Most of us have tried to sell an idea with facts and enthusiasm, only to meet with skepticism and dismissal. Many good innovations go to an early grave this way. An effective pitch requires a counterintuitive technique, but it’s not hard to turn results around with just a few changes.
Charged with entrepreneurial ventures for his division in a high-tech company, Sanjay is an idea bunny. For three years, his company has grown 20% year over year, over-achieving objectives. But they’re exhausting the low-hanging-fruit, so the business needs to explore new fields to remain fertile. Recently Sanjay generated a surefire innovation for the healthcare sector. He was excited to meet with his peers to secure buy in for the game-changing solution, which promised to be beneficial to both their customers and their business. By the end of the meeting, however, Sanjay was dispirited. His ideas hadn’t seemed to land, and his team members were confused and continued to ask questions he thought he’d answered. They quashed his enthusiasm with pessimism and vague aphorisms.
During our next coaching session, Sanjay and I worked to debug his pitch. I needed to help him debunk some myths about how our enthusiasm becomes contagious enough for other stakeholders to catch the vision and act on it. Here are three common myths that can doom your pitch, and suggestions to help it succeed instead.
Myth 1: Solid data is the beginning of your argument. For his initial presentation, Sanjay was armed with compelling data that included the size of the addressable market, competitive analyses, and customer testimonials. But Sanjay’s efforts fell flat because he hadn’t paid attention to another important part of his audience’s brain: their emotions. Research shows that while we say we make decisions based on data, we first respond and decide emotionally. We then use data to validate that our decision is indeed sound. Start by speaking to people’s emotions—they are also a source of data that will pinpoint other information to provide as backup. For example, Sanjay’s revised pitch started with, “We are in the position of a having a good problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless: how to continue our steep growth curve. Our teams are exhausted and feeling beaten up by recent reliability issues. We need a boost that will not only grow our numbers, but do so without adding more to our overflowing plates.”
Myth 2: Everyone will be excited if you are excited. Sanjay had uncovered a key customer gap and talked with several potential clients in the health care sector. He was fully convinced of the business opportunity through his research, conversations, and ideation. The tepid response of his colleagues was deflating. But they had not invested the time, nor been exposed to the details that had gradually led him to build his case. That’s too much ground to cover with over-stretched peers in one slide. Every new idea comes with a price tag: effort to adopt and implement it. Before piling on with your excitement, meet your audience where they are. Anticipate that there will be resistance rather than instant enthusiasm. Start with empathy for the challenges that are likely to underpin objections. Understand what weighs them down and explore those struggles before sharing your idea. What are they most concerned about? What barriers are they facing and what it would take to secure relief? For example, Sanjay could say, “The recent product issues with our top enterprise customer have your teams tied up fighting fires instead of creating something new. This also means you don’t have resources to spin off an entirely new line of products. What if we could take the solution we already have and tap into a new source of revenue?” By first visiting the vantage point of your audience, you can adapt your presentation to be more harmonious with their situation.
Myth 3: Everyone will care about a customer problem. In theory, everyone is there to address customer issues and make the company successful. In practice, we are blinded by whatever tasks are right in front of us; everything else recedes in our view. Instead of starting with a customer problem, take time to listen to your colleagues’ problems and goals. Seek a connection between their goals and how an innovation could help them achieve their immediate objectives. In Sanjay’s case, the team needed to increase market share of a specific technical solution. Instead of illustrating the customer issue first, Sanjay was more successful when he reversed the order and started with the pressing, internal goal, “We already have the majority market share in the government and high-tech sectors. To further grow our presence, we need to expand into new sectors. We could meet or even exceed our targets if we focus on the healthcare sector. They don’t have a single solution for problem X. The best option for them is to kludge together three separate solutions and munge it with manual work.” By introducing a new idea via the problem that already has our audience’s attention, they are more likely to give us their mind space.
When we present a problem from our perspective, we tend to do so in the least persuasive way. By first emphasizing the emotions and logic of our audience, we are much more likely to capture their minds and hearts and transfer the enthusiasm to their hands—where action happens.
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