Pitching to a trapped audience

/ blog / trapped audience

Peter Kuyt

January 17, 2018

Peter Kuyt



While pitching your idea, do you ever feel like you’re fighting a losing battle? Whatever data you provide, your audience keeps holding back? The harder you try, the worse it gets? No matter how promising your projections, they remain skeptical?

The good news is: it probably isn’t because of you. Not all of it. And, more good news: you can still do something about it.



Chances are, in this case, you are witnessing the confirming evidence trap. This mechanism makes people look for data supportive of their opinion, while rejecting or avoiding information that is contradicting it. Being a victim of this trap, people persist in their initial thoughts, independent of counterarguments.

This flaw in our decision making is fuelled by two psychological phenomena:

  • We subconsciously make up our mind, before we have consciously figured out why. As a consequence, intuition is more leading than objective reasoning.
  • We are engaged by things we like more than by things we dislike. This leads us to be more attracted to pieces of information supporting our views than to those opposing them.

So while we think we’re gathering information to prepare for a decision, we are actually supporting a decision we’ve already made.

With this in mind, let’s go back to your pitch.

There you are, passionately explaining your proposition, with all the opportunities and benefits it provides. Your audience, as we know know (but they don’t), will have already made up their minds. And now they’re in the process of substantiating their view, whether that’s in favour of your idea or not. They start cherry-picking your pitch for information that supports their position and dismiss the rest. With every slide, with every bullet, their vision is being reinforced. They may even pride themselves for their good judgment. After all, your presentation is proving them right.



During your pitch, you will likely experience one of two scenarios.

If you are unlucky (or have screwed up your preparation), you enter a negative spiral. Your audience starts off in reluctance. Early on they start asking challenging, even skeptical questions about your team, your projections, your assumptions. You sense a growing distance between you. Your increased efforts or defensive attitude strengthens the resistance. Although it feels like they’re deliberately trying to bury you, they’re just gathering evidence for their point of view. Which, as it happens, is not aligned with yours.

Once you are in such a situation, it’s hard to change things around within the limited time span of a pitch. Being aware of the trap, you can try to pause and at least stop selling for a minute. See if you can shift over to their perspective, acknowledge opposing arguments, find common ground and move on from there. As professional decision makers, it’s their job to be aware of the trap and step out of it, but you can’t make them.

In the positive scenario, they’ve been in favour of your idea from the start (was it the firm handshake, your good looks, or your smashing opening slide?). They are getting more excited with every word you say and are likely to come up with suggestions of their own: new applications for your technology, new ways to make your product even more successful, new markets to explore. They want you to succeed now. If this is happening, by all means, ride the wave. Continue feeding them and guide them towards a positive decision.



So how do we increase our odds of a positive scenario?

I must say, that second option sounds way better. Now let’s try to make psychology work in our favour. Of course our proposition is still key, but if we can plant some optimism into the minds of our listeners, I’m sure we can increase our chances of getting a yes!

Below is a random and far from complete list of suggestions, that you could (or should) apply before starting your pitch:

  • Study your audience. Find out possible reservations and acknowledge them right at the beginning of your presentation. When they feel understood, it is so much easier to build a relationship of trust.
  • See if you can create a buzz around your product, before the actual pitches.
  • Make sure you breathe professionalism. For youngsters, a sloppy style can add some charm to the pitch. For everyone above thirty, not so much.
  • Make your opening slides count. From the start, captivate your audience with compelling visuals. Maybe you can shake up fixed positions with a provocative quote on your title slide?
  • Sell the problem, before selling the solution. Best way to lose your audience if you don’t.
  • Keep asking questions. An engaged audience will less likely retreat to their bubble.
  • Set the right mood with an inspiring venue for the presentation. Who gets excited in a grey conference room?
  • The impact of first impressions, what a cliche. But so true. Express confidence and kindness. Make time to establish a personal connection before you start.
  • Authenticity goes a long way, just be yourself. This is in no way an excuse for being a lousy presenter, because that’s a skill you can (and must) learn.


What would you add to this list? I’d love to hear what do you do to positively influence the bias of your audience. 

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About me:
I am a brand designer at Visual Friday. I help serious startups with serious brand building, to make serious impact. Want to know even more about me? Check the About page. Want to see what I’ve done? Check my portfolio. Want to get serious? Send me a note at peter@visualfriday.nl.