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Kevin Mack
Kevin Mack

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How to pitch an idea! And make them actually want to do it.

So I wanted to do another post on soft skills, and this is one has really been top of mind lately, as I was in a situation where I had to pitch an idea to several key decision makers, and had to structure it in such a way as to make them want to adopt it.

So this post your going to see several tips on how to pitch this idea to gain the most support. And to be honest, I see this as one of those essential skills that for a career, as everyone has ideas. And ideas are great but they only move from the planning phase to reality if you are able to gain support. This is ultimately just as true for junior devs as it is for CEOs. You can’t force people to adopt ideas (you can try, but it usually fails). Ultimately you need to be able to pitch an idea to move it forward.

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Let’s avoid this!

Without going into specifics, I was pitching a new process to benefit customers. And as such had to prepare and assemble that presentation to help get support for this idea to move forward. And it occurred to me, how much I’ve learned over the years from crashing and burning on this kind of thing, and I thought I’d pass this along to you.

So let’s talk about pitching that idea…so you’ve come up with the next amazing idea, something you want to change that you think is going to benefit your entire workplace. So what do we do now? Where do we start?

Step 1 – Ask the 3 questions.

This is honestly the hardest part because it can put a lot of doubt on yourself, but its important. Before you do anything else, based on your idea you just had I ask 3 questions of myself.

  • What is the problem I’m solving?
  • Is this a problem worth solving?
  • Is my idea actually going to solve it?

Now the above questions are hard, if you use them correctly when proposing an idea. Because things like “Yes because it drives me crazy” is not enough in most cases to justify the effort.

The simple fact is this, you only have so many resources, and the people you are proposing ideas to also have resource constraints on them as well. So at the end of the day, you have to make sure this is worth pursuing.

So what I mean here is looking at the overall scope of the problem, and if its worth doing. And would this idea actually solve the problem.

Here let me give you an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. When I was a younger junior dev, I had been working on internal applications for use at a company to automate internal processes. We like any dev shop would move forward with new technologies as we could. So at the time, and I’m dating myself, we had just moved to the wonderful new world of MVC. So nothing was worse as a dev, than having to step back into the older applications to do maintenance once, maybe twice a year and deal with Web Forms.

So like any junior dev, I came up with the idea, we should rewrite it. And I put together a pitch and presented it to the dev manager, and it crashed and burned so hard it was spectacular. And here’s why, I didn’t ask the 3 questions, if I had I would have found the following:

1.) What is the problem I am solving?

Well I want to rewrite this older application, that is extremely stable, used infrequently, and I have to spend about a week of my year working on.

2.) Is this problem worth solving?

If I do an estimate it would take about 3 months to completely rebuild this application from scratch, and most of the existing code could not be reused, and that’s not including testing effort and risk attached to the new code.

3.) Is my idea actually going to solve it?

Yes and no, it will bring it in line with our other applications, but the application is used infrequently, and it probably another few years we will need to do this again. Now I can architect it for more code reuse, but there will still be effort.

If I’m being critical, and asking these questions…this idea fell apart pretty fast. And to be honest, the people you pitch to are likely going t o ask these questions first and foremost, so you should ask them to yourself to start.

Step 2 – Make sure the idea is fully baked?

This is the hardest step to me, its taking a step back, and playing “Devil’s advocate.” Making sure that you are able to “battletest” this idea in your own head. Because here’s the thing you need to accept…change is hard. So if your idea is going to have any hope of seeing reality, it has to be able to survive some scrutiny.

So how do you do that. I find you start asking questions, and some of those questions are going to be things like:

  1. Has this ever been attempted before?
    1. If yes, then how is this different?
  2. How much is this going to cost?
  3. What’s the return on investment?
  4. What kind of work would this idea demand to make it a reality?
  5. Do I think others will accept this?

Questions and being critical of your idea will ensure that you have done all you can to make sure the idea is fully formed. If you don’t do that, then the people you are pitching to, will feel like you are wasting their time.

Step 3 – Solicit Feedback from people you trust

Honestly, this is important. Find people you trust, and make sure they are in different positions, and have different perspectives, and dry run your idea by them. Feedback will help you come up with questions you never thought to ask before. And they can only help you strengthen your idea.

But this step only works if you accept the feedback, and don’t get defensive. If you ask for feedback, give a lot of thought to everything that comes back and don’t blow anything off. They are trying to help not pick at you. Don’t take feedback personally or get defensive. No one is attacking you.

Step 4 – Structure / Rehearse the pitch

If you are going to pitch an idea, make sure you take the time to figure out the “How?” of pitching the idea. How will you present the idea? How are you going to address everyone involved?

During this step its important to take a step back and think about the people who you will be pitching to. Look at how they respond and how they like to be addressed or have information presented to them.

And above all, be mindful of time. If they are giving you a gift of their time, don’t waste and don’t take more than they are willing to give.

The next couple points will be more on the “How” when it comes to structuring your idea.

Step 5 – Make sure you get to “Why should you care” early.

The most important thing to get to early in your presentation, is “Why should I care?” And to be honest, I usually actually title my first slide that. It gets attention immediately, and if you don’t hook them with a reason to care, they likely won’t.

So what do I mean by “Why should I care?” If you want people to consider supporting your idea, it needs to be meaningful to them. And it pays to know your audience here.

If I’m talking to a Finance Manager, and start with “And by implementing this new technology we can expand the amount of capabilities we offer.” – Odds are they don’t care. But if I start with “By adopting this new technology I can generate a 30% savings with a 10% investment and save us $_______,” I’ve immediately gotten their attention.

Or the ever popular, “By not doing this we are wasting $________, a year”, and I can bet they will be laser focused on everything you have to say.

So make sure you start with why they should care, and then they are more likely to hear the other things you want them to.

Step 6 – Make sure you explain how your idea will solve the problem.

I’ve been on the receiving end of presentations like this, and honestly I’ve seen people do step 5, and they then explain their idea and say “Any questions?” With the “Why should I care?” statements, you are essentially throwing down the gauntlet. After doing that you better, in-very-short-order, turn around and say how your idea will solve that problem.

Don’t assume your audience will immediately see it. Everyone has different perspectives, and might not see the connections the same way you do.

Step 7 – Make sure to describe the return on investment

If they move forward with this, and they put their time and energy into your idea, what is going to come back to them. There needs to be a return on their investment for them to get behind you. So spend some time getting to find out what bothers or motivates the people you are talking to. How can you align your idea with what they want to accomplish to get further support.

Step 8 – Make sure you are “laser-focused” on the asks.

This is an area I usually struggle with, but its the most important. Before you pitch is over, make sure you have a moment where you say “Here’s the ask”. You’ve essentially done the following:

  • Identified a problem
  • Given us a reason to care
  • Told us your idea
  • Told us how it will solve the problem

At this point, the next question is “What do you need to get it done?” Let’s face it, if you could do it without their support, you should. So if your going to take their time, there has to be a reason. Or more specifically what do you need from them to make this a reality. Be very clear about these asks, call them out on a slide, or given a list, something that makes it very clear.

And avoid the common mistakes with asks. The most common I see / have done are the following:

  • Make sure its something they can actually do: I’ve been in meetings where as a Dev Manager I was told “And Kevin we want you to require that all projects leverage nuget in their solutions.” Now one problem, when I was a dev manager…I was 1 of 3, all at the same level. I had zero authority to follow through on that ask, even if I wanted to.
  • Make sure it is a specific ask: This is my favorite, and I am SO guilty of this. Way more than I’m willing to admit. But saying things like “And have your support to adopt this across the team.” What the hell does that actually mean? You leave the person you are pitching to questioning that and what you actually want. This is the equivalent of asking them to write a blank check, and that’s not going to happen. There needs to be a call to action for any movement. We are all busy people.

Final Tips

Now once you’ve done all this, you are ready to pitch your idea. During the pitch I have a few final tips to remember and keep in mind to set yourself up for success.

  • Be mindful of time: I’ve said this a couple of times, but its worth repeating. Time is a gift, use it wisely.
  • Be concise and to the point: Your pitch relies on you holding their attention, don’t ramble.
  • Make sure you are able to answer questions: There will be questions, don’t hide from them. Make sure you allow time for them, and answer them to the best of your ability. It’s ok to admit that you still need to figure something out. The honesty will pay off.
  • Your idea is not you: I can’t stress this enough, I’ve been in meetings where questions are asked, or weaknesses are being discussed in a new idea. And people get defensive. This will torpedo your idea faster than anything. No one will want to engage if you get defensive. So accept it and feedback to help.
  • Be honest with yourself and accept feedback: Everyone brings different perspectives, and the inclusion of those perspectives can only make the idea stronger. I had an idea that I pitched and felt strongly about, but it wasn’t exactly ground breaking. And I had a manager say in my pitch, “No offense Kevin, I love the idea but its not exactly brand new, but it is a variation we haven’t done before.” And in my youth, I would have gotten defensive. But I responded “You’re absolutely right, it isn’t groundbreaking, just a different approach.” And I could see a shift in the room, that they knew I could accept feedback and the conversation got much better and helped.
  • Take ownership and invest in it: Look, I’ve done it. You accept that you are going to pitch this idea, and then somehow they wave a magic wand and all of a sudden its a reality. Not true, and believing that you are going to hand over the keys to the people in this pitch meeting and walk away is a delusion. Don’t be afraid to take ownership of following up with key people, or doing parts of it. By investing in it yourself it will help them to want to invest as well. If you’re not willing to have “skin in the game,” they won’t either.

And with that, best of luck on your pitch!

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