Syzygy CEO Ita Murphy: how brain training helps win pitches

While predictions abound about what’s coming our way in 2020, one thing is for certain: another year of regular pitches and account reviews.

Setting aside the business uncertainty caused by clients repitching, we all know that the pitch is the lifeblood of agency existence. We’re all being pushed to be more agile, and to demonstrate our strategic expertise to clients without letting the delivery ball drop. Whether you see it as a necessary evil or a shot in the arm to creative thinking, the pitch can inject new impetus into existing accounts and fresh innovation into an agency. It’s also highly time consuming and can be an expensive process, with an uncertain outcome.

However, there are approaches which can ease these pressures – and that’s where the neuroscience comes in. It might sound trite, but we can tip the pitch scales in our favour by winning the pitches in our head before we have even seen the brief. Athletes do it all the time. They visualise winning their event before the starting gun is even fired. For this to be truly effective, it necessitates a full sensory approach, which requires literally visualising how the win will smell, feel and sound . In this way, with enough regular reinforcement we can convince the mind that success is ours even before we have entered the arena.

I have approached many pitches by winning them in my head first. Some years ago when pitching for Nestlé’s business, I convinced myself that we had already won weeks ahead of the pitch date. I visualised the pitch in infinite detail and the joy I’d feel when we were told we were successful. I literally imprinted this vision in my brain every day for weeks. As a result it impacted how the whole team approached the presentation, the ideas and the day itself.

After weeks of training my thinking in this way, when we did pitch, it felt really familiar, as a consequence we oozed confidence and were able to show our true selves. By marinating our brains in positivity, success had become embedded in how we communicated to the client and reinforced our approach. No doubt it also influenced how the team came across in the room; as confident experts in our ideas and approach.

Now for the science part. Winning in the mind first works because the brain cannot distinguish between what’s true and what’s not. To a certain extent, our brain believes what we tell it. Visualising an ideal future generates more neurons in the brain, which then bundle and fire together, a process which get faster with practice. As a consequence, a more powerful dose of dopamine, the ‘feelgood’ brain chemical is released. With repetition and reinforcement, this becomes a virtuous circle: continued positive thinking creates still more neurons, which fire faster, hence an even greater amount of dopamine is generated, resulting in an increased feelgood factor. All of which serves to reinforce confidence and conviction in the thinker.

In practical terms, having been through the ideal outcome in our heads already, we make it feel very familiar which means on pitch day we feel comfortable, relaxed, and behave more naturally. It is also much much harder to be creative when your brain is stressed, or in a fight or flight mode. Familiarity creates a place of psychological safety, which frees the ventral striatum to come up with more creative ideas, as well as enabling teams to be more relaxed in a pitch situation. Prepping in this way means the client can enjoy being in our company, rather than meeting an unnatural, nervous pitch persona. In this way, the relaxed team can create a greater connection with the audience.

Brain training towards a winning mindset means the more we pitch in this way, the more successful we will become – the brain is a muscle after all. The more we think in terms of success and positive outcomes, the more neurons are created, and the more efficiently they work together, making it easier for us to learn new behaviours. Like water running down a hill, once this thought process defines a regular course, it deepens, gets faster and becomes entrenched. This is how winning agencies get and stay ahead.

When facing a year and decade of change, with numerous meaningful reviews and pitches, we should all be extra mindful of our approach. At Syzygy we are regularly pitching, we make sure to remind each other frequently that everything is possible, we celebrate every win and luxuriate in our success. Retraining brains doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time, energy, reinforcement and perseverance.

To really help the Twenties to roar for your agency, be careful what you think, your brain is always listening.

Ita Murphy is CEO of Syzygy UK.

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