Guest Posting: How to Pitch, by Alan Stevens


Do you need to pitch for business, funding or sponsorship? Here’s a guide about how to succeed.

  1. Solve a Problem: Explain how your unique solution fills a “must have” need. If you aren’t solving a problem or filling a need, you’re in for a tough time.
  2. Tell Them What They Want to Hear: Describe your product or service and its benefits succinctly. You may also have to define and size the market, explain how you’re going to make money and show how your offering beats the competition.
  3. Speak in Plain English: Talk in tangibles, not abstractions, throughout your pitch.. Even if your product is complex, you’ll lose your audience if you use MBA-speak.
  4. Grab the Listener’s Attention: Develop a tagline – something enticing that captures the imagination. Make an analogy between you and a well-known company. “We’re the Twitter for teens” is a good short way to say that you’re trying to create a social messaging system for teenagers.
  5. Ask Qualifier Questions: To ensure that you’re targeting the right person with the right message, ask a couple of questions about their decision-making powers.
  6. Tailor Your Pitch to Your Audience: To investors, the pitch focuses on your team and how you plan to make money. To customers, your focus should be on the problem you can solve for them. Potential partners want to know what you’re building, why it’s important, and why you’re going to be a success.
  7. Show Your Passion: A good pitch makes your heart race. Show the fire in the belly and your passion to succeed.
  8. Tell a Consistent Story: Make sure that your managers and other key individuals, such as investors and board members, can also give your company’s elevator pitch fluently. Nothing sounds worse than fumbling, inaccurate or contradictory company descriptions.
  9. Conclude With a Call to Action: Always end your pitch with a call to action, but recognize that different audiences prompt different requests.

Alan Stevens is a professional speaker and media coach based in the UK. This information was written by Alan Stevens, and originally appeared in “The MediaCoach”, his free weekly ezine, available at

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The Speechwriting Secrets of Jon Favreau

Obama and FavreauThere’s only 24 hours in a day, which is why President Obama, despite being an accomplished writer and orator, needs help with his speeches. During his first term in office, much of this help came from a young man who is arguably the most famous living speechwriter—Jon Favreau—who began working for then Senator Barack Obama as only his second writing job out of college.

Favreau gave the opening keynote—Words matter: Storytelling with President Obama in an age of sound bites—at the 2014 Ragan Speechwriters Conference. His talk in many ways book-ended the 2009 address by Ted Sorensen, who also wrote speeches for a young Senator who was elected as the first Catholic President of the United States: JFK. Sorensen spoke near the end of a very full life, yet the all-to-few years he wrote for Kennedy defined him. It is quite likely that 33-year-old Favreau will likewise be talking about his time as Obama’s speechwriter for the rest of his days.

His talk was perfect for the Ragan audience—a mix of solid speechwriting advice and unique insight into the creation of some of the major speeches of Obama’s Presidency. It was inside baseball talk from a major league player for the guys and gals in the minor league dug-outs.

Surprisingly, despite attempts to analyze the rhetoric, Favreau claimed neither he nor Obama consciously deployed overt tricks of the trade. Rather, these are the speechwriting secrets he shared:

Develop a strong relationship

Obama reassured Favreau (or “Favs” as he called him) on the eve of sending him home to write his first speech: “I know you’re nervous, but I’m a writer too. And I know that sometimes the muse strikes and sometimes it doesn’t. If you get stuck, just come in tomorrow, and the two of us will work though it together.” Obama exhibited the same level of support and involvement in the writing process throughout the eight years Favreau worked with him.

As Favreau described, the speechwriting process usually began with research and fact checking, then sending Obama a draft which would be returned with extensive mark-ups. If it just had the note “Let’s talk”, Favreau knew he had missed the mark.

Favreau shared three lessons from his time working with Obama.

1. The story is more important than the words

Obama always started with the question: “What story am I trying to tell?” He demanded an outline with a beginning, middle and end and required this sum the speech up in a few sentences before the detailed writing started. He did not, needless to say, design his speeches by juggling PowerPoint slide templates. Absent the simple summary, there is nothing to hang the development of the speech on.

The payoff of this story-centered approach was illustrated in the November 2007 Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner primary debate when the opposing Clinton campaign delivered the forgettable tagline Turn up the heat, turn America around. Obama resisted the advice from some on his team that he coin a tagline, instead speaking from the heart about why he was the right person at that moment in history to be elected President:

I am not in this race to fulfill some long-held ambitions or because I believe it’s somehow owed to me. I never expected to be here. I always knew this journey was improbable. I’ve never been on a journey that wasn’t. I am running in this race because of what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” Because I believe that there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.

2. The importance of honesty and authenticity

Decisions on speech topics are too often based on fear (the fear of losing power, of public embarrassment) Obama ignored advice to “play it safe”. For example, when deciding on a response to the Rev. Wright controversy he took the early outline Faverau drafted and made it his own with heartfelt, authentic, honest statements such as:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These are not lines that any speechwriter or strategic adviser would ever write. They came from the heart and soul of the person who spoke. Favreau still has the “Track Changes” version of his draft after Obama worked on it, and there is hardly a line that the President did not re-write.

After the speech Obama called Favreau and confessed:

I don’t know if you can get elected President saying the things I said today. But I also know that I don’t deserve to be President if I’m too scared to say the things I believe.

It’s important that we write with courage and character. Slick writing won’t sway audiences.

3. Never lose your idealism as a writer

We live in cynical times. Our job as writers is to inspire and make audiences believe. Don’t fall into the trap of delivering cynical prose.

For Favreau, his cynicism dissolved when he called 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper to ask permission for the President to tell her life story in his victory speech. His moving conversation with her, hearing of the pride of this formerly disenfranchised black woman who expressed such pride in the first African-American President, brought him to tears.

It’s worth listening to him tell this in this own words. Click on the first audio podcast icon below to hear this moving story that reignited idealism in the young writer.

The importance of face-time with the speaker

Obama always took time to sit down in face-to-face meetings with Favs and review the story he wanted the speech to tell. Favreau reminded us that if the principals we work for ever claim to be too busy to meet about a speech, to let them know the leader of the free world made the time. Indeed, it’s of paramount importance that speechwriters have a direct, unmediated relationship with the person they are writing for. Anything else is a recipe for disaster. My own experience supports this. The writer needs to be in meetings where policy and strategy are discussed. The writer needs to ask the speaker, “What’s on your mind? What do you want to say?” If they are not able to articulate this, then interview them to find out.

Err toward the conversational

When asked how the corporate clients he now writes for can best improve their speech delivery, Favreau advises they avoid jargon and err toward the conversational. Most audiences respond well to a more conversational tone. Avoid using words you would not use at the dinner table with family. Speeches can often come across as too formal and stilted. Conversational stories tap into people’s emotions.

Audience reaction

Following the keynote I asked audience members to share their impressions of Favreau. Click on the second podcast icon below to hear what they had to say.

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Speechwriters Conference Debrief 4 of 4: Q&A Session

FourIn this fourth and final edited highlight from the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable call, we hear from the callers who had comments and questions. Helping me respond to callers questions is MasterCard VP Douglass Hatcher.
By listening to the Q&A you’ll hear comments and opinions about many aspects of the first day of the Ragan Speechwriters conference.

Questions came in from:

  • Freelance speechwriter Pete Weissman asked what was the most unexpected thing about the conference.
  • Communications Director Sharon Rubinstein asked how complex topics can fit into a speech that only covers three points.
  • Executive Speech Coach, Trainer, Proposal Consultant Chris Witt asked about the distinction between different uses of stories in speeches.
  • Freelancer Colin Moorhouse commented on the value of the Ragan Conference and the power of storytelling in speeches.
  • Wendy Hanson shared her interest in podcasting.
  • Paula Tesch from Duarte asked about the challenge of getting speakers to include storytelling in their speeches.
  • Doug Neff from Duarte asked about the two kinds of speakers who use stories and the importance of using stories to move audiences to action.

To hear what they said, click on the podcast icon below.

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Speechwriters Conference Debrief 3 of 4: Michael Long

ThreeIn this third edited highlight from the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable call, freelance speechwriter Michael Long shares his impressions of the conference. Mike taught a pre-conference workshop on Storytelling for speechwriters and has strong opinions about the keys to constructing a speech around a story. He also presented on Time management for speechwriters and relays a few of the many tips and tricks on ways speechwriters can work more efficiently. He also references his excellent newsletter which is available as a free subscription from his SoMikeSaid website.

By listening to Mike you’ll hear a Ragan Conference institution in full flight.

To hear what he said, click on the podcast icon below.

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Speechwriters Conference Debrief 2 of 4: Rosemary King & Douglass Hatcher

TwoIn this second edited highlight from the call, freelance speechwriter Rosemary King and Douglass Hatcher, VP of Thought Leadership at MasterCard, share their impressions of the conference and specifically the panel they were both on: Chart your career path: Job advice from successful professionals. The other panelists were freelancer Eric Schnure who has worked for Vice President Al Gore and as Director of Executive Communications at GE and Caryn Alagno, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs Group Head at Edelman.

By listening to Rosemary and Douglass you’ll hear tips and tricks about ways to chart a successful career as a speechwriter.

To hear what they said, click on the podcast icon below.

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Speechwriters Conference Debrief 1 of 4: Jon Favreau keynote

OneThe Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable conference call took place Feb 20 at the end of the first day of the 2014 Ragan Speechwriters Conference.

There were 16 callers online from around the country. The Roundtable is open to anyone who is interested in speechwriting in Silicon Valley, not just those of us who live and work there. The call lasted an hour, and I’ve divided the audio recording into four segments.

In this first edited highlight from the call, conference MC and Vital Speeches of the Day editor David Murray, and Fletcher Dean of Dow Chemicals share their impressions of the opening keynote by Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau.

By listening to David and Fletcher you’ll hear first-hand impressions of one of the most compelling keynotes about the craft of speechwriting that it’s been my privilege to hear.

To hear what they said, click on the podcast icon below.

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San Francisco Writers Conference 2014

SFWC logoI spent part of the weekend at the San Francisco Writers Conference which is organized by the irrepressible Mike Larsen and Elizabeth Pomona. I was helping staff the Editorial Freelancers Association booth so did not have time to attend any of the rich offering of sessions.

However, a remarkable resource, listed in many of the #SFWC14 tweets, are the extensive reports from Robb Lightfoot on his ‘Or So It Seems…’ blog.

Robb has posted a fantastic series of reports and pictures on many of the sessions at the event. You’ll find extensive reports everything from writing memoirs and historical fiction to the economics of launching a career as a writer, creating a sticky website, and tips on using social media to promote books.

The SFWC is a sold-out event each year, if you are not one of the lucky attendees, you can still benefit from the content by reading Robb’s excellent reports.

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Pink Paper, Purple Prose

FT LogoThe Weekend FT continues to delight with unexpected and refreshing views.

I’ve noticed before that, unlike any American newspaper I know of, it has no problem using explicatives when the context calls for them.

The latest example is Sarah Churchwell’s article on censorship at the cinema.

She notes that The Wolf of Wall Street

“…is the sweariest mainstream film in cinema history, with some viewers counting as many as 569 audible instances of the word “fuck” over its three-hour duration.”

What’s remarakble about the article is that the FT prints the word as above, not as “f**k” or “the F-word” or even “the f-bomb” as most American newspapers would.

Indeed, the article quotes the word eight times (including “motherfucker” and “fucker”) and a search on the site reveals a rich store of articles on a variety of topics that include ‘fuck’ in the text.

Personally, I find it refreshing (even fucking amazing!) that a word the majority of FT readers use on a daily basis (pace The Wolf of Wall Street, those who work on trading desks in finance perhaps more than most) is not censored from the pink ‘uns pages.

What this says about the laws governing the press in the UK vs. the USA, the Puritanical roots of American culture, and the decline of Western civilization, I leave for my blog readers to comment on.

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2014 Ragan Speechwriters Conference

2014 Ragan Speechwriters ConferenceI’m off this month to the 2014 Ragan Speechwriters Conference in Washington DC. It’ll be my fifth conference. As in previous years, I’ll be podcasting interviews with attendees and presenters and grabbing some video with my Flip video camera to post to YouTube.

Conference Call

On Thursday February 20th at 7:15pm (Eastern) I’ll host an informal panel discussion on a conference call with presenters and attendees on behalf of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable. This is your chance to hear from a group of speechwriters fresh from the conference who will just have enjoyed:

  • A keynote by Jon Favreau, President Obama’s former Director of Speechwriting on storytelling with President Obama in an age of sound bites.
  • Presentations and workshops by Fletcher Dean, David Murray, Rob Friedman, Michael Long and a host of others.

The list of people I’ll have on the call will be announced in a week’s time. I probably won’t get Jon Favereau (or President Obama!) but the more people who pre-register for this FREE event, the more chance I’ll have of persuading some high-profile presenters to be on the call.

Remember, the call is open to anyone who wants to dial in, you don’t have to be in DC, or Silicon Valley, to attend. Pass the word and I’m looking forward to a great discussion on the art and science of speechwriting on Feb 20th.

Stay tuned for specific names of participants. Meanwhile, conference call information is available when you pre-register.

Follow the conference on Twitter at #raganspeech.

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StairsEver since I studied the sociology of sociology I’ve been fascinated by recursive activity. I’ve heard professional speakers speaking about speaking and read writers writing about writing.

The current edition of the New Yorker features a translation of Wislawa Szymborska’s compelling poem Reciprocity (subscription required). It is a wonderful play on the idea of recursive activity. Of worlds within worlds. Mirror shades.

I found this Italian translation which I have rendered into English for the benefit of anyone who does not have a New Yorker subscription.

There are catalogs of catalogs.
There are poems about poems.
There are plays about actors played by actors.
Letters in response to letters.
Words used to clarify words.
Brains occupied with studying brains.
There are griefs as infectious as laughter.
Paper emerging from waste papers.
Seen glances.
Conditions conditioned by the conditional.
Large rivers with abundant contributions from small ones.
Forests overgrown by forests.
Machines designed to make machines.
Dreams wake us suddenly from dreams.
Health needed for regaining health.
Stairs leading as much up as down.
Glasses for finding glasses.
Inspiration born of expiration.
And even if only from time to time
hatred of hatred.
All in all,
ignorance of ignorance.
and hands employed to wash hands.

The last two lines alone summoned, for me, images of manicurists who don’t know what they don’t know, but (working backwards through the stanza) with every breath they take, have an opportunity to speak tolerantly with occasional customers.

And, of course, the whole silicon chip industry and Moore’s Law has been driven by machines designed to make machines that have enabled tremendous advances in cognitive science by corporations where careers are downsized as often as they advance; where patents filled with footnotes are written on recycled paper; where the sum of knowledge is made up of a multitude of small contributions; where the Light of Consciousness itself can awaken us from this dream of our limited and limiting conditional existence. Klik-Klak, pattern patterning.

At least that’s what the poem seems to be saying, at first glance.

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