Monday, November 29, 2010

Geekspeak: Ten Tips for Making an Effective Pitch

You’re fired up about something, but you need approval to make it happen. Maybe it’s asking for approval to go to a great developers’ conference. Maybe it’s asking for a new hire to expand your team. Maybe it’s asking for some software to help you write better code. Maybe it’s pushing for a raise for one of your subordinates.

If you care enough about something to make a pitch for it to your management, care enough to make a GOOD pitch. Writing up a passionate, long-winded ranting e-mail or white paper might make you feel better, but you’re not going to have much of a chance of success. Spend some time preparing your pitch and you’ll have a much greater chance of winning folks over to your side.

Here are a number of things which I’ve learned over the years through some great mentoring and a lot of hard knocks. I don’t claim to have a magical approach, and I’ve failed at a number of pitches, but overall I’ve had some pretty good success following these general concepts.

Focus your idea

Make sure you know what it is you want. Make sure you’re pitching for something concrete and obtainable. “We need to train our dev staff!” isn’t a focused idea, “We need to train our dev staff and can do it by sending them to CodeMash! It’s CHEAP!” is.

Broad, unfocused ideas don’t make good pitches. They make for awesome places for you to start focusing down to a specific plan.

Know your audience

Understand who you’re pitching to, and what sort of information they’ll need. The bigger your pitch (read “the more it will cost”), the higher up the food chain you’ll need to go. Ensure you’re pitching to the right folks – drafting something for marketing won’t help you if you’re really trying to get new headcount approved…

You need to do your homework and learn as much as possible about the folks who have approval authority. You’ll need to understand their motivations for the organization so that you can tailor your pitch to what they’re interested in.

Just as importantly, you need to understand whether your goals match up with theirs. Earlier in my career I spent months, literally months, polishing up a pitch for something I felt extremely passionate about. I had to work closely with mid-level management to create a significant package and presentation for upper management, and it wore me out. The pitch ultimately was rejected because upper level leaders had completely different views and core values than I did – and I had no idea that was the case. I wasted huge amounts of my time and spent a lot of political capital at lower levels only to find out I never had a chance.

Losing that particular pitch was one of the most demoralizing things I’ve ever had happen in my career. Not because the pitch didn’t get accepted, but because I’d so completely misunderstood the culture at the top levels of that particular company.

Save yourself that heartache: do your homework up front by testing the waters, floating trial balloons, or whatever metaphor you prefer. See if you’ve got a reasonable chance at succeeding before you charge that hill.

Speak the language

More likely than not you’ll be making your pitch outside your circle of geeky colleagues to a manager somewhere in your organization. Phrase your pitch in terms your audience feels important – and that’s nearly always some form of specific, quantifiable value delivered back to the organization or your customers.

This bears repeating because it’s critical: Tie back to specific business value. Your pitch will fail if you don’t, regardless of how big an item you’re asking for.

Speaking about improving quality or increasing productivity is nice, but get more specifics: speak to cutting support costs. Speak to delivering features more quickly. Talk to how your idea helps the bottom line or improves relationships with your customers.

Believe it or not, but business people actually do care about many of the same things we geeks do, they just speak a different dialect. Bridging that language gap is critical for an effective pitch.

Understand the budget process and cycle

Money matters. Sorry, it does. You need to know how your request will fit in your organization’s budget process and cycle. The larger your request the more you need to know.

The budget process generally involves how requests are filed and who has approval authority for what amounts. Understanding how far up the chain your request will need to go helps you get a feel for how much prep work you’ll need to do. A $250 expense for a new SSD drive may only need your direct manager’s approval based on an e-mail. A $30K training workshop may need to go all the way to your CFO with a significant amount of backup material.

Budget cycles matter because you’ve got to understand when you’ve got a window for a successful pitch. Larger purchases such as new hardware generally have to be planned out well in advance. You may need to be making your pitch for that $30K performance testing lab a year in advance in order to get it on next year’s budget.

Knowing the annual budget cycle may not be enough; you may also need to understand the organization’s spend plan, too. Financial folks in companies love stability of income and expenses. They don’t like huge spikes and generally try to schedule out large expenses through the year rather than drop huge amounts of cash in one month or quarter. Looking for a really significant expense? Ensure you’re not stacking up your request when other big expenses are scheduled. Make your pitch include a target timeframe which won’t rock the spending plan. (Too much…)

The executive summary is critical

The higher up your pitch will go, the more important a tight, well-written opening is. You need to have one paragraph, perhaps two, which gets right to the point of what, why, and how. This opener might end up being targeted to a different audience than the rest of your pitch.

Write your opener after everything else in your pitch is done, not before. Get all the details in place, then work REALLY HARD to distill everything down to the bare essence.

Keep in mind this summary may be the only thing read by the person who will give your pitch the thumbs up or down. Spend the time to get this part right.

Back it up with data

The summary is critical, but you need meat and potatoes behind it. (Or tofu and potatoes if you’re vegetarian.) Dig around and root up some metrics that back up your pitch.

I once had to write up a salary increase proposal for one of my subordinates. He was a very valued member of our team and was ridiculously underpaid. I compared his salary to standard wages in the region (“He can get $10K more tomorrow by quitting and going to our competitor.”). I was also able to show how his great development skills boosted the team’s velocity by 30% by tying feature estimates to actuals when colleagues worked on infrastructure he’d implemented.

If your pitch deals with the hard engineering side of things (training to help improve how you write code, hardware for performance testing, new dev machines, etc.) then gather up metrics from tools like NDepend,  NCover, simple perf test tools, etc. Tie this to industry standards, your own Service Level Agreements, or other similar items which your audience understands – as with everything about your pitch, tie it back to specific, understandable business value.

Don’t get carried away with flooding your audience with data, but by all means do get enough detail to make your case.

Show options and pros/cons

Your idea may not be the only way to skin the cat. Your idea may have drawbacks. Lay those out with the same care you spend on your idea. Doing so shows your audience that you’ve thought long and hard about your pitch and are being honest about alternatives and potential drawbacks.

Now, that said, you don’t need to go overboard propping up the alternatives and cons. After all, you want your idea implemented!

Be prepared to fail

Harsh reality: your idea may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Others in the organization may have different opinions. The organization may not have budget. There may be a hiring freeze. There may be things going on in the organization that you don’t have knowledge of.

Do be optimistic when making your pitch. Do work hard at getting your pitch right. Do be passionate about it.

Just don’t let a rejected idea completely sour you on life.

That said, if the pitch was something that’s central to your core values remember this: you can change where you work, or you can change where you work.

Less is more

Perhaps the overall most important point is this: Be concise. Spend the time to write a lean, concise pitch. Cut out all unnecessary cruft. Re-read, edit, re-edit, then have someone else read the pitch.

Be sure everything in your pitch helps make your case, and ensure you’re not adding in extra fluff which doesn’t help your case.

Don’t write ten points when nine will do.

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