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Pitching Ideas

Pitching your idea

This article on pitching your idea is adapted from the Strategy Workout book by Clare Segal and Bernard Ross (Pearson 2016).

Action 1: Pitching – selling a radical idea

Having an idea is only the start of your communications journey. You need to know who can make the decision to back your idea, and then pitch it to them. Your mechanism for doing this may depend on the formal structures or the culture of your organisation. Generally there are two main options – pitching to a group, or pitching one to one.

Dilbert

Entering the Dragon’s Den: your company may have a formal process for taking forward ideas similar to the Dragons Den show on TV. If they do it’s basically a good process, even if it can feel quite life threatening. In this case you need to make three moves to make sure you’re ready to enter and deal with the Dragons.

  • Move 1: Begin with them. Start by thinking about the people you are going to pitch to. What are they like? What you know about them? What are their interests and biases? Do they have a preference for new ideas, or established ideas? Do they like ideas where they can add value and contribute, or do they prefer ideas which are fully formed that they can simply sanction or agree to? Make a little profile of each person you may be pitching to. Try to decide in advance who may be positive towards your idea and who may be negative.
  • Move 2: Shape it. You need to organise your pitch so that you can express it in one line, on one page, or in 30 seconds, or 10 minutes. So you may also need to have different versions of the pitch, which will engage different Dragons. These versions, especially the shorter ones, don’t have to tell the whole story. But they do need to be sufficiently engaging to make people ask more questions. In the box below are some nice examples of movie pitches, taken from the idea of the elevator pitch where you try to get in the lift with the famous producer and you have from Floor 1 to Floor 7 to sell your idea.
  • Move 3: Talk in headlines: In their book Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers highlight a great example of this from the film The Shipping News. There’s an exchange between the protagonist, who is learning how to write for a local newspaper, and his publisher:

The Shipping News: Selling ideas in Headlines

Publisher: It’s finding the center of your story, the beating heart of it, that’s what makes a reporter. You have to start by making up some headlines. You know: short, punchy, dramatic headlines.

Now, have a look, [pointing at dark clouds gathering in the sky over the ocean] What do you see? Tell me the headline.

Protagonist: HORIZON FILLS WITH DARK CLOUDS?
Publisher: IMMINENT STORM THREATENS VILLAGE.
Protagonist: But what if no storm comes?
Publisher: VILLAGE SPARED FROM DEADLY STORM.

The Dragons are much more likely to be impressed by – and more importantly to remember – a smart and accurate one line pitch summary.

What’s your one line pitch?

Elevator pitches

People in the movie industry are famous for their short attention span, but being able to make massive strategic decisions really quickly. Below are a couple of examples of movie ‘elevator’ pitches.

Speed
‘Die Hard on a bus.’

Alien
‘Jaws on a spaceship.’

Silence is golden… but listening is better

Pitching is not just about talking. It also involves listening. And in order to listen really well toy need to be silent. (BTW have you ever noticed that the words silent and listen have exactly the same letters?) And when you listen make sure it’s full on paying attention listening – not just listening for pauses in the other person that you can jump in. We love the Chinese ideogram for listening in this way. We’ve reproduced it below with an explanation of what the different bits ‘mean.’ (So Chinese characters are often composed of different ideas combined. This one pretty much nails active listening.

Chinese

The 121 pitch:

Sometimes you’re not facing a group but an individual who can choose support your project – or not. Job one is clearly to get a meeting with this person. Once you are face to face with the potential project sponsor you need to use the 5Rsequence to help you get ready:

1. Research: if you’re about to see a senior manager, find out as much as you can about them, their needs and their interests. What kind of projects have they backed in the past? Who can you talk to who has worked with them and can offer you some insight into their preferences? Do they like big picture concepts? Or do they prefer you to tell the story? You can find lots of anecdotes about what ‘always works.’ But actually what works depends on the person you’re pitching to, and you need to be flexible in your approach.

2. Rapport: assuming you’ve managed to get into a room – or even an elevator – with the key individual, you need to build rapport with them. Rapport can involve matching body language, tone, and language at a deep level. But on at a less complex level you may want at least to show similarity, e.g. experiences that are similar to theirs. (So did they start out as a junior manager and work up by pitching ideas? Did they have a breakthrough notion which was hard to get accepted at one point and then find an important backer?) Don’t be afraid to build on similarities.

3. Reveal: after building some rapport you need to roll out or reveal your idea. Think carefully about how you want to do this. And make sure you rehearse and practice in your bedroom or the bathroom so you can deliver a perfectly formed 30, 60, even 120-second roll out. This is also a time for passion and confidence – a good idea put across weakly will fail.

Don’t try to tell your whole story at once! Give them a taste of the potential and then offer to back up your idea with more detailed spreadsheets, narrative or whatever they need. Even if you’re in a full pitch meeting, don’t ramble on and on hoping to gain approval through submission. Start with a brief 60-second overview pitch, and then move to a 5-10 minute presentation that provides more detail.

4. Response: an effective pitch means listening as well as talking. It’s important to pause between key ideas and look for a reaction. Ask if there are any further questions or anything is unclear. Pay close attention to the response you get: excited and enthusiastic, or skeptical and unconvinced? Pay close attention to them and what their are verbal and non-verbal signs telling you. If you get a positive response, or even just not a negative one, then move on.

5. Request: what do you want from this person? Do you want them to present your idea further up the hierarchy? Do you want them to authorise some seed capital or a whole project? Do you want them to encourage you to develop the idea further? You may want to have a range of requests available so that you can frame this based on the response you get to the reveal.

Get ready for the Killer Question

Killer questions are flaws in your idea – or at least the challenges – for which you don’t have a good answer. Your passion is a good thing, and your commitment and confidence add value. But these positives may blindside you to some of the drawbacks or difficulties that are implicit in your project.

GraveIdeally you should anticipate any killer questions and have the answers ready. A good way to do this is to get a friend to play devil’s advocate and get them to ask the most challenging questions that they can. These may include:

  • ‘What if…’ questions – ones that assume things could go wrong. ‘How would you deal with a change in the market / competitors stealing your idea / a change in financial regulations / changing demographics?’
  • ‘You’ve assumed…’ questions – ones which look for the underlying assumptions in your proposal. They are connected to ‘what if’ questions, but are more concerned with the embedded logic of the project. For example, ‘You’ve assumed that interest rates remain the same / you’ve assumed that the fundraising market continues to grow / you’ve assumed that young people are interested in that kind of campaign.’
  • ‘I heard that…’ questions – this brings in a left-field piece of information or even an anecdote designed to challenge some part of your idea. You should, of course, be familiar with all these issues. But if not listen to what they have to say and offer to come back with a detailed response in 24 hours

Whatever happens, when you get a killer question don’t panic or get into a row with a potential sponsor. Challenging them back will almost certainly not lead to a positive outcome. Take careful note of the question, and if you have a good answer respond in a calm, measured, reasonable way. If you don’t know they answer offer to go away and think it through and come back to them. Write down what they said. Showing that you’re committed to handling challenge is a good business discipline. It fits with your strategic image.

Next steps

If you’re keen to investigate practical training on improving your communication skills, =mc offers the following programmes:

Or to speak to one of our experienced consultants about a particular challenge, call us on 020 7978 1516.

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Bernard Ross

About Bernard Ross

Bernard is an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organisational change and personal effectiveness. He works in Europe, USA, Africa and South America.His assignments have involved a wide range...

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