Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time

by Bill McGowan

Bill McGowan was a broadcast journalist before becoming a media coach and trainer to executives, athletes, and celebrities. This book provides guidance on preparing for media interviews, speeches, conference panels, wedding toasts, eulogies, and other situations.

The Seven Principles of Persuasion are the foundation.

  1. The Headline Principle. “Get attention by starting with your best material, especially a grabbing, thought-provoking line that makes listeners think, I want to know more… The first thirty seconds of any conversation or presentation are like the last two minutes of a football game. This is when victory or defeat is determined.” The author offers insights on “where great headlines lurk.”
  2. The Scorsese Principle. “Visual storytelling is the sweet spot of good communication… The speakers who have kept you most engaged undoubtedly created verbal images that allowed you to see, hear, feel, and taste their message… Analogies do more than hold attention. They contextualize the data to help your listener understand it better.”
  3. The Pasta Sauce Principle. “Cure boredom by boiling down your message, making it as rich and brief as possible… Rarely do I come across a client’s presentation that isn’t improved by cutting it by about 25 percent… People take far too long to make their point… The attention span of audiences [is] disappearing faster than the polar ice caps… No one ever complained about a meeting that ran short.”
  4. The No-Tailgating Principle. Don’t let your mouth run faster than your brain. “It’s nearly impossible to maintain the ideal conditions to be persuasive, articulate, and effective when the mouth is traveling well over the speed limit… Um, ah, you know, and like are what your mouth does when it has nowhere to go… The more slowly you talk, using an economy of words, the more confident and sure of your message you appear… A slower pace makes you less likely to resort to what I call verbal backspacing, saying things like, ‘Oh, I didn’t really mean to say that. What I meant to say was this.’”
  5. The Conviction Principle. “Convey certainty with words, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice… If you feel you must ‘quickly’ go through something, consider not going through it at all. If it’s information your listener needs to know, don’t apologize.”
  6. The Curiosity Principle. “Interviewers earn trust by displaying genuine interest… They demonstrate this by maintaining an engaged facial expression” as opposed to a “bitchy resting face.” The author criticizes Mitt Romney for not varying his facial expression. “Michael Dukakis was guilty of the same thing when he ran for president in 1988.”
  7. The Draper Principle. This wisdom is borrowed from the lead character of Mad Men: “‘If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation’ … Take the narrow scope of the conversation and broaden it only as much as you need to in order to get away from the toxicity but still make it seem related to the topic being discussed.”

McGowan stresses the importance of proper breathing and hydration. “When we get nervous, we forget how to breathe properly. We start taking short, shallow breaths, which deplete our lungs of the air necessary to speak with a stable, confident voice. Improper breathing gives the voice that shaky, breathy sound… It sounds so basic, but always hydrate before you orate. Diction and enunciation improve measurably when your mouth is moist.”

A recurring theme in the book is preparation. “Know your opening—the first sixty to ninety seconds of content that will come out of your mouth—and have it down cold. That’s when you’re going to be the most nervous, so leave nothing to chance… The same holds true for your close… The middle of your presentation, however, should be expandable or collapsible, so it can grow or shrink, depending on time constraints and how your audience is receiving it.”

The author provides several pages of advice for panel moderators. “You shouldn’t need to be a traffic cop. You should be an organic part of the conversation… Look for an opportunity to finish one of the Egg-Timer Narcissist’s sentences. Don’t think of it as being rude. Rather think of it as taking the baton in a relay race… Avoid asking each panelist to weigh in on the same question. As you segue from one guest to another, advance the topic of discussion slightly so the event feels as though it’s moving forward… Save a thought-provoking, forward-thinking question for last.”

McGowan emphasizes using clear language. “Eliminate all the obscure jargon, the filler, the showoff vocabulary, and the complex, flowery, verbose sentence structure… You see all those red lines under words like efforting, choiceful, and incentivization. That’s a gentle reminder from your computer that you are using a made-up word.”

Finally, this piece of general wisdom: “The cornerstone of good conversation skills is empathy… The value of getting outside our heads and understanding how a problem looks to the other person cannot be overestimated.”

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.

McGowan, Bill, and Alisa Bowman. Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time. New York: HarperBusiness, 2014. Buy from Amazon.com

One thought on “Pitch Perfect

  1. Very cool. The old Broadcast Journalism major inside of me (although I never used that degree haha) finds this fascinating!

    Hope you check out my debut novel, THE WAITING ROOM 🙂

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