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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pitching ideas effectively

I'm not a huge fan of buzzwordy acronyms - they were done to death by the middle management of the mid-naughties and we're still suffering a bit of a hangover.

PDCA is just common sense - though possibly not to everybody(!) and the concept of 'SMART objectives' is undoubtedly valid, but I'd question its use as a mnemonic. More than once have I sat in a meeting (or a pub!) with colleagues trying desperately to remember what each of the letters stands for.

Anyway, I don't go dishing out managementy initialisms willy-nilly, but as it happens there is one principle that I tend to stick to. (There I go again, completely contradicting myself).

It applies specifically to those crucial moments in your career when you're pitching an idea and have only limited time to convince people that you've come up with something special and they'd like to come on the journey with you.

Less importantly, the letters are SSS: Simplicity, Superiority and Sustainability.

During my career I've led on projects where I've had a clear vision of what needed to be achieved and a good idea of the best way of achieving it.

But ideas existing in my mind alone aren't worth the synapses they're fused within. I've also had to convince senior stakeholders of the merits of the idea.

These have included not just the standard boardrooms full of suited directors, but also tricky customers like senior Police Officers and NATO star-ranked Military personnel - often highly skeptical, sometimes cynical people who take a lot of convincing.

Being able to sell an idea isn't enough - the idea itself has to be just as good as the pitching. And that's where SSS comes in. (See, I'm sounding like a super-size serving of salesman-spiel already.)

Something else to think about: Pitching isn't always just about pitching upwards to your directors or outwards to companies whose business you're looking to win.

It's also about getting your team on side - don't arrogantly assume that everyone will blithely follow you into battle just because you're their manager. Pitching ideas to your team is important because you want everybody to buy into the idea, and you want them to feed into the concept and improve it.

And, yes, sometimes someone in your team will have an even better idea than yours. Get over it.

So, onto the Triple-S.


Don't make the mistake of pitching an idea that is any more complicated than it needs to be. Put Occam's Razor into action and keep it simple.

This has two main advantages (and countless supplementary ones).

Firstly, people are often suspicious of things they feel they don't understand or if they feel something is being presented in a complicated fashion so as to pull the wool over their eyes somehow.

And secondly, many folks - often entirely correctly - conclude that the more complex something is, the more scope there is for something to go wrong.

So present the base concept as simply and lucidly as possible. By all means go as deep into the detail as you have to if somebody asks a specific question, but otherwise, stick to the fundamentals.



It's a loaded word with somewhat negative connotations, so I woudn't recommend using the term 'superior' in a pitch, but superiority in its purest sense is what we're really driving at here - being quantifiably better than the alternatives.

(And it's not like you'll be exposing the Triple-S philosophy in your pitch, so you won't be spreading the negativity of this S-word.)

No matter how slick your presentation style, you'll eventually come unstuck if the idea you're pitching is not fundamentally sound. To make a compelling case, the idea needs to be better than the alternatives (and the alternatives include maintaining the status quo - change for changes sake isn't a reason in itself).

If you're in a silo, get the hell out and look around as far as you can see. Refining an idea, and the way in which you're going to pitch it, involves weighing up as many other options as possible.

(This, of course, brings us back to the importance of pitching within your team before you unleash it upwards and outwards.)



Having a great idea and being able to sell it in the heat of the moment when the adrenaline is pumping is fantastic. No, really, go you!

But you'll almost certainly need a longer-term, both to convince all but the most excitable and impressionable audiences and for your own credibility.

I'm sure there are some very convincing salespeople out there in the technology wholesale business who managed to shift non-HD LCD TVs even as they were becoming obselete, but their reputations with the retailers they managed to hoodwink would have swiftly eroded, and few would have bought technology from them again. Once bitten...

And so it's better to think through your ideas and how they fit into the future so you can be completely honest about it when you pitch.

Yes, some solutions are only for the short-term. That's fine, if that's the requirement. Go ahead and pitch them as such. But don't try to fool someone that your not-easily-upgradable Drupal 6 solution is going to last for years when version 7 is already out and 8 is in the pipeline.

Instead look for opportunities to be flexible and future-proof and highlight these when you pitch, along with the ways in which this can save the customer money. It'll likely add to your overall credibility.


And so, there we have the SSS philosophy for pitching ideas.