"When we are selling our ideas, the audience must first buy us.” – Peter Coughter, Virginia Commonwealth University, Brandcenter
When You Have A Big Idea…
Your pitch is about more than just slinging mud at the wall and hoping something sticks. TedX speech coach David Beckett recently asked a company, “What’s the average length of presentation in this company?” Their answer? “About an hour.” Of course his next ask was, “Really?! People listen for an hour?” And the company told him, “Well, I wouldn’t say they listen for an hour, but we make presentations for an hour.” What a massive waste of valuable time and company resources.
How many times have you been a part of one of these long, drawn out meetings? Someone has an idea, everyone gathers around, they present it to the audience, and you could sum up all of the main points within about 5 minutes, but instead you’re stuck in a room with your colleagues who are also half listening because 5 minutes of content has turned into an hour of fluff. We’re here to tell you – don’t be this person. Length of presentation does not determine quality of the subject matter.
So what does?
Your research. The key to a good pitch is to create a story around your idea that matters to your audience. You might have the best, most cutting edge stats but if those aren't relevant then you're wasting your time. Find out what matters most to them. In this way, using your network is invaluable. What questions does your audience regularly ask? What projects are they devoting most of their time to? Who do they most interact with on a day-to-day basis? Listening (not to be confused with just hearing) helps.
If you’re pitching a new idea to a supervisor, think about which projects they are already focused on. Those that are successful in upper management have a laser focus. They have initiatives that are already in place that they have to focus on in order to grow successfully. If they said yes to every new idea that comes their way, they would never accomplish anything. In this way, when pitching a new idea, think about what most matters to who you’re pitching to. Are there initiatives that they are currently already focused on that you can expand upon with your idea? Would what they’re already doing be easier with what you have to offer? Would it take something off their plate? Thinking in terms of what they need is the best way to get the answer you want from your pitch.
Remember that the pitch should be mutually beneficial. (We hope) you're not trying to pull one over on your audience. What you're pitching (a new project, a product, or even yourself) is something you should fully endorse. You have to believe that what you're pitching is as important to your audience as gaining their buy-in is to you. Finding common ground can also ease the tension you feel before a big pitch, as you remember that every great project started with a pitch.
As much as research is important – it’s not everything. If that was the case, you’d just create a document with statistics and facts and all of the reasons your idea is the best one yet, download it as a PDF, and shoot it over to anyone that will take it. Your audience is human. Don't bombard them with facts. Relate to them. People trust people that are similar to them. Be empathetic, listen to their needs, and make your pitch relatable with a story or anecdote. It doesn't need to be a long sob story, just enough to give them something to latch onto and remember. People will remember key points, stories, and you. They probably won’t remember all of the stats you throw at them, no matter how relevant they are.
Preparation is vital to a solid pitch. When gathering your research and deciding what you’re going to say, try Beckett’s exercise that he calls “Brainstorm with Post-It Notes”. He says, “Your mind is a great place for having ideas, not for holding them.” If you’ve ever had one of those deep thinking shower sessions, only to not be able to recall your brilliant ideas the next day – you know what he means. He suggests getting every idea you have in regards to your pitch out onto post-it notes and then organizing them into a storyline. In this way, you can organize all of your thoughts into a concise order before you go straight to the slide show and end up with 30 slides of irrelevant fluff.
Once you’ve organized your thoughts, try rehearsing with a trusted colleague or friend. Ask for feedback. And then shoulders back, chin up, and walk into the room knowing that what you have to say matters. If it’s a “no” this time around, that is okay. It could be bad timing or unaligned with your company’s goals at the time. It might not be feasible this quarter, but you could always revisit the next time around depending on the response. Not every pitch will be a grand slam, but every pitch does give you the practice and the confidence to move forward with your next big idea.