Mind Your Buckets

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been an avid user of buckets. I grew up thinking everyone knew what buckets were and how to use them effectively. Now you might be thinking: “Alright, this kid must have been a farmer or an obsessive sand castle builder.” But no, even though I would use buckets all the time, it wasn’t until I started using the term “bucket” in everyday conversation, that I realized my buckets were not like everyone else’s. See, my stepfather is a Presentation and Media Trainer.

After years in journalism, he now makes his living helping people craft and deliver their message to audiences from 1 to 1 million. So after setting the dinner table each night, I would  undergo an informal presentation training of my own. My mission: tell the story of my day using three distinct buckets. There was the History class bucket that contained my ongoing joys and challenges in third period History. There was the bucket filled with my frustration over not having the courage to talk to the girl I liked. There was the bucket that served as a placeholder for whichever career I was dreaming about that day.

If you asked my stepdad, Tom Alderman, founder of MediaPrep, he would tell you: “It’s all about the buckets.” They are the categories (or containers) we sort our thoughts and feelings into, and we need to make them manageable, memorable, and unmistakeable. They can be the placeholders we return to in a conversation or media interview. They can be the key points we hit while pitching our business. Regardless of the context, buckets serve both the presenter and the audience. “If you’re lucky,” say Tom, “the audience walks away knowing and feeling what you tried to convey with each bucket. Usually it’s just one. Never do more than three.” So, fill those buckets well and deftly hand them over to whomever you’re speaking with. Here are my three buckets on preparing for your next big pitch.

Fill Your Buckets
Know what you want to feature in your pitch. Make sure you have the one, two, or three most important themes of your presentation written down, well articulated, and jargon free. It’s fine if you have subtle details that you want to mention about each theme. Just be sure to identify how each detail is connected to one of your three core themes. In other words, you’ve got three buckets. Place everything you want to say into one of them. I do this using index cards. I’ll make a card for each bucket. Then, on another card, I’ll write down a couple words that remind me of a single point I want to deliver. Then I’ll pin the bucket card to the top of my bulletin board and place the points that belong to that bucket below it. I carry a mental image of the bulletin board with me to the coffee shop or the podium. Basically, whenever someone asks me what I do or what I care about, the bulletin board is ready to help me respond.

Use Small Feedback Loops For Practice
Most people write out their whole pitch, practice it in front of the mirror, then find a friend or family member and launch into the entire 5-15 minute behemoth. Usually the feedback they get is extensive and intended to be helpful. But the problem with this strategy is that it fails to adhere to Tom’s “bucket theory.” If you can’t expect your audience to retain more than three key points, how can you expect yourself to implement 10 or 20 or 200 pieces of feedback the next time through your pitch? Instead, research in the learning sciences¬†tells us to keep our feedback loops short and sweet. Pick your most important bucket, deliver the most important part of it in 30-60 seconds. Get one good piece of feedback from your test audience, then try it again. When you’re done with that bucket move on to the next one. In the same amount of time it would take you to get through a whole pitch + feedback using the old method, now you can get through 10 or 20 practice loops. As you start to get better you can increase the time you spend presenting to more closely mirror the actual timing of your pitch. But in the beginning, you need rapid feedback and several iterations.

Challenge Yourself With Pitch Compression.
Basically, your entire pitch should make as much impact in thirty seconds as it would in thirty minutes. Each bucket should be deliverable in a sentence as well as in a paragraph or a page. The level of detail may change, but the understanding and the emotions you convey should be consistent regardless of the duration. This is not easy. It requires hundreds of practice loops. It demands that you know your audience, their time window, and the quality of their attention. You might be able to turn the classic ten second “elevator pitch” into an hour long conversation over coffee. You could just as easily bore a paying, captive audience into checking their phone or falling asleep. But if you build mastery around pitch compression, then you can finish a pitch of any length with a knockout punch.

So fill your buckets, use small feedback loops to practice, then compress your entire pitch to a single wallop. Your audience will remember what you said, they’ll feel your passion, and they’ll want to champion your cause. Try it. You can thank my stepdad later.

Read more on today’s Technori Pitch, featuring Nick Kokonas of Alinea, Next and Aviary. Register now.