On a recent episode of The Apprentice, the bunch of fame-hungry ditherers with dubious business credentials set about designing home fragrances: scented candles and reed diffusers for both public and trade customers.

It was excruciating to watch.

They should have focused on profits and protecting margins. But, predictably, all that fell by the wayside, as the teams bickered and sold at too large a discount. In short, their proposals failed to persuade.

 Whether it is The Apprentice or Dragons Den, I find myself screaming at the television, as so-called “business brains” of the future botch yet another pitch.

 All those uncontrolled nerves, the indecisiveness and lack of knowledge of their own business propositions; it makes good television.

 But it doesn’t make good business.

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

In the real world, small and medium sized firms need to plan and prepare to win new business.

Here are seven golden rules to help you win a competitive pitch:

1. Go for the right business

Deciding whether to pitch can be the most important part of the pitching process.

While it’s tempting to pitch for everything, there are many reasons not to do so. Perhaps what you are pitching for is outside your area of expertise. Alternatively, if you did win the work, you might not have the resources to do it well. Maybe this client does not have a suitable budget. Or, by winning this, you exclude other better opportunities.

Sometimes it is better business to just say no. Put in place a formal screening process for every new pitch and keep reviewing it at each stage of the pitch process. This will focus your efforts on winning the right business for your business.

2. Do your homework

It sounds like a no brainer, but the better you understand your client – and the better they understand you – the better your chances of winning.

Think about the people you will be presenting to, as well as the company ethos, process and the firm’s track record. Work through the project brief and demonstrate expert knowledge in the industry you are pitching to. By understanding your client, you can focus everything you write and say to what they want to hear.

3. Think in headlines

Grab attention by sharing your best information first. Say the “headline” first and then the rest: the detail, the colour and the background information. This topsy-turvy style draws the audience in. They will want to hear more.

4. Be concise and credible

You probably have about a thousand things you can say about this project. Avoid the temptation to overwhelm your audience. Instead, cherry-pick two or three key points that you can talk about in a thousand different ways. Keep your messages brief and punchy to make them memorable.

5. Practice makes perfect

To create a persuasive proposal that’s easy to read and a pleasure for the client to listen to, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Once you know your content inside out you will have the confidence to deliver your messages with clarity and conviction. Make sure your posture, your clothing and the tone of voice – your whole demeanour – conveys that certainty.

6. Focus on them

You want to win new business to help your firm grow, but you need to convince the client that giving you the contract is good news for their bottom line too. Check that you are using language like “you” and “your”, rather than “me” and “we”. A good pitch is about the client, their issues and needs. You are just the supplier. Talk to them in terms of the benefits you bring to them.

7. Demonstrate Teamwork

While highlighting your strengths, remember to include the talented people who are working on the project. Give the unwavering impression of a focused team. Ensure that everyone involved knows the details. Refer back and forth to each other and decide in advance who is going to cover what and who will answer which types of questions. Pitching is, after all, about selling your idea and your business as an exciting place to be and work alongside.

Those young pretenders off the telly are anything but the cream of British go-getters. You, on the other hand, have opportunity and prospects if you pitch with panache.

Crunch client Benjamin Ball runs Benjamin Ball Associates. They advise businesses how to pitch, present and persuade more effectively.

Image by NASA HQ Photo