How to Innovate, Part 5: Pitch

July 25, 2023

There’s a scene in the first season of Mad Men in which creative director Don Draper pitches an ad to his clients at Kodak. The Sterling Cooper team invites the group into their sleek and elegant conference room to talk about the ideas that came out of their brainstorm.

The Kodak team admits that their product—the Wheel—isn’t seen as exciting technology, even though the wheel actually is the original technology of humankind.

That gives Don an opening. He says technology is a glittering lure, but the most important idea in advertising is the itch it creates around something “new.” He goes on to talk about a deeper bond with the product—nostalgia.

Don shares the story of his early days in advertising when a seasoned copywriter taught him the value of nostalgia. “It’s delicate…but potent,” he says with a knowing wink.

The lights dim, everyone turns to the screen at the front of the room, and Don begins clicking through slides as images project on the screen.

As he shows pictures of his children, his wife, and their life as a family, he talks about nostalgia as a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. The Wheel is a device that goes backward and forward.

“It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

With that, he says to the Kodak team, “The product isn’t called the Wheel, it’s called the Carousel.

“It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

The slide of Don wearing a white tux and carrying his wife in her wedding dress is replaced by one that announces the Kodak Carousel slide tray.

Don Draper was a master at pitching. But let’s face it: who has ever actually had a pitch that comes out as eloquent and captivating as that?

None of us.

Although this is how pitches were actually designed to work, that’s not how they turn out in the real world.

A Pitch Is More than a Good Idea

Every great idea needs support to go somewhere.

Great pitches paint a picture and connect the dots between a new idea and the business needs of a brand.

Most people pitch their great idea but don’t give people the context behind it. If your audience doesn’t get behind it, your idea will never go anywhere—it doesn’t matter how great it is. Truth be told, you’ll hear “No!” over and over again.

That’s why you get frustrated and end up falling back on the same old boring work that you’ve always done. A big way out of that hole of despair and frustration is by getting better—a lot better—at your pitch.

We’re now at the point in the Wheel of Innovation where you’ll learn how to tell a story that brings your audience along for the journey.

At its very root, that’s exactly what a pitch is.

A Pitch simply is the journey of an idea told in the form of a story.

You’ve heard the cliché that great ideas speak for themselves. Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, bad pitches kill great ideas.

If you don’t know how to tell the story of your ideas in a way that keeps people’s attention and makes it sound new, great, and reliable, you’ll always struggle to get backing for them.

A pitch is more than “Hey, I have a great idea—wanna hear it?” In fact, if that’s been your practice, then you’ve been hurting your chances of getting your ideas adopted.

The Gladiator Effect

In ancient Rome, gladiators were swordsmen who entertained crowds by fighting other gladiators in large arenas. The destiny of the gladiators was determined by the crowds who watched, and they signaled the fate of the battle with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. The outcome was black and white.

The same thing happens in business today with new ideas. People pitch a single new idea, and they get a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. The idea either lives or dies—just like the gladiators.

This is what feeds into the head-butting between bosses and teams.

Bosses and clients demand new, great, and reliable ideas on a consistent basis. But when teams try to produce them, nothing survives.

They’re sent back to the drawing board and expected to come up with the next one. It’s thrust into battle against the boss or client, and the team holds their breath waiting to see if it gets a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

When you pitch a new idea and it doesn’t survive the Gladiator Effect, it does more than squash your new idea. Little by little, it kills your courage. And no one can become a prolific innovator without courage.

Are we locked in a status quo stalemate?

Luckily, no.

You change this dynamic by breaking the Generate and Pitch cycle.

When you need new ideas for something—a better customer experience, a strategic plan, a campaign—what do you do?

You gather everyone into a conference room and start throwing out ideas. You brainstorm and fill whiteboards and walls with your best ideas. Because, you say, there’s no such thing as a bad idea.

But there are a lot of horrible ideas, that’s part of the innovation process. It’s when they move into the pitch step, and they’re not only a horrible idea but also a bad pitch, that you run into real trouble.

Bad pitches are generic rather than personalized. They’re dry and put the audience to sleep. There’s no structure, and people haven’t done their homework about the true problem that needs to be solved.

This is because they don’t have a process that allows them to draw on a portfolio of experiences that inspires them, or they don’t know how to relate those ideas back to their own brand.

They pitch these “great” ideas, and their boss, coworker, or client doesn’t have any context for where the idea came from or how it relates to the work that you do.

And when that happens?

It triggers Brand Detachment Disorder for the audience, and they tell you things like:

We don’t sell those kinds of products.

Our customers have a different process for making decisions.

We tried that once, and it didn’t work.

We don’t have it in the budget.

That’s ridiculous.

Or the biggest idea killer of all:

That’s not how we do things around here.

Good Ideas Don’t Speak for Themselves

Up until now, you’ve been working on coming up with your best-of-the-best ideas.

Coming up with great ideas is its own challenge, but convincing others to give them the green light is another ball of wax altogether.

It doesn’t matter if you’re pitching a new recruitment process, marketing campaign, software feature, accounting protocol, organizational change, or business plan, the qualities of a successful pitch are largely the same. And it starts with knowing how to set the stage, so you lay the groundwork for a successful pitch.

Prep Step 1: Know Your Audience

Before you start your pitch, you have to make sure you know your audience, what matters to them, and how your pitch fits into their world. Is it your boss? Your team? A client? An investor? You need to clearly understand who they are, what you know about them, and where you need to do your homework. These are the things that will help you add nuance to your story based on who you’re pitching to. The question you’ll constantly ask yourself as you pick and choose the tidbits to include is, what matters most to this person? You need to be ready to address the idiosyncrasies of an investor versus those of your team. The questions you’ll need to answer include:

  1. What’s an overview of their day? And how does the time that you’ll ask to pitch your idea fit into that? If they’re a morning person, don’t wait until late afternoon to get together. And if they’re a night owl who needs time for their brain to warm up, don’t schedule an early-morning meeting.
  2. How does this idea fit into their world? For example, if they’re a technical person, do you need their support so they can give you the expertise of their team? Or, if it’s someone in finance and they need to approve the budget, what’s the filter through which they’ll be looking at your idea?
  3. WIIFT? What’s in it for them? is a big one. While you need to connect your idea to a business objective, you also need to understand what motivates them. Are they trying to improve their chances for a promotion? If so, make sure to include a bent that shows how the project will make them look good. Are they looking to make their department more productive so they can work fewer nights and weekends? Or maybe it’s your client who really wants to change the perception of their organization, but they’re not sure they’re the ones who should make the first move. All of these details make a difference in what details you hang on the structure of your pitch.

Prep Step 2: Develop Multiple Versions

Now that you have a sense of who you’ll pitch to, you need to create multiple versions of different lengths. You may have a meeting set up in which you’ll give your boss a fancy presentation—then she sees you in the hallway and cancels. You’ll have a small window to give her a quick rundown, and you need to be ready. Opportunities often come up when you least expect them, and you have to be ready—in the lunchroom, the hallway, team meetings, suggestion boxes, and even someone you meet in a shared cab. Make sure your story is ready to go.

As you put the pieces together, always formulate your pitch into three levels of depth:

  • 30 seconds
  • 90 seconds
  • 5+ minutes

The 30-Second Version

Also known as the elevator pitch, this is the most concise version of your idea. You’ll need to refine and practice and refine and practice again until you can make it impactful and interesting in a short amount of time. If you say your idea is too complex to be able to whittle it down to 30 seconds, then you haven’t clearly mapped out your pitch from inspiration to idea. An unfocused process leads to an unfocused pitch.

This is the version you’ll give to someone on the run or quickly in an off-the-cuff situation. Someone may introduce you and say you have a great idea on which you’re working, or you find a potential investor at a cocktail party. It’s short, deliciously interesting, and to the point. Your intention with this version is to get them to say, “Tell me more,” so you can either move into your 90-second pitch right away or schedule time for a 5-minute or more conversation.

The 90-Second Version

This version will naturally grow out of your 30-second version.

With this one, there’s more time to talk about what you covered in 30 seconds or expand a little bit on what you think is the most important part of your pitch. Poke at the pain you know they’re dealing with on a personal level.

Sure, this idea may save a boatload of money, but what if it’s also just the thing that will help them get the employee base to quit complaining and finally take action? What if it meant they could walk down the hall and not have 13 employees bend their ear with criticism? You also have a little elbow room to show how you’ve already thought through some of the obstacles.

This is your chance to drill down into the next level of detail, adding in just enough interesting nuggets so your audience gets a clearer picture of your idea, gets a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what you’re proposing, and sees what’s in it for them.

This version gives you a little more time. Perhaps you run into your client at lunch, and you need to give them enough details, so they’ll make room for you on their calendar this week. Or maybe you want to grab your boss’s attention so your idea can get the go-ahead and become a part of her presentation to the executive team on Monday. Your motivation with this version is to get to the 5-minute pitch.

5-Minute+ Version

This longer version could be five minutes, or it could be an hour.

You may find that people start getting engaged, and ask you questions along the way, and the conversation goes much longer than five minutes. That’s OK. It’s a great sign that you’ve set the stage and engaged people on a journey that matters to them, and they see themselves in the story.

You’ll want to prepare ahead of time for this longer pitch.

Maybe you’ll put together a handout or a visual presentation. Make sure that whatever you do with either, you keep it interesting, don’t get bogged down in details and numbers, but do be prepared to answer a wider range of questions than your shorter pitches.

The difference between all of these is that they move your audience from interest to engagement to action.

Few people will say yes to a 30-second pitch, but it can be enough that they’ll ask for more.

In 90 seconds, you have enough time to whet their appetite and hit their big pain points or show they have a lot to gain from your idea.

Your five-minute-plus meeting is when you lay it all out on the line.

Regardless, they all need structure and an interesting storyline. The Wheel of Innovation gives you exactly that.

Prep Step 3: Test Your Pitch

The longer you spend with an idea, the more vulnerable you become to blind spots and your own ego. Push yourself away from your desk and go find smart people to give you feedback.

When you look for people to give you feedback on your idea, seek out those you know will give you candid advice. You’ll want folks who will talk things through in detail and help you with nuances. Just swapping out one word for another can take your pitch from fine to fabulous.

Each time you test your pitch, you’ll develop a list of questions that you’ll be sure people will ask. Write them down and be prepared to answer them in case anyone asks.

How will you know what questions to prep for? Unfortunately, the only way to know is to practice your pitch with a diverse group of people.

Don’t try to answer everyone’s questions up front with your pitch. Leave room for them to fill in the holes with their imagination. You want to paint just enough of a picture that people can see themselves in it but leave it vague enough that they have room to fill in the details.

It’s these details that build an emotional triangle between them, your idea, and you.

Prep Step 4: Practice Your Pitch

If you talk to someone who’s an athlete, artist, or musician, they understand practice.

Someone who’s a veteran shows up very differently from a beginner. People who practice what they do are more competent, which expresses itself as greater confidence. And confidence is magnetic.

The more you practice your pitch, the more focused you’ll become. You won’t be worried about making mistakes, forgetting one part, or talking too much during another. By the time you open your mouth to say the words, it will feel that they tumble out without you needing to give them a thought.

The pitch has become a habit. You’ll learn to be calm and confident and will actually have room to have fun with it. Then, sit back and listen to feedback. Like any kind of public speaking situation, the more often you do it, the more comfortable you will become.

By this point you’ve already come up with a list of potential questions or reasons people may say no.

You’ll need those.

But also prepare for getting your dream response.

If your audience gives you the go-ahead and then asks what you need to get started, make sure you’re prepared with that answer as well.

Do you need them to help grease the organizational wheels? Do they need to sign a form? Dedicate a specific team?

Know the first few steps you’ll want to take and what they look like so there’s no chance of them saying, “Think about it and get back to me.”

That, in and of itself, could be a reason your fabulous idea gets killed down the road. Capture enthusiasm and support the moment you receive it.

Putting It into Play

For your pitch, you’re in the beautiful position of bringing people along on an idea journey from your initial inspiration through the execution.

Don’t short them on the details or any of the steps you went through in the Wheel of Innovation.  Because you’ll use the same Wheel of Innovation you just used to come up with your new ideas, showing people how you’ve connected the dots along the way. This brings a fresh perspective—but with context—into your work, tells the story of a new idea, and, most importantly, inspires your audience to feel vested in your success.

Photo credit: Canva

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author