SHEER MADNESS: Slinging It – The Art of the Pitch

by Jim Burnett, founder of

“To pitch here is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch others on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, daycares pitch love, high schools pitch success, car dealers pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest. It’s endless, the pitching – endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death.”

Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Claire Silver, one of the main characters in the great 2012 novel by Walter, works for a movie and TV producer and listens to pitches all day long, including proposals for reality shows such as:

“Rich MILF, Poor MILF” – horny middle-aged women fixed up on dates with horny young men.

“Paranoid Palace” – mental patients, off their meds, in a house where music comes on when you flip a light switch, a toilet flushes when you open the refrigerator, etc.

“Drunk Midget House” – no explanation necessary.

VC partners and big-time angel investors listen to pitches all day long too, some just as strange and offensive as fiction – Titstare, for example.

So I sympathize. And I hope that when I start pitching –- probably starting in February — it won’t be too painful for my audience.

Or for me either. Public speaking ranks high on the Dread List for most people, and I’m one of them. In fact, a recent poll found that most people, given the choice, would prefer have a finger placed on a block of wood and chopped off with a machete, rather than speak in front of a large audience.

Okay, I made that last part up. But I’ll bet a poll would show that most people would choose a slap in the face over making a speech. (Me? I’m thinking, I’m thinking…)

Part of my problem is simply sheer bashfulness. I’m naturally shy and I dislike bothering people. So the thought of going into a swanky conference room and asking for millions of dollars makes me a little queasy.

Fortunately, not to the extent experienced by Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic, who suffers from severe anxiety disorder and yet finds himself speaking to large groups of people on a regular basis. In his new book, Stoessel details his crippling history of anxiety, which he has attempted to treat with everything from powerfully benzodiazepines — tranquilizers such as Ativan, Valium, Klonopin, and Xanax — to booze, hypnosis, meditation, acupuncture, prayers, yoga, and St. John’s wort. He also notes that performers and politicians ranging from Barbra Streisand, Laurence Olivier, Mahatma Gandhi, and Thomas Jefferson experienced crippling bouts of stage fright. Remarkably, Jefferson gave only two public speeches – his two Inaugural Addresses – during in his entire 8-years in office.

In order to get up on stage – and remain there without fleeing like a panicked jackrabbit – Stoessel downs Xanax, the beta-blocker Ineral, and shots of Scotch or vodka, a combo potent enough to stop a rhino in its tracks.

But it’s not just stage fright that bothers me. There’s an artificiality to pitching that makes it something akin to acting. As the Claire Silver character in Beautiful Ruins muses, pitching is “a kind of existential, present-tense performance art.”

Still, it’s the infernal notion of pitching and presenting as hard-core selling that disturbs me the most. I both envy and loath the start-up slicksters who can raise $50 million from investors for a house-of-algorithyms business best-designed to generate hype and buzz rather than revenues and profits.

Jordan Belfort, the real-life “Wolf of Wall Street,” conjuring worthless penny stocks into a financial empire. JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, hawking toxic financial instruments. The guys on “Mad Men,” selling shit on shinola. You can gin up a market for almost anything if you’re sufficiently clever, crass, or corrupt. Wal-Mart sold Occupy Wall Street posters for $52 during Christmas season, and I only wish I was making it up.

It’s the American Way, right? Selling yourself. Selling your product with the righteous fervor of a tent-revival evangelist who claims to possess The Way, The Light, and The Truth. Selling itsy-bitsy pieces of your soul, each microscopic morsel so tiny you don’t even realize it until you wake up empty inside.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to get so heavy. It’s partly that my father was in the insurance business for several decades, and I abhorred the persona he often adopted to do his job.

Don’t get me wrong. He didn’t peddle snake oil. He sold high-quality annuities, pension plans, and liability insurance for a well-respected Seattle insurance broker. And he was quite successful — – his clients included the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Sonics, the Kingdome, Seafair, and Concerts West, the premier music promoter in the Pacific Northwest. In many ways, it was a cool job. Lots of afternoons with clients playing golf at Glendale Country Club, or betting the ponies at Longacres Racetrack.

I loved the golf course and the racetrack, and I’m forever grateful to my dad for introducing me to those two great sports.

But the boozing and the schmoozing of clients, the cigar smoke and macho posturing at the card tables. It left me cold. I wanted no part of the selling life and avoided it like the plague.

So it’s more than a little ironic that I find myself on the verge of pitching, presenting, selling ExpertOpinions. I don’t want to become one of Those Guys, the hucksters who succumb to their own hype. Let’s face it there’s enough hot air in Startupland to launch a battalion of blimps over the San Francisco Bay. In fact, I thought about entitling this column “The Fart of the Pitch,” since so many presentations reek of the gassy and malodorous.

The self-aggrandizement in Silicon Valley is breathtaking. Consider Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, who took the stage in November to proclaim Airbnb was part of “a new economy, a sharing economy…it’s actually starting to feel like a revolution.”

A revolution? Nelson Mandella led an actual revolution and changed the course of history. Somehow, I doubt if anyone will ever say the same about Airbnb or its brethren, such as Uber, tech-oriented start-ups providing services to the public.

Actually, I admire Airbnb on several levels. The founders created a very successful business in the face of daunting obstacles, overthrowing conventional wisdom –- which I labeled CONWIZ in my last column — along the way.

It’s a cool service. But there’s nothing remotely revolutionary, or even remotely new, about creating so-called “communities” of travelers. Does the word “hostel” ring a bell?

Airbnb is hardly alone in sliding down the slippery slope into grandiosity. But it’s a fool’s game, for many reasons, and it opens you up to ridicule. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist James Temple sardonically put it, “Or…some people need places to stay and some people have extra space, and putting them in touch is a perfectly helpful service that isn’t going to elevate the world to a higher plane.”

Anyway, if you ever hear me describe ExpertOpinions as “revolutionary,” please push the button that opens the trap door beneath my feet and sends me plunging down a 10-mile chute straight to Hell.

We think ExpertOpinions is a great product, a consumer guide that will give you a quick, easy, and enjoyable way to find recommendations from unbiased experts in virtually every category you can think of. ExpertOpinions will save you time and money, reduce online frustration, and simplify your life as a consumer. But it won’t do a damn thing to slow global warming.

So the question remains. How to present to VCs effectively without having to take a shower afterward? Or walk through a car wash, sans car?

For a while, I considered signing up with, a service that trains you to pitch with an unmatched level of sophistication.

Created by a team of linguists, brain researchers, big data geeks, and psychologists, PeterPresenter uses a proprietary formula to analyze thousands of pitches, pinpointing key words and phrases that light up the pleasure centers of the typical VC cerebral cortex. Does the phrase “billion dollar business” push the right buttons in the VC brain? Or has it become an empty cliché? PeterPresenter can tell you.

But that’s not all. As rumor has it, PeterPresenter has mined data from the NSA, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook in order to compile dossiers on every major VC firm and partner in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley. If you are presenting to Reid Hoffman or Fred Wilson, PeterPresenter tailors your pitch to their particular enthusiasms and eccentricities, some known to the public and others quite private.

As you might imagine, such information doesn’t come cheap. The basic PeterPresenter package costs $10,000. Dossiers on individual VCs go for $2,500 a pop.

For better or worse, we can’t afford such services, even if they might give us an edge.

But I found something helpful recently, and it was absolutely free. You’ll never guess where – it was in Rob Brezsny’s “Free Will Astrology” column in the Sacramento News & Review. Although I have no patience with astrology, I’m an Aquarius, and as I casually perused a recent issue of the paper, I discovered a quote from the noted Belgium philosopher Simon Leys in my forecast.

“Artists who are content merely to hone their gifts eventually come to little. The ones who truly leave their mark have the strength and courage to explore and exploit their shortcomings.”

Beszny added, “even if you’re not an artist, you will be able to achieve an interesting kind of success if you’re willing to make use of the raw materials and untapped potential of your so-called flaws and weaknesses.”

Yes! The pleasure centers in my brain lit up like a pinball machine.

Turn your weaknesses and flaws into something valuable instead of debilitating. Transform my self-consciousness and shyness, my fear and loathing of pitching, into something energizing, perhaps even exhilarating. Something authentic. Something that feels real.

Will it work? Stay tuned.

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