Friday, July 1, 2011

All Hand on Deck!

When I am with a new client working on a pitch, I am usually asked how other agencies handle the responsibilities of writing the deck. While revealing how a particular agency handles deck writing would be like revealing Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret recipe, there are basically two different philosophies of deck writing represented by a deck dictator versus a deck democracy.
The deck dictator scenario is where one person writes every deck. The biggest advantage of the pitch dictator is that the agency is assured of a consistent flow and cadence to the deck with a low chance of inconsistencies. This typically makes it much easier for the audience to track with the presenters and follow the story. While this is the only significant advantage, the advantage is enormous and should not be overlooked.
The disadvantages of the pitch dictator are numerous. The most obvious is the tendency to get only one point of view. If that point of view is in line with the client, you are golden. If not, you will likely lose the pitch.
From a management standpoint, one author handling all new business puts the agency in a precarious spot. Basically, the entire new business engine is being run by one person. That person can then dictate their terms to management when it comes to compensation. Meanwhile, two or three concurrent pitches, a pitch during the dictator’s honeymoon, or a wayward bus on 5th Avenue could all put the agency in trouble.
Another disadvantage of the pitch dictator is the tone of voice. Presenters have different tones and manners in their presentations, and if they are not writing the content, the tone is not likely to fit their style. A presenter that needs talking points on the screen could be completely flustered by a dictator that does not believe in talking points. A more formal choice of words, which may work for a copywriter, might be completely inappropriate for someone without a copy background.
Finally, the dictator can become the bottleneck in the process, and virtually no work takes place until after the deck is written. Since people have little input on their slides, no one feels any urgency to do any work since they are going to be told what to say and how to say it.
At the other end of the deck spectrum is the deck democracy, where many authors contribute to the process. The big advantages of this style are that more people are developing their new business skills, the bottleneck is distributed among a number of people, and the agency is better prepared to handle multiple pitches (or wayward busses).
From a presentation standpoint, deck democracies are a mixed bag. While it is a significant advantage to have people write their own content, the downside is that this process frequently leads to subtle contradictions in the deck where presenter A says one thing and 30 minutes later, presenter B says something that conflicts, confusing the audience. A way to avoid this is to have enough time to rehearse to uncover the contradictions.
The presentation advantage of a deck democracy is that people own their content. It is written in their tone of voice and they should completely understand their slides since they wrote the slides. This ownership should lead to more genuine and compelling presentations.
If the more democratic approach makes more sense to you, there are a few techniques that will make it go more smoothly. First, have one person in charge of writing the agenda and organizing the content. This will help to make the content flow better and be easier to follow. Develop a style guide that lets staff understand the basic methodology to putting together slides. For example, bullets should not have children or grandchildren. No more than five bullets per slide. Bullets should be as short as possible and not full sentences. When possible, use a picture instead of a bullet. This will help to make the deck look more consistent. The last thing to keep your eye out for is that not everyone is going to be good at writing content. Including bad content simply because it is already written is not doing anyone any favors. Weed the garden and get rid of weak content.
I have seen both the dictator and the democracy systems work. Agencies that win the most seem to be best at adapting themselves to address the weaknesses of either the dictator or the democracy. Pick whichever system works best for you, but have your eyes open for the built in disadvantages of each option.

Mark Schnurman
Filament Inc. - Pitch Consultant

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