in: Career, Career & Wealth, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Selling Your Idea: How to Give an Effective Pitch

Vintage businessmen are shaking hands while making a deal.

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!

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