If you're human and in business, some of the skeletons in your closet belong to the bones of initiatives and projects you fought for but which died a bloody and mysterious death. In my writer's eye, you're half reading this, half zoned out, flashing back to a truly brilliant job done by yourself, a colleague, or a team pitching a rock-solid project that never got off the starting block.
My purpose here is to reach out to IT leaders, IT managers, and other individuals seeking to effectively advocate for something (anything) to leadership higher than themselves in the form of a pitch. I'm assuming two things. First, you know the technical (i.e. practical, procedural) workings of your project or subject inside out. Second, you can effectively communicate that much in presentations.
This article isn't a slide deck recipe of the critical elements of business pitches. Instead, I ask you to think with me about the critical context issues that affect pitch success, while I provide objective thinking points for action and improvement.
In short, I'm working from the basis of four key points:
- Pitches are nothing more than the midpoint in a larger conversation
- Assuming the perspective of the audience is critical
- Focusing on the larger conversation will help align your perspective with your audience and tune your approach, greatly improving your odds of success
- Most presenters do not master this
Take a lesson from the world of venture capital. Attend enough events and you'll hear the same company present again and again but the story tends to change over time, even if the company does not. Why?
Successful entrepreneurs voraciously seek feedback, coaching, and more chances, striving to get out of their heads and into the minds of investors a little more each time. Admittedly, startups have something pitchers within corporations usually don't: Second, third, and even twentieth chances to pitch, as well as alternative sources of funding. But two lessons remain: Those that succeed see their pitches as part of a conversation, and they shift their perspective.
To understand how these points work together, let's look more closely at the three phases of the conversation: the preparation, the pitch, and the follow-up.
Your goal: Discover your audience and the information they need in order to move forward with your plan.
Know your audience. Great advice, but what does it mean? If you're the director of technology at your company and have worked with your CTO or CEO for a couple of years, you know them, right? But what does it truly mean to know your audience in your situation? Do you know precisely what information they will need to see about your project in order to reach a decision? More importantly, do you know what they will do with the information? Or whether they are the final decision makers?
For example, depending on your organization's governance structure and the nature of your project, the CTO and CEO in the above example may need to get board approval. Or buy-in from a business partner. In either case, your job just became much less about convincing the CTO and CEO and more about preparing them with the information they need in order to go sell your project to someone else.
That affects not only your presentation, but also how you relate to your audience and their needs. Note how it alters conversation, triggers it much earlier, and radically shifts your perspective.
True, this may not be precisely the situation at your organization, but the fundamental premise applies. Build a list of questions, and then go ask.
2. The Pitch
- Build recognition of a situation that absolutely must be solved/changed/stopped (pain)
- Identify a desirable goal
- Position your plan as achieving that result
- Close the deal here (optional)
In my nonscientific polling, it's a toss-up as to what's the No. 1 flub in business pitches of all kinds. It's either focusing way too much on technical details, or having far too little evidence of a sound operational plan that will make good use of money.
It's not the only way, but a great approach is to build pain that a situation must be changed: an opportunity seized, a problem solved, etc. Your goal is to position your plan as effectively achieving that result, and do so without choking on technical details. Be absolutely able to speak to a forward action roll-out plan that demonstrates how you will achieve objectives and therefore be fiscally accountable. Don't fake anything, though. If you don't know an answer, promise to find out.
Should you close the deal? Sure, if you can. But remember: It's all about the perspective of your audience. If they didn't come to decide "Yes or No," then you're probably not getting approval today, and that's OK. That's what follow-up is for.
3. The Follow-Up
- Provide information
- Manage objections
- Close the deal
Follow up information requests with unbelievable speed. This goes beyond providing the complete answer and includes keeping requestors in the loop along the way. Make contact within 24 hours of the presentation even if you don't have all requested information. This gives you the dual opportunity to demonstrate tenacious follow-through and, more important, discover and manage new issues as well as those that don't get raised in meetings.
This one-on-one interaction also gives a valuable chance to find out who your allies are. At this point, begin suggesting one or two well thought out strategic "getting started" steps to get the project rolling (e.g. proof-of-concepts, markets tests, etc.).
It's human nature to want to do a good job. For too many presenters, however, this translates as too much attention paid to inner workings of project solutions, presentation mechanics, and self-evaluation. Make no mistake: these things are important, but there's more. You're not the center of the universe, and the success of your presentation goes radically beyond both your presentation skills and even the face value merits of your initiative.
Re-frame your thinking to cast your presentation as a conversation where the pitch is the midpoint rather than the end game, focus your attention on understanding your audience's perspective and actual needs, and then answer those needs. You'll be miles ahead.
Dustin Wallingoffers advisory management consulting to leaders of small and midsize businesses seeking improved productivity, profitability, and stakeholder value. Previously, Dustin was principal of a technical consulting firm offering services to enterprise-minded businesses of all sizes.