Getting your idea approved requires a clear recommendation that’s paired with a compelling reason for your stakeholder to approve your idea. If you can combine that idea with a powerful rationale, you’ll get to “yes” before you know it.
Make Your Audience Care
At the heart of getting your pitch approved is making your audience care about it. The best way to make them care is to explain how your idea advances their agenda. Show them how your recommendation drives a result they’re interested in. The way you make this linkage is through the creation of the Core Idea.
A Core Idea is sometimes referred to as an “elevator pitch.” The reason it’s called an “elevator pitch” is because you have approximately 30 seconds to deliver your message. That’s the amount of time you’d be on the elevator with the stakeholder going from one floor to another. Imagine you get on an elevator and a senior stakeholder boards your elevator on the next floor. They proceed to ask you what you’re working on. You can either ramble on about all the data you’re gathering and the analysis you’re doing or you can give them a brief yet powerful explanation of the idea you’re pursuing and why it’s exciting. Ideally the reason it’s exciting is related to a metric or objective that stakeholder cares about. The latter approach is obviously preferable. By the time you finish your elevator ride together, the stakeholder knows what you’re working on and they’re supportive of you pursuing the idea.
A Core Idea is composed of two elements. The first half entails you explaining the “what we should do” part of your recommendation. The second half is the “why we should do it” part of your pitch. The “what we should do” component is your hypothesis as to what your best answer is. The “why we should do it” component depends upon your stakeholder. I refer to this component as “the button” – that metric or objective that makes your stakeholder sit up and take notice. Let’s look at a hypothesis about expanding our business into Italy and Germany. Let’s turn that hypothesis into a Core Idea. Below I’ve listed a few stakeholders and corresponding Core Ideas to pitch to them regarding the European market entry:
- VP of Sales: “We should enter the Italian and German markets because we can generate $XMM in sales.”
- Chief Financial Officer: “We should enter the Italian and German markets because we can generate $XMM in incremental profits.”
- Chief Marketing Officer: “We should enter the Italian and German markets because we can increase our European market share by X%.”
- VP of Human Resources: “We should enter the Italian and German markets because we can get access to a large, diverse talent pool.”
Notice the hypothesis is the same every time. I’m making a pitch for entering the Italian and German markets no matter who my stakeholder is. But the button changes depending upon who I’m trying to influence. The VP of Sales will care about sales. The CFO will care about profits. The Chief Marketing Officer will care about market share. The VP of HR will care about talent. I’m not pitching a one size fits all Core Idea. I’m tailoring it based upon who I’m trying to influence.
The odds of me getting their support go up when I target my communications this way. Imagine if I pitched the same Core Idea of “We should enter the Italian and German markets because we can generate $19MM to $23MM in sales” to all those stakeholders. The VP of Sales would be excited because the idea drives sales. The CFO might be interested but would wonder how profitable those sales will be. The CMO would ask how much of a market share increase those sales translate to and wouldn’t approve the idea until she had that answer. The VP of HR might feel frustrated because I didn’t explain the idea’s talent implications. That Core Idea would get some support from this crowd but it wouldn’t be unanimous and I would have questions I’d still need to answer.
Building a Core Idea: Hypothesis + Button
A good Core Idea combines an easily understood hypothesis with a button relevant to the stakeholder. First, get clear on your hypothesis. When you write down this part of your Core Idea, be specific and tell your audience what you want them to do. Write the hypothesis portion of your Core Idea in simple yet precise language. Saying “We should pilot a test of the new marketing model on our IT system” is more likely to be understood by everyone in the room – more so than “leverage our IT system.” If stakeholders understand your recommendation, they’ll know what you’re asking them to approve.
The second component of the Core Idea is the button. The button is the one metric or objective that your stakeholder cares about more than any other. Sometimes the button is obvious – the VP of Sales would like to drive sales. For other stakeholders the button might not be self-evident. In those situations you have a few choices for how to figure out the stakeholder’s button. You can get a copy of their goals or strategic plan. The metric they emphasize the most in those documents is their button. You can ask a member of their team what the stakeholder cares most about. You can ask the stakeholder what their objective is. If you can’t access any of those sources, think through which metric matters the most to them and start with that.
Once you’ve settled on a metric to use for the button, quantify it if possible. You may only have a rough value estimate. In many cases you won’t have an estimate at all. For now include whatever you have as a placeholder that will be refined later. In the examples I provided earlier I wrote “$XMM” or “X%” to serve as a placeholder. That’s acceptable – and encouraged – at this stage. The placeholder will serve as a reminder in future steps that you’ll need to do the analysis to solve for “X.”
If you use this “X” approach, think through X’s unit of measure. This process is about making it easy for your stakeholder to say “yes” to your pitch. If they think in percentages and you give them “$X,” you’re asking them to do math. The same holds true if they think in dollars and you give them “X%.” These extra steps aren’t required if you do the math for them. Small points like this may not seem to matter but these are the details that differentiate a rough pitch from an elegant one. Elegance is about simplicity and smoothness. These small changes are ways you can smooth the rough spots in your pitch.
About the Author
Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch: Create a Compelling Recommendation, Build Broad Support, and Get it Approved. He’s also the co-author of Lead Inside the Box and the author of One Piece of Paper. He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC – a leadership development training firm. An Honor Graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.