Jul 31, 2013
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It is commonly recognised that ideas are worthless without great execution. Whilst this is very true, it is also true that ideas are worthless without the ability to communicate them to others.
Pitching a new product, a new project or a solution to a problem is something that you will face very early on when you are trying to build momentum for your idea. Whether it be pitching your boss, your customers or your investors, clearly communicating an idea to another person is an essential skill on the road to success.
In this post I’m going to look at the skill of pitching, where people often go wrong and what you should focus on in order to communicate your idea clearly and effectively.
When you have an idea for a new product or a way of improving something, it can be easy to get wrapped up in your idea and let your imagination start running. By the time you actually come to pitch your idea to someone, you have probably started to explore the finer details and scenarios that could unfold.
When pitching someone it is easy to just start blurting out your idea and delving straight into the details. However this is the wrong thing to do because your audience needs to fully understand the basics of the idea, before they get overwhelmed by the details.
Before the pitch, you need to understand what exactly the person you are pitching needs to know. For example, if you are pitching your manager on a new project, she probably needs to know what is the benefit, how long it will take and what resources you are going to need. If you are pitching an investor, she will probably have a set of criteria that she looks for in investment opportunities.
In order to increase your chance of resonating with your audience, you need to first research what are the main points you need to communicate. Once you know what these main points are, stick to that framework and don’t veer off the path.
Even if you hit the main requirements of your audience, you will still blow it if you don’t just get to the point!
To ensure you don’t overwhelm your audience with too much information, your pitch should have once clear message. However, in order to communicate the idea so that your audience picks up on it, you need to make sure you stay on message.
The best way communicating an idea is to repeat it. The Mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. By repeating your message, your audience will become familiarised with your idea and so you have a better chance of effectively communicating your proposal.
However, you also need to be self-aware to recognise when your audience doesn’t understand what you are pitching. When you don’t understand something, having someone repeat it to you is annoying and won’t make you understand any quicker.
In order to stay on message without just constantly repeating yourself, you need to find ways of saying the same thing in different ways.
For example, if you are describing a problem that your idea is aiming to solve, have many different case studies or examples on hand to show how you would solve the problem. Your audience is likely going to have certain biases, and so one situation might resonate much more than another.
Secondly, use different methods for communicating your idea. As humans we all have different ways we learn best. Some people learn better from reading, whilst others learn better from listening or watching. Unless you already know exactly what will best resonate with your particular audience, make sure you are prepared to repeat your message using multiple methods.
And finally, the best way of communicating an idea is to actually show the other person a physical prototype. No matter how well thought out your idea is, or how well your present it, the majority of the communication will still be lost in translation. It is extremely unlikely that the audience will have the exact same picture in their heads as you have in your own by the end of the pitch. Instead of hoping you both come to the same conclusion, create a prototype of your idea exactly how you imagine it.
The organisation of your pitch will have a big impact on how it is received. Your pitch should flow logically from one point to the next and you should have one clear overall message.
As you progress through the structure of your pitch, each previous point should compound in order to build momentum into your next point. By structuring your presentation in this way, you can create enthusiasm and agreement of your proposal before you have even finished.
Many people advocate telling a story when pitching a new idea. As humans we are all well aware of the beginning, middle and end of a good story. By splitting your pitch into three logical chunks, your audience will recognise and anticipate the flow of your presentation.
If you watch videos of compelling speeches from iconic people throughout history, you will notice that they always structure their message into three chunks. Whenever you are giving examples of problems or benefits, always give three examples. For some reason, three is a magic number to humans and so we have come to expect that there will always be three examples.
The structure of your pitch and when you decide to communicate the most important aspects is also something that you need to consider. If you are splitting your presentation into three logical chunks, you need to communicate your most important points at the beginning and the end of the pitch.
The serial position effect is where an audience will be able to recall the start (primacy effect) and end (recency effect) of a presentation with a much higher degree of accuracy than what happened during the middle.
Many people don’t realise this effect when they are pitching their ideas and so they waste the opening and the end of a presentation making small talk or giving superfluous details in order to set the scene for the main point on the pitch during the middle section.
Instead of doing this, you should state the problem you are solving at the very beginning, and your proposed solution at the very end. By stating your problem at the beginning you will engage with the audience because they are likely to be in agreement that there is a problem worth solving, and by delivering your solution at the end you will have the best chance of your audience walking away and remembering what you said.
When people begin reading a lengthy bit of text, it is common to scan through the document to get a feel for the structure. Headings and subheadings allow you to create a mental model of what is to come. Whenever I write a Culttt post, I always start by listing a series of bullet points of the main things I want to cover before fleshing out each section. By creating the structure first, I find it much easy to plan what I’m going to write about and how it will all tie together.
At the beginning of your presentation, tell your audience of the signposts you will be covering. Quickly list through the main signposts so they understand what is to come.
When you come to a signpost, take a pause and emphasise that you are now at the next signpost so your audience knows that they are in the next logical section.
As humans we want to be aware of our surroundings. When you are listening to a presentation it is easy to lose concentration if you feel like you are lost in what is being said.
By clearly stating the main signposts of your presentation from the outset, you audience will know what is ahead and where they are at along each step of the journey.
As I wrote last week, mistaking features for benefits is losing you money. If you missed last week’s post, go back and read that now.
The basic underling problem of mistaking benefits for features is you are assuming that your audience will make the connection between the feature and the benefit. A feature is simply a factual statement, whereas a benefit is the beneficial outcome of using the implementation of the feature.
When pitching an idea, don’t just list features as factual statements of your solution, describe the benefits and how you plan to solve the problem for the user or customer.
Even if the people you are pitching are technical or understand the problem well, don’t describe features! There is no reason to create confusion or risk your message being lost in translation.
If you are only capable of describing features, rather than benefits, it is a sign that you don’t really understand the problem.
All good presentations make time for questions, but most make them wait until the end of the pitch. You should look to answer questions at any point during your presentation as it will aid the understanding of your audience. For example, if someone doesn’t understand your first point, it is much better to clarify before you continue rather than have that person miss the point of the rest of the presentation.
Questions allow you to pick up immediate feedback on how your pitch is going. When people ask questions it is because they don’t understand. You should encourage questions so you can gage how well your audience is understanding what you are saying.
Questions also allow you to show your depth of knowledge of the problem, subject matter and your proposed solution. As I mentioned at the top of this post, you shouldn’t overwhelm your audience with every implementation detail that you have already thought of. Instead, wait until they start to explore the paths that you have already traveled down and answer any questions to help them on their way.
Pitching ideas is a skill that is required of all successful people. If you want to make ideas come to life, you need to learn the required skills for pitching your ideas to others.
Learning how to pitch your ideas clearly will not only be beneficial under the high stress moments of the presentation. It will also slip into your everyday conversation whenever your brain is trying to communicate an idea to someone else.
By following this simple framework you will begin to think about how you present ideas to others.
At some point all good ideas need to be communicated with someone. An idea that is locked in your head is worthless and so you need to be able to communicate clearly with your manager, your colleagues, your customers or your investors.
By learning to communicate clearly, you have a much better chance of having your idea accepted as ideas only have worth when they are acted on.