbike rider?). But how am I supposed to think differently about one compared to the other.  And what is it, exactly, I am supposed to be thinking – and presumably doing as a result?

It reminded me of some pitches I critiqued recently, which demonstrated the same error the Council had made with their well-meaning sign – it can be meaning-less, except to the person who wrote it.

“Think Bike. Think Biker” could have intended you to understand:

‘Think about looking twice at junctions, because there are lots of bikes around and if you don’t look a couple of times, you may not see them. And look twice for motorbikes because although they are much bigger than bicycles, they move very fast and you might not see them’.


‘Drivers. Think! Stay out of our new bike/motorbike lane and stay on the main carriageway.’


‘Cyclists and motorbike riders – Think! Stay in that new bike/motorbike lane and leave the crowded dangerous carriageway to cars.

This trap is called “the curse of knowledge” (Chip and Dan Heath have written extensively on the subject, if you want to find out more). What it means is that you, as presenter, have knowledge in your head which enables you to make sense of what’s on your slide (or sign). But without that knowledge, the slide is either meaningless or open to interpretation.

Here is a regular example of the knowledge trap in action, in pitches

“Our business was founded in 1900 (or whenever)”.

I fell into this trap in the early days of running my own business. In pitches I used to say “we have been going five years”.

In my head, what this meant was: “We are youthful, vibrant, hungry, filled with energy and ideas. We are so determined, we will crawl over broken glass to help you. Our competitors, on the other hand, are old, slow, fat, tired and complacent; they ran out of ideas years ago, whereas we have only just got going.”

But what appeared on the screen and what came out of my mouth was “we have been going five years”. Made sense to me….

Other examples of the genre are using your firm’s jargon e.g. “we will keep our shape as a team” which may make sense to you, but be incomprehensible to others.

The most common sin, however, is using slides that support what you mean to say, rather than actually expressing it. You, the presenter, make the key point, and what’s on the slide supports your words.

But that’s a huge problem if your slides are circulated to others – decision makers, possibly – who did not attend the pitch, particularly if the slides are of the arresting images variety..

So make sure that your slides say what you mean – they make your point explicitly, and are also intelligible to sensible folk who were not there to hear you explain what your slides are trying to say.

The Logic Trap

The logic trap is where you put together an argument over a series of slides, which build to the reveal; the ‘ta-da’ moment.

That’s how we were taught to do things at school – take people through your argument and at the end, QED, everything falls into place and you have proved your point.

The problem here is that for this to work, you really need your audience to pay rapt attention, all the way through.

But they may be distracted by a message, or look down to make notes in the middle of your logical flow, or get called out of the room for a second, or simply fail to understand – or care – that your gripping but mysterious slides are actually building to a relevant point.

And so if there is any break at all in their understanding of the flow of your logic (which makes sense to you, of course, because you know what’s coming next), what appears on the slides won’t make sense to them, because your audience will have lost the thread of what you are saying. Which means your pitch quickly becomes incomprehensible, and that makes it a loser.

So in pitches (and presentation documents, too) always lead with the conclusion and use the BP’s and other slides (or pages) to act as proof points for what you are trying to say.

The Illustration Trap

The illustration trap is both trap and something of a missed opportunity.

In order to make slides look more interesting, it’s not uncommon to insert stock shots to brighten things up – pictures of happy, shiny people to illustrate consumers; pack shots of your client’s products. Mastheads to make news titles more interesting. That sort of thing.

Trouble is, these pictures look lazy and generic.

We can all recognise a Google picture or Getty image a mile away. The response they generate in the audience tends not to be “hmmm, that sort-of-familiar image, of a happy smiling person, is obviously representative of our target audience”.

Instead, the response tends to be “yup, it’s another stock shot” and the audience thinks little further. They certainly don’t give you credit for going to the “effort” of dropping it in. And if the image is supposed to mean something other than make the slide visually more interesting, it probably fails that test, too. Whatever you mean the image to say, it probably doesn’t.

What’s far, far more effective is to use selfies of real things, real people, and of your people interacting with the client brand. Shots of your staff, who may or may not be happy and shiny, sampling your client’s product in a comparative test. Shots of real people being interviewed saying what they think about the brand. Shots of your people visiting the client’s various premises, to illustrate the point that you have actually bothered to get out and do some research.

Now these pictures actually say something. Clients recognise them as authentic. Someone grimacing when they taste the latest fizzy drink really does illustrate the point that the stuff may not appeal to everyone, in a way that a stock shot is unlikely to. Shows you have tried harder as well.

So, before you sign off on your next deck of pitch slides, make sure that they pass the “do they say what we mean” test:

Would someone not in the room understand what the slides are trying to say
Do the slides lead with an explicit statement, which is backed up by proof points, or do the proof points lead to a conclusion
Do the illustrations actually illustrate what we want them to, and make the point that we have tried harder than the competitors who have just gone as far as Google.

As always, there’s much to do and time slips by, so good luck and get cracking.