Ask LH: How Do I Pitch An Idea So It Actually Gets Heard?

Dear Lifehacker, I have good ideas from time to time but I don't really know how to get anyone to listen. Usually I start and I can see their attention fade away after a few minutes. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, or how to keep people interested. What can I do to make my pitches more interesting and get people to actually listen to them? Thanks, Pitch Imperfect

Photos by Kzenon (Shutterstock), AISPIX by Image Source (Shutterstock), Brian A. Jackson (Shutterstock)

Dear PI,

Making a great pitch requires an understanding of the person you're pitching to, a knowledge of the pros and cons of your own idea, and a lot of practice. Not one of those three things is hard to come by, but if you don't have much experience in pitching the process can seem a little daunting. Pitches also vary in length depending on the situation. Usually, you start by making a short pitch and then, if you do well, you'll have a chance at a longer one. Let's go over all the things required to make a great pitch and then look at how to actually give it.

Know Your Audience

Generally speaking, you can assume a couple of things about your audience:

  1. They're busy.
  2. They hear a lot of ideas on a regular basis and most of them are bad (or irrelevant to them).

As a result, people who hear pitches regularly have often lost their hopefulness and optimism in regards to new ideas. They know there's a chance you'll have a good idea, but they also know that chance is statistically slim. They're busy and hearing another bad idea isn't an exciting prospect.

In other words, the cards are stacked against you. This can be upsetting and feels unfair, but it's important to sympathise. Consider what it must be like to hear bad ideas several times a day when you're already under pressure to get your regular job done. Imagine taking the time to hear a terrible idea and realising you not only wasted your limited time but also now have to give someone bad news. Even with a brief pitch, there's a fairly high emotional cost associated with being the bearer of bad news several times a day. You wouldn't like being that person. When someone says "sure, pitch me your idea," they're willing to risk that for you. To return the favour, it's important to understand that situation and tailor your pitch accordingly. (How you actually do that is something we'll discuss a little later on.)

The specifics of who you are pitching to matter as well. Are you pitching to someone who can instantly write you a cheque and make your dreams come true, or to a lower-level executive who vets ideas before passing them on? Perhaps you know the person, or even work for them. Take your relationship and their abilities into account. Clearly state what you hope to gain by making your pitch, and don't ask for anything they can't provide.

Vet Your Own Idea

Everything is terrible when presented poorly. I've eaten some fantastic food that looked horrendous, but I only took the chance because someone made a good pitch on its behalf. Part of convincing someone to take a chance is understanding the bad as well as the good. You may love your idea, but it could sound like crap to someone else because they have a lot of practice in pointing out the vulnerabilities. You need to know the problems with your pitch so you're ready to answer critical questions as they arise. Even better, you can address the problems in the pitch so the questions don't even come up.

Consider your idea in its simplest form. Doing this will help you a lot when actually crafting your pitch, but it will also make it easier to tear apart. Make a list of every problem you can think of, and why your idea could be a failure. Also make a list of the positive aspects. Go through the list of problems and address each one. Reference the items on your good list as you do. They can help you come up with responses to the problems you proposed. You may not figure out every single issue with your idea, but you'll find most of them.

You'll generally want to keep this information to yourself unless the recipient of the pitch brings it up, but there are occasions when you'll need to address a glaringly obvious problem outright. For example, say you want to create a really amazing online calendar. You would not be the first person with this idea, but perhaps your approach offers such an incredible vision that your online calendar would become an instant success. Nevertheless, if you tell someone your idea and don't address the obvious problem of direct competition you're going to look like you didn't think things through.

When your idea in its simplest form gives rise to an obvious question, answer it in the pitch. If it doesn't, be ready to answer the questions if they arise.

Practise Often

Pitches mirror public speaking in many ways, but can be more intimidating because you have a very direct audience. People deliver good speeches through confidence in the material, and that confidence comes from practising.

Before you make any pitch, you should have a script. Even if you're really good at improvising, you should know your material from start to finish. You may not get through the pitch exactly as written, but it's important to have something effective you could say verbatim. Even if you didn't use that version at all you'll still benefit from memorising the most important points you need to make.

Once you've got your pitch written, rehearse with a friend or two. Once you've made your pitch, ask them to tell you what they understood. If they didn't get the core ideas, you need to go back to the drawing board. And ask your friend for feedback. Was there anything about your pitch that didn't make sense to them? Do they see any problems with the idea? You're not necessarily looking for advice on how to improve your pitch directly, but how they'd react if your idea was a real, tangible thing. People who don't regularly give constructive criticism give better feedback when you simply ask them for their reactions rather than opinions on your content and performance.

Write An Effective Teaser

Few people enjoy writing an elevator pitch, which I prefer to call a teaser. It's hard to take an ambitious, grand idea and cut it down to about three sentences. Some people even find this offensive because they think that their idea offers so much that it can't be appreciated in such a small form, but they're missing the point. Writing a good teaser isn't about cramming a huge concept into a tiny little box. Instead, it's about finding one thing that makes your idea really awesome and writing three sentences about it. If you can't do that, you shouldn't pitch your idea.

How do you find that one thing? Just think about what got you excited about your idea in the first place. In fact, whenever you come up with an idea, pay attention to what you're feeling and why. When you write down the idea down, include how you felt and what excited you. When writing a teaser, you want to pass that excitement on to anyone who hears it. You want to get them excited so they're eager to hear more. You want to keep things short so nobody feels like their time was wasted. Here's an example:

I want to make the best calendar app on the web. This may not sound like a new idea, but here's why it is: my calendar app ties in to your email, instant messaging services, and other modes of communication to detect events automatically. You'll never have to enter anything into your calendar again.

This idea raises a lot of questions and concerns (including privacy and feasibility) but it's enough to pique a person's curiosity and sense of excitement. That's your goal. One of the best, shortest pitches ever made came from David Fincher when he pitched the movie Zodiac:

What if Garry Trudeau woke up one morning and tried to solve the Son of Sam murders?

If you're unfamiliar with it, Zodiac is about a real cartoonist who came very close to finding a real serial killer. It's a strange and compelling idea, made more interesting by the fact that it's true. When crafting a teaser, all you need is that spark of excitement.

Craft An Effective Pitch

By now, crafting your actual pitch should be simple. You've made it through the door and someone's actually excited to hear what you have to say. All you have to do is deliver the excitement you inspired with your teaser. If you've thought through your idea, you won't have much trouble.

When you're giving an actual pitch, you may have as little as five minutes or as much as an hour depending on your situation. Either way, know how much time you'll have to talk prior to making the pitch and leave room for questions. Whenever possible, constructing a narrative will help you. If you're pitching an actual narrative for film or literature you're all set. If not, you can still benefit from including a narrative in your pitch. When you're telling a story, rather than describing a concept, it helps the listener want to know what's going to happen next. Consider this:

My calendar app will use "Technology X" to connect to instant messaging services, email, SMS, and more without much interaction from the user. A user will simply sign up on our web site, give us all their usernames and passwords -- something everyone loves to do -- and everything else will be taken care of for them. I plan to monetise using an ad-supported model on the free side and by providing an ad-free, feature-rich version for a monthly fee. Blah blah blah, money, blah blah, success, blah.

While a cool technology often speaks for itself, that's not a very interesting way to describe it. Adding a narrative helps:

I wake up every day to text messages, emails, and a bunch of other messages I need to answer. They're a hassle to get through, and even when I do I usually end up making plans that I have to add to my calendar. That means checking my phone, my Gmail, and my instant messages and moving all that data into my calendar. I find this really frustrating and a waste of time, and I'm not even that busy. But rather than complain, I thought I'd see if I could fix the problem. That lead to the development of Technology X, which securely and privately connects to all of these services, detects when I've confirmed plans, and adds them to my calendar automatically.

This gives the listener a story with an end they want to hear and situations they can relate to. It's difficult to hear a bunch of dry information and think "I want that!" Share your situation with them, or the situation of a third party your idea could help. You want to create something that will help people and/or people will enjoy. Using a narrative demonstrates how that's possible.

Stay Calm

The process might seem daunting, but don't be nervous. Pitching is easy with practice, but even the best pitches fail sometimes. Don't worry about that. You will have many ideas and opportunities, so if a single pitch doesn't land you will have another chance. Love your idea, practise almost to excess, accept that failure isn't a big deal if it happens, and you'll be just fine.

Cheers Lifehacker

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