Selling Your Idea: How to Give an Effective Pitch

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 21, 2011 · 20 comments

in Money & Career

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.

3. Skip the Powerpoint. Powerpoint has become standard for presentations, but unless you have to use it, it’s really not the best idea. Here’s why:

  • When the lights go off, people know they don’t have to pay as much attention. Time to get out the Blackberry!
  • In a dark room, with the rigid structure and tempo provided by the slides, the buyer will feel less comfortable stopping to ask you questions.
  • It’s harder to see how the room is reacting, and even if you can, you can’t adjust the presentation on the fly according to how things are going.

Instead of using Powerpoint, draw stuff on the board. When you pick up the marker, the buyer will re-focus on you, and will watch intently to see what you’re going to scribble — people are instinctively drawn to the act of creation; they want to know what’s going to come next.

4. Start off by building rapport. Before you get into the pitch, you want to build some rapport with the buyer. Whether it’s pledging a fraternity, applying for a job, or pitching a partnership, merit often counts far less than likability — what people really want to know, is whether they’re going to enjoy working with you.

So find common ground with the buyer. If you’ve done your research, you should be able to bring up some shared interests, from where you’ve lived, to people you’ve worked with, and so on.

5. Open with your most important details. Don’t make the buyer wait ten minutes before you get to the core of your idea. Grab them from the get go.

6. Don’t let it sound rehearsed. Maybe you’ve given your pitch a dozen times before to a dozen different companies. But don’t make it sound that way. People want to feel special — they want to feel like they’re the only one in your orbit. So tailor your pitch to your audience — use language and tell stories that are uniquely suited to that particular buyer. And don’t let your enthusiasm flag.

7. Emphasize the “because.” When it comes to convincing others of an idea which will involve them changing their behavior in some way, always include them in the why — the because behind your idea. Don’t just say, “Here’s what I think we should do.” Tell them why they should do it that way. A study conducted by psychologist Ellen Langer found that when listeners were clued into the because of why something was happening, their cooperation soared from 60% to 94%.

8. Articulate why the buyer is uniquely suited for developing your idea. Tell the buyers why they, and only they, are the best possible match for your idea. Again, people want to feel special. And they have trouble saying no when they feel truly needed.

9. Anticipate concerns and preempt them in your presentation. When someone is thinking about a concern while you’re speaking, and then out of the blue you resolve that doubt, it makes you seem kind of omniscient.

9. Handle the Q&A like a pro. Resist the urge to get defensive when the buyer asks questions, even if you feel like they’re attacking your idea or trying to poke holes in it. Instead, look confident — you have the answer to that (this is where the homework you did will come in handy)! Never interrupt someone’s question to make a correction — let them finish and then give your take. And if someone asks a question on a subject you’ve already talked about, don’t respond by saying, “Remember before when I covered that?” Just repeat the material.

And keep in mind that questions are a good thing! Questions mean they’re interested. If you don’t get any questions, that’s a very bad sign.

10. Close with a clear and simple request. Remember, you’re only going to ask for one thing. And when you ask for that one thing, make your request as clear as possible. Don’t leave them thinking, “Okay this is great, soooo?”

11. Make it easy for the buyer to say yes. Tell them that you’ll take care of the follow-up, make the needed contacts, send the necessary information – -whatever needs to be done. All they should have to do is say yes.

12. If they say no, try to resolve their concerns. If you get a no, ask them what their reservations are, and then try to resolve their concerns. If doing this sparks renewed interest on their part — they start asking more questions — then continue in this manner. If not, then thank them for their time and move on; their stated reservations were probably just a nice way of saying no.

13. Make a smooth exit. A person’s memory of an experience is influenced the most by their impression of its beginning and its end. Leave on a positive note by making a smooth exit. Watch for signs that the meeting is over so you don’t overstay your welcome: the buyer will start packing up his things, look at the clock, move to the edge of his seat, and/or say things like, “Well…” “Okay then…” “Right, so…” When you see these signs, the meeting is over — don’t keep talking because you haven’t gotten to one of your points yet.

When the buyer engages you in a post-pitch conversation, pack up your materials as you talk, so as soon as the chat is over, you can make your way to the door.

When you say goodbye, give the buyer a good handshake, look him in the eye, use his name, smile, and thank him for the opportunity to meet.

14. Send a thank you note. As soon as you get back home or to your office, write a handwritten thank you note to the buyer and drop it in the mail.

15. Follow-up. If you got a maybe at the meeting, but don’t hear from the buyer for a week, send them a follow-up email. Include details of what you talked about at the meeting. Wait another week. If you still don’t get a response, follow up one more time. Some experts say you should follow up three times in all, but in my experience, this is overkill. If the buyer doesn’t respond to two emails, they’re not interested.

16. Expect the buyer to change his mind. If you do get a follow-up meeting, don’t feel put-out if the buyer has changed his mind when you see him again. Expect it. In the time between the meetings, he will have naturally thought through things to a greater extent, and new concerns will have arisen in his mind. Don’t get frustrated and say, “But you said you loved the idea last time!” Just work to resolve his concerns as you did before.

In Part II of this two-part series, we’ll discuss the little deal-breakers that may get you a “no,” no matter how good your idea might be.

Sources and Further Reading:

Good in a Room by Stephanie Palmer

How to Wow by Frances Cole Jones

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath


What are your tips for selling an idea? Share your advice with us in the comments!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Connor G September 21, 2011 at 10:36 pm

I bet that guy in the white shirt, wearing the legendary glasses, just sold those other two guys a lifetime supply of floppy disks.

2 ryan September 22, 2011 at 1:35 am

Great article. If they like you, they’ll do business with you. And silence is golden!

3 Mike Haydon September 22, 2011 at 4:18 am

I’d also add to dress appropriately. If it’s a business meeting, wear a suit. Period. Nothing screams unprofessional like rocking up to a business meeting in jeans.

4 Adrian knoll September 22, 2011 at 5:32 am

Leave PowerPoint? Do you imagine Steve Jobs or any other star keynote speaker not using visualization? Ad why do I have to turn off the lights during a presentation? White background still works great even when the room is bright.
The things is to learn HOW TO USE PowerPoint, and not to avoid using it!!!

5 Freud September 22, 2011 at 6:36 am

What a nice article. Well done!

6 John McClure September 22, 2011 at 8:55 am

I’d like to share the article on my social media pages, is there a way to do that? There’s some good points…thank you for writing it.

7 Zack September 22, 2011 at 9:20 am

Always follow up, even if they buy what your selling. It increases your rapport with the buyer for any future pitches and it shows them that you care about them. Also, you won’t always ace the q&a and when they ask a question you aren’t sure on, say you don’t know at the moment however you will find the answer for them. Find the answer and get it to them by the end of the day or at the latest the beginning of the next.

8 Zack September 22, 2011 at 9:31 am

Always look your best as well, if you don’t care enough to dress properly (suit+tie) they don’t care to give you their time. Dress is a good way to judge a person, if they don’t care enough to at least try to look professional there is a good chance that they don’t care about producing a good product. I have noticed that it is ALWAYS the case that if you look like a slob you’ll work and act like a slob as well.

9 Michael September 22, 2011 at 10:18 am

My thoughts exactly. PowerPoint can be an excellent tool or an unfortunate crutch. When used properly, the PowerPoint presentation highlights key points, provides valuable visuals, and summarizes you comments in bullet points (but not too many). The mistake people make is when they rely on PowerPoint to do the presentation for them and just read whatever is on the slides.
When using PowerPoint, you should be saying much more than what is on the slides. You should still be moving around the room some, engaging individuals and the group. You should still be writing on the board. PowerPoint should be the background, not the highlight.

10 Ian September 22, 2011 at 10:30 am

I think you should dress appropriately for your audience. If you’re in a band and you’re going to pitch your group getting a gig at the local bar, the suit is overdoing it. Also most employees don’t wear suits at Google, so it is not universally true that clothes inspire the man. I like to dress nicely to feel professional, though.

I do concur with leave PowerPoint unless the audience absolutely needs a visual to explain a complicated process. PowerPoint sucks. You’re basically announcing that you have no skills in presentation and will be leaning on this business-major crutch. Be a good storyteller instead.

11 Linda Brundage September 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Great article!
You also often hear of the “elevator pitch.” The elevator pitch is intended to be delivered in the amount of time it takes for an elevator ride (30 seconds to 2 minutes). Although you may have more time than that, it’s still a good concept to have in your “back pocket”. That way, if you’re asked to sum up your proposal in a few words, you’ve got it!

Imagine this: Your pitch goes really well. The person you’re pitching to likes what he’s heard so far, and he wants to bring in an upper level executive to hear your pitch. That executive is busy and wants only to hear the main points of your proposal. Give him your well-practiced “elevator pitch” and you will shine!

Thanks! Lindy

12 rob September 22, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Good article, an important piece that it does not cover however is that you are never off the clock, meaning that if the opportnity presents itself whether it be a chance meeting at a conference or on a street corner you need to be able to sell quickly and succintly, with often only nominal information about your audience.

Linda Bundrige is dead on the key is to have your elevator speach ready. By covering the need to know succintly you can pitch at any time, and most importantly turn a passing into either a full conversation or plant the seed of an idea.

13 Al Sledge September 24, 2011 at 6:26 am

One additional suggestion I would like to make. Leave something tangible with them. Years ago I my business partner and I went to a Colorado bank to see if we could borrow ten thousand dollars (one hundred thousand in today’s inflated currency). We brought in our paper business plan and a prototype circuit card that we wanted to produce in quantity. The circuit card had our corporate logo and name on it. We gave the business loan officer a pitch in four parts. Part one addressed the gap that currently existed. Part two was our solution to fill the gap. Part three was a short demo of how it worked. Part four was an overview of our business plan.

We left the business plan and the prototype circuit card. A week later the bank called us in for an early morning meeting with their loan board of five people. Our circuit card sat in the middle of the conference table. They discussed our business plan with us for a few minutes and asked a few questions, then announced their decision, which I felt they actually made before the meeting. We walked out of the bank with a one MILLION dollar line of credit! They felt we were undercapitalized and wanted us to not fail due to cash flow problems. No power point presentations were given as power point did not exist. We did however wear sport coats and ties.

The key I think was to explain how we could reduce THEIR risks and give them a return on THEIR investment. Banks are in business to make money too, basically self interest, but having something tangible in their hands that they had never seen before help immensely.

We never became another Microsoft or GE, but we made an honest profit, paying back the bank and employing several people. A few years later my wife left me, in large part because I worked seven days a week for twelve to sixteen hours a day. The saddest day of my life was when I had to lay off my staff and close the doors. Perhaps I focused on the wrong things in life? Now years later I’m on a roll again, this time as a trusted employee. At sixty five years old I’m considering another startup. Retire? Nah! Today is a new day!

14 Troy Cunio September 24, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I like the idea of foregoing powerpoint for something more fluid, but the trouble is that a good powerpoint looks neat and shows that you have taken time to prepare, whereas whiteboard drawings are harder to read, less attractive, and could seem spur of the moment, especially if your penmanship is terrible, like mine. Any suggestion on how to counteract these weaknesses in handwritten drawings?

15 Kevin Daley September 24, 2011 at 7:33 pm

As a videogame developer (hobbyist so far), I’m not so experienced with this topic because the pitch is oftentimes simply a video with little accompanying explanation (that, and I’m the programmer)…but it’s great to have a nice primer!

What Brett seems to be saying is that drawing on the whiteboard is, like, a skill one must develop particularly for this. If you do it well enough, I doubt you absolutely need powerpoint to convey your idea. Which is true, but the one downside I see to this is that you can’t really draw evidence of success on a whiteboard…particularly important in tech-related fields.

16 StephanieB September 24, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Great post. I don’t have any experience in this department, but am looking to start my own business in the future, so I will need this info!

17 Russell September 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Great call on skipping PowerPoint. See on why PPT is such a poor means of communication. It literally makes you stupider.

18 Bob September 28, 2011 at 4:23 pm

I’d also add: Attention To Detail.

(you’ve got two points numbered 9)


19 Raymond J. Repass October 3, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Great article guys!!! I am starting a blog for local men and will be approaching local businesses about ad space. The information in this article will be of great help, especially when scheduling. Something I would like to add is to keep a positive frame of mind and present your pitch with confidence. This shows your buyer that you are not worried about your idea failing and will help ease their concerns.

20 Lee October 21, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Love this article; I think it’s full of great information to prepare an effective presentation. I’ve taken a lot of notes and valuable information away that I will certainly use. I would like to have added the remainder of this note for another story you referenced about “bookending your day” but the comment section was closed so I’ll make it here. I agree that solid and consistent planning helps to organize the multiple tasks we’re expected to complete in the course of a single day, week, month or even a year. However, I use bookending in a more fluid manner; although it changes often it still works very well. In the last two years I’ve successfully ran several marathons, half marathons and even a few other miscellaneous races that required 3:30-4:30am workouts…which I enjoyed. I’ve written my first book and am building a small business based around that book, all while being a stay-at-home dad…which I’ve enjoyed. For those who commented, be careful not to lift bookending to some “heroic” or bragging-rights status. It lives and breaths because you created it…it is not an entity of it’s own. The focus should be to match it to your own personality, desired outcome but mostly to enjoy the positive changes you experience as you do it. If it serves you spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally, if it enhances the relationships you are building, if it makes you a better advocate in your community, a better Dad, a better Brother, a better Husband and Friend, then more power to you. So while you bookend your way to the top of the pyramid of personal success, be sure that it’s truly personal and remember to take good care of yourself (5 hours of sleep per night???) before someone else has to prematurely.

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