Selling Your Idea: How To Give an Effective Pitch

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The entrepreneur who needs venture capital.

The writer searching for an agent or publisher.

The manager who wants to convince higher-ups to hire an unlikely job candidate.

The screenwriter looking to get a studio interested in his movie idea.

The financial planner trying to attract new clients.

The husband who wants to convince his wife to take their family in a new direction.

No matter what line of work you’re in or where you’re at in life, we’re all trying to sell our ideas on a regular basis. (While we’ll be using the terms “sellers” and “buyers” in this post, these are just easy ways to refer to the people trying to convince someone of something, and the people they’re trying to convince).

Despite how often we have to sell our ideas, and despite how much the ability to do so successfully can move us forward in all areas of our lives, a lot of men don’t give very much thought to how to go about it. They believe that a good idea will simply sell itself.

But if that was the case, luxury cars would be be shaped like shoeboxes on wheels, food would come in plain brown packages bearing only the item’s name, and books would have no designs on their covers.

Of course that’s not how products are sold, because that’s not how people operate and make choices. Packaging and presentation matter.

It’s just like how you dress. Sure, it’s what’s inside that counts, but if nobody is willing to take the time to get to know you because of what they see on the surface, then those qualities are irrelevant.

In the same way that stores are lined with product after product competing for the consumer’s attention, buyers are bombarded with pitch after pitch. How you package and present your idea has to convince them to grab you off the shelf among many other choices.

How to do that is what we’ll be discussing today.

Do Your Homework

An effective pitch begins way before the actual meeting with the buyer. Follow these 3 steps to prepare.

1. Figure Out Your “Square One”

Stephanie Palmer, author of Good in a Room, suggests asking yourself three questions as you prepare for your pitch. She calls this set of questions “Square One,” and recommends you refer to it whenever you get bogged down in details, lose track of what your purpose is, or feel overwhelmed or stressed out.

1. What do I want?

When it comes to what you hope to get out of your meeting/conversation with the buyer, narrow your goal to one, specific, reasonable thing. The buyer is not going to make all your dreams come true in one fell swoop.

For a first-time meeting, don’t set the bar too high. Just getting to meet the buyer, building some rapport with him, and putting your name out there is a good aim.

2. What do they want?

You cannot do too much homework on the buyer and his company. You need to figure out exactly how your idea fits with their mission. Find out the kind of ideas they’ve green-lighted before. Figure out some areas where they’ve struggled, so you can show how your idea can solve that problem. Talk to people they’ve worked with. Research their competitors. Pin down the kinds of phrases and language they use at the company, so you can incorporate that language into your pitch.

3. What do they expect?

To sell your idea, not only must you meet the buyer’s expectations, you must exceed them. Your presentation must be a cut above the ones your competitors are giving, so find out all you can about the kinds of pitches they’re used to getting.

2. Prepare for the Q+A

Some folks spend all their time honing their pitch, and no time at all thinking about the inevitable question and answer session that will follow it. Before your meeting date, sit down and brainstorm questions the buyer might ask, concentrating especially on the weak points of your idea, and write out your answers to those questions. Study the answers as you prepare for the meeting.

3. Make Sure Your Idea Is “Sticky”

The stickiness of an idea measures how memorable, understandable, and effective that idea is in changing people’s behavior and beliefs. The more sticky an idea is, the more people will latch onto it. In the book Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath break idea stickiness down into six elements:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

There’s a ton that could be said about each principle – too much to have room for in this post – but if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend giving the book a read.

The Nuts and Bolts of Making an Effective Pitch

1. Pick the right time for the meeting. Remember when we discussed “decision fatigue” in our post about bookending your day? It’s the concept that we all have a finite amount of willpower available to us each day, that every choice we have to make drains that energy, and that when our willpower reserve runs dry, we start to get cranky and make bad decisions.

The high cost of ignoring decision fatigue can be seen in a study done on parole boards. When researchers reviewed over 1,000 decisions made by one such parole board, they found that prisoners who saw the board early in the morning were granted parole 70% of the time, while those who went before the board at the end of the day were paroled only 10% of the time. This disparity held true even when the prisoners had done the exact same crime. Why did the time of day matter so much?

At the end of the day, the parole board had already made a bunch of decisions and their willpower reserve had run out. When this happens, people begin to be resistant to change and risk, and thus take the path of least resistance. Which in the case of the parole board, meant saying no instead of saying yes.

To up your chances of getting a yes from a buyer, schedule your meeting for early in the morning or right after lunch (food replenishes our willpower reserve).

2. Pitches are best executed as a team.

Why is this?

Frances Cole Jones, author of How to Wow, describes a partner’s two sets of possible roles, both of which are beneficial:

Ally or Observer

If you give your partner the ally role, he watches you intently as you make the pitch; his job is to look enthralled, which signals to everyone else that what you’re saying is interesting (we tend to mirror others’ behavior). If you choose for your partner to act as an observer, then his job is to watch the buyers’ reactions as you speak. When you’re done with your pitch, he can then address areas he noticed the buyer showing concern, confusion, boredom, or frustration. “I saw some confusion when Brett was talking about ____. Is there anything we can do to clarify that point for you?” Or, “I saw that some of you were frustrated when Brett talked about our decision to _____. I’d like to hear more about your concerns.”

Quarterback or Closer

In addition to choosing whether your partner acts as an ally or observer, you can also choose for him to be the quarterback or the closer. The quarterback makes the presentation; the closer seals the deal at the end. It’s effective to divvy up roles this way, because it’s hard for the quarterback to shift from inspiring the room with his ideas to becoming the nuts and bolts business guy. If the buyers’ have bought into the quarterback’s vision and are feeling excited, they’ll feel kind of let down when you segue into talking about money; it can be a little jarring. It’s nice to be able to hand off “the ask” to someone else – this makes for a smoother and more effective shift.

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