Hackweek Magnificent Au-Jus: Part 1 - The Pitch

Published on Thursday, November 5, 2015

By Myron McMillin

It is time to pitch your great idea. What an exciting and terrifying time! You are making yourself vulnerable and exposing what you believe is a fantastic idea to a group of people you respect. How will they respond? Will you be shunned and ostracized? What if they tell you that your idea is no good, or worse they simply don’t “get it”? I am not going to help you have good ideas, but I am going to help you pitch the idea you do have in a more compelling way.

Attention is a hard won commodity and that is especially true when trying to pitch an idea. The good news is that there are some simple techniques that you can use. Keep these in mind to increase your ability to capture attention and garner support for your ideas.

The Foundations of a good pitch:

1. Confidence

Remember, people buy the person before they buy the pitch or the product. Surefire ways to immediately poison your pitch is to look unprepared, desperate or needy. To prevent this employ the Three-Ps.

  1. Personality You are unlikable? You are an introvert? You hate public speaking? It doesn’t matter, all that matters for this is that you realize the key fact that you are currently the EXPERT on the solution you are presenting, and without you it simply won’t exist. You are the prize, working on your team is a privilege. You are in control of this one thing, and in the context of the pitch it is all that matters. YOU ARE AWESOME, ACT LIKE IT!
  2. Preparation You should have done some basic level of preparation. Knowing what other solutions exist, how other companies solve similar problems, who is affected by the problem you are looking to solve will go a long way. In addition you should craft a short “elevator pitch” to quickly describe what you are doing to stragglers as well as have a nice longer story that paints a picture of what you are doing.
  3. Practice Practice your pitch to get timing and the story down. Pitch to a friend. Pitch in the mirror. Record yourself. You should not be doing this for the first time when you step ot in front of an audience.
  4. Beer* Drink a beer, drink two beers. Seriously. Take a deep breath, remember that you are the prize, and if that doesn’t help drink a beer to take the edge off. Getting DRUNK or BUZZED however will NOT help.
  • *Obligatory HR Statement: By beer I mean root beer, ginger beer or birch beer, nothing containing alcohol. Please refer to corporate policies on alcohol and act accordingly and drink responsibly.

2. Know your audience

If you just pitch why you like an idea you are missing the point. What do the people you are talking to care about? What will they get out of working on this project? Nobody wants to do work for the sake of work, they want to get something out of the experience. Make sure you frame your pitch with this in mind.

  1. Why do they care about YOU What about you and your skills make you a good choice to work with as a partner? Think from the point of view of a potential team-mate. What will they get out of working with you?
  2. Why do they care about this idea Does your idea solve a problem for them? If not who does it solve a problem for, how can you make them care about what you are doing?
  3. What is in it for them What are they going to experience as part of the team? Do they get to be heroes, learn something new, play with new technology, or solve an interesting problem? If you can tie this to an emotion you are going to be ahead of the pack. Try to answer how does the solution make the intended user feel and how does working on the solution make the team members feel?

The order of importance when pitching anything is: (from least to greatest) 1. What is the feature (What does it do?) 2. What are the benefits of that feature (Why is it good?) 3. What are the emotional benefits (How does the user feel?)

3. The Ask

It is time for the rallying cry! Clearly state who and what is needed to make this idea successful. Also, tell what everyone involved should expect.

  1. What they are going to get when they join the team Restate what is in it for them, the value of the proposed idea, and why you are amazing
  2. What do you need What talents and resources are critical to make this successful? If your idea requires specific expertice now is the time to ask.
  3. What will you deliver (in the time allotted?) What can the team hope to realistically deliver, and what is the impact of the work you are doing? If you fail, what is the upside?

Tying it all together to tell a compelling story:

You now know the component parts, now let’s make it easy to tell an interesting story that makes your pitch compelling and organized. People love stories, people don’t love vague and fuzzy ideas or massive brain dumps of unsorted concepts. If you want an easy formula for a children’s book, a short play, or a pitch there is an easy template called the seven sentence story structure. Let’s try it out.

Seven sentence story structure:

  1. Once upon a time there was a (target user)
  2. And every day they would (status quo)
  3. Until one day (disaster/inflection event)
  4. And because of that (hacking)
  5. And because of that (aggravation)
  6. Until finally (solution)
  7. And ever since that day (new paradigm, outcomes)

Let’s try it for a classic children’s story:

Once upon a time there was a shy young girl who lived in a small village. And every day she would admire the royal castle and particularly the prince and wish he could be her prince. Until one day a dragon came and attacked the village and kidnapped the prince. This caused the villagers to panic and the king to place a huge bounty on the dragon’s head. The young girl, being so smitten and blinded by his love, ventured out to the dragon’s cave. Being quiet and unassuming she snuck in and killed the dragon as he slept and freed the prince. Because of her bravery she was gifted large sums of money and a huge tract of land, and the prince fell in love with her and they lived happily ever after.

Modified it to illustrate a problem and solution:

Customers need to communicate with their contacts. They use email as their primary channel and send hundreds of thousands of emails every week. Now they find that most of their customers have recently moved to holographic-mail as their preferred touch point. Since holomail adoption picked up email open rates have plummeted. To remain competitive they have moved to a clunky hack to allow them to use Nexxus Marketing to trigger holomails, but it is brittle and hard to deliver. I propose we integrate with holojustice.io to enable customers to send holomail directly from Nexxus Marketing. The team will get to work on the latest holo technology and the SnorlaxVRH framework, and I have particular knowledge around virtual words and plane transforms, and our solution will reduce delivery and professional services overhead, make us a leader in the market, and make our users leaders and heroes in the holomail space.

Big Idea Pattern:

There is also a simple pattern from the book Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff that can be used to structure a short-pitch and that works well as the basis for a longer pitch as well.

Big Idea Pattern Template:

For [Target user] who are dissatisfied with [the current offerings, status quo, or way of doing things] my idea is [new idea] that provides [key problem/solution features] unlike [competing solutions] my idea [key feature differentiation, secret sauce]

Big Idea Example:

For developers that are encountering difficulty setting up a connection to the Typhoidhambone service, my ideas is to create a tunneling service that automatically creates virtual hamlets assigned to developers in seconds with a single command instead requiring the hours of work currently necessary. Unlike CloudPig or Razzledazzle, which solve part of this problem, this would be platform and environment agnostic and would not require hours of custom configuration for each developer.

What now?

These tools and techniques should provide you with some practical guidelines for creating a better pitch. Go forth and make awesome things.

If you do nothing else remember:

  1. You are awesome, your idea is good. It is a privilege to work with you.
  2. Practice and prepare. Even a little bit helps.
  3. Tell a story that describes what users and the team get out of this work, and how they will feel. Answer they question “What is in it for me?” for users and team members.
  4. Ask for what you feel you need for success, but don’t be needy.