By Chris Westfall
If you’ve got a good idea – something that can help your company, or your career, or maybe both at the same time – you’ve got to convince your boss to get on board. You know you need to pitch your idea in a way that’s simple, clear and compelling – but what’s the best way to do that? Let’s face it: one idea, together with a great pitch, can redefine your career. How do you craft a pitch that doesn’t sound like a sales job, or a data dump – even if you work in sales, or data? These seven proven pitch strategies will help you to clarify your message and help your boss to give your ideas the green light.
- First, Answer These Two Questions: There are two questions on your boss’s mind right now. She may not tell you what they are (but I will). When presented with any new idea, here’s what shows up right away: How much does it cost? And: how much does it make? An effective pitch has to be clear on those two questions. Got your numbers? OK, hang on to those answers – you won’t open with them, but you’ll need them later.
- Then Start with a KISS: that stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid (of course). I’m not suggesting you kiss your boss, no matter how much you think that might open up the conversation (or start one in HR, maybe). I’m saying that the simplest message is the strongest. Don’t over-plan! If you walk in and say, “I think we need a new 50,000 square foot warehouse in Hoboken!” your attention to detail will only be an invitation to an argument. Why 50,000 feet – why not 35, or 60? That’s what your boss is wondering. Then you get peppered with questions about which location in New Jersey is really best. It’s better to KISS, with respect: “I want to talk with you about some ideas for the new warehouse location, and I think New Jersey might be perfect for us. Can I share what I’ve been researching?” Mwah! that simple question opens up the dialogue. Walking in with all the answers is a quick path to disagreement – especially if you are convinced you are the subject matter expert (SME). Don’t invite your boss to a wrestling match regarding the merits of Hoboken – there’s a stronger approach you can take.
- Ask, Don’t Tell: Asking for advice and guidance helps get your boss involved and enrolled in your ideas. Jack Stack, in his international best-seller A Stake in the Outcome, says that “people will support what they help to create.” Owning your expertise, and your ideas, means you can extend that ownership to your boss. Let her know that her ideas matter, and that she’s actively involved in the decision. Even if you know the exact street in that industrial area in Hoboken, it’s best to ask for input. That’s not manipulative – that’s good business! Don’t you want her input – or just a rubber-stamp of approval? Because, no matter how much research you’ve done, remember that none of us is as smart as all of us. Approval is necessary, but insight is priceless. Don’t leave the meeting without it. You’re talking to your boss because you want her contribution – so make sure you get it.
- Context Conquers Content: The great comedian, George Carlin, used to step on stage and say, “Here are the sports scores: 7, 21, 9, 16. And a partial score from the Notre Dame game: 11.” Without a frame of reference, the numbers don’t mean much. Are you dumping data without the right frame of reference? It’s easy to get lost in the content of your pitch. But actually, it’s context that really counts. Without it, your story doesn’t make sense.
- The Presentation That Matters Most: in every presentation I give, and I will give about 65 keynotes this year, there are always two speeches: the one that I give. And the one that the audience hears. Which one do you think matters most? Make sure that you know what your boss is hearing in your presentation, not just what details are on slide #47. Because the best presentation is always a conversation. The sophisticated presenter knows that a powerful pitch is really a dialogue – make sure you find out what message is being received, so you can course-correct mid stream if needed.
- Invitation Over Instruction: are you trying to teach your boss what you know – or invite her to a shared discussion to identify the best path forward? In my work with clients on shows like Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den, we talk about the dangers of instructing the Sharks and trying to prove you’re the smartest person in the room. Ever see someone tell Mr. Wonderful anything about wine? Yikes – Kevin O’Leary comes back with guns-a-blazin’, making sure his sommelier-crushing expertise takes center stage. Invite the expertise into the conversation, don’t challenge it. If you’re working hard to establish your credibility, it’s time to bring some emotional intelligence into the conversation. I’d like to invite you to look in the direction of service, not instruction. What would you say if your expertise were a given, and you didn’t have anything to prove? What changes in the conversation now? Perhaps looking in this direction will point you back towards service and outcomes – which is really what your boss is looking for.
- Speak in Leadership Language: I was working with a client in Hungary. He spoke five languages, including perfect English, and I asked him a dumb question. “Eric, why are we speaking English today?” His answer was an easy one: “Because that’s the only language you understand.” Leadership language is the language of your listener. Take time to really consider what matters most to your boss. What are the phrases that will inspire her, strengthen her career, and make her the hero of your story? I’m not suggesting you work on crafting an elaborate fiction around the merits of Hoboken. Focus first on what the C-Suite cares about. By speaking your boss’s language, your initiative unfolds in a way that’s easy, accessible and clear.
Bringing your ideas to your boss can be a little scary, but your pitch doesn’t have to be. Because it’s not really a “pitch”: you’re not going to speechify anyone into submission. You’re inviting your boss to an event that you host every day: a simple conversation. A conversation that speaks her language, in a way that starts simple so you can dive into the details, one step at a time. By asking for feedback along the way, you gain the guidance you need for your journey. Take time to consider the conversation that will serve your ideas, and your company, best. If you’ve thought through your ideas, you know how much they cost, and how much they will make. Now it’s time to make good on your pitch – and gain the insight you need from your boss. Time to level up, and gain the support your ideas deserve!