How To Pitch an Idea

By Scott Berkun, February 2005

Coming up with good ideas is hard enough, but convincing others to do something with them is much harder. In many fields the task of bringing an idea to someone with the power to do something with it is called a pitch: software feature ideas, implementation strategies, movie screenplays, organizational changes, and business plans, are all pitched from one person to another. And although the fields or industries may differ, the basic skill of pitching ideas is largely the same. This essay provides a primer on idea pitches, and although most of my experience is in the tech-sector, I pitch to you that the advice here will be relevant to pitching business plans, yourself (e.g. job interviews), screenplays, or anything else.

The nature of ideas

Ideas demand change. By definition, the application of an idea means that something different will take place in the universe. Even if your idea is undeniably and wonderfully brilliant, it will force someone, somewhere to change how they do something. And since many people do not like change, and fear change, the qualities of your idea that you find so appealing may be precisely what make your idea so difficult for people to accept. Some individuals fear change so much that they structure their lives around avoiding it. (Know anyone exhibiting the curious behavior of being obviously miserable in their job, their city, their relationship, but still refusing to make changes?). So when your great idea comes into contact with a person who does not want change, you and your idea are at a disadvantage. Before you can begin the pitch, you have to make sure you’re talking to someone that’s interested in change, or has a clear need that your idea can satisfy.

Healthy and progressive organizations make change easier than stinky evil organizations do. Smart organizations (or managers) often depend on change. Leaders in these havens for smart people not only encourage positive change to happen, but expect people at all levels of their organization to push for it. It requires more work and maturity for these managers to make this kind of environment successful, but when they pull it off, smart people are systematically encouraged to be smart. Idea pitching happens all the time: in hallways, in the cafeteria, in meetings.

But since most of us don’t work in these kinds of places, the burden of pitching ideas falls heavily on our shoulders.

Step 0: Create and refine the idea

The classic mistake of would be idea pitchers is to pitch the idea well before it’s ready. When most people find an interesting idea, they’re quickly seduced by their egos into doing silly and non productive things, like annoying the pants off of everyone they come into contact with by telling them how amazing their new idea is. The thrill of being clever is so strong that they forget the fact that there are 100 interesting ideas bouncing around for every single truly good idea. By (my) definition, an interesting idea takes a novel or creative approach to doing something, whereas a good idea is not just creative, but actually improves on a meaningful quality or attribute, in a way that can be practically applied to the world (or the project).

Good ideas include some thinking about execution and delivery. Saying “we should build cars that go 1000 mph and get 100mpg and easily fold to fit in your back pocket” or “We should make a children’s movie that is very funny and intelligent for parents and children, but also has a deep positive spiritual and moral message” count as interesting ideas. They’re good starts. But they won’t be good ideas, in the sense of pitch-work, until there’s both some logic for how to make it real within reasonable limitations, and some level of detail in how the convert the abstract idea (build a breakthrough automobile) into tangible plans (the trans warp drive I’ve designed improves gasoline efficiency tenfold).

So until the concepts and hard parts are fleshed out enough to demonstrate that the spirit of an idea is matched with specifics, the idea doesn’t have much of a foundation. People can dismiss it quickly just by asking 2 or 3 basic questions. Always remember that moving from an interesting but vague idea, to specific and actionable is the difficult part of creation and invention. (For example, there were lots of people with the idea for making light bulbs. Edison’s success was not in being the first one to conceive the idea, but in having the persistence and cunning to be the first person to solve many of the practicalities involved in engineering the idea).

Most of the time it’s not worth pitching an idea until you’re able to answer some of the basic pragmatic questions about it, such as: What problem does this solve? What evidence is there that the problem is real, and important enough to solve (or in the corporate world, solve profitably?) What are the toughest logistical challenges implied by the idea, and how will (or would) you solve them? Do you have a prototype, sample or demonstration of an implementation of the idea (aka proof of concept)? Why are you the right person to solve it? Why should this problem be solved now? Why should our organization solve this problem? These are all the kinds of questions someone that gets pitched to on a daily basis are likely to ask, and therefore, a good pitch-person will have done more than superficial thinking on their answers.

Step 1: What is the scope of the idea

The bigger the idea, the more involved the pitch. Big ideas require more change to take place on someone’s part, and all things being equal, this means the pitch must be more thorough (or your approach more bold & risky). The stakes are higher. To convince a CEO to start a new million dollar project will take more effort than convincing your best friend to loan you his pen. As a rough guide, here’s how to assess the scope of an idea, from narrow to grand:

  • Tiny tweak to something already in existence
  • New feature or enhancement to existing product / website / company
  • A major new area of an existing product / website / company
  • An entirely new, but small and simple, project
  • An entirely new, but large and possibly complex, project
  • An organizational, directional, or philosophical, change to an existing organization
  • A new organization
  • A new nation, planet or dimension of the universe (Sorry. But for how to pitch to the omnipotent forces that run the universe, you’ll have to look elsewhere).

When you’ve identified the scope of your idea, do some research on how others pitching ideas of similar scope went about it. You’re probably not the first person to pitch something of the scope you’re pitching, so go find out what other people did, and what kind of success they had. Learn from their mistakes. There are books on pitching business plans, movie scripts, and of course pitching yourself (job interviewing). Do your homework: know some of the basic strategies, or industry expectations for the kind of pitch your doing. In the software development world, talk to people who have pitched feature ideas in your organization, and see what you can learn.

Step 2: Who has the power to green light the idea

Make a list of the people that are potential recipients of your pitch. This could be your boss, your VP, another company, a bank, a publisher, who knows. Base this list on two criteria: who has the power needed to implement the idea, and who you might have access to. Here’s a rough guide, ordered from fantastic to depressing.

  • You have the power.
  • A peer in your organization has the power.
  • Your boss has the power.
  • Someone above you in the organization.
  • Someone you know in another organization.
  • Someone you don’t know and don’t have easy access to.
  • You have no idea.
  • You are paralyzed on a cold wet basement floor, and your annoying younger brother keeps poking you in the ribs with the pointy end of pencil. (See, it can always be worse).

If you have no idea who to pitch your idea to, ask around. There’s no sense developing your pitch if there’s no one to catch. If you don’t have access to the person with the power you need, make a list of who has access to them, working backwards until you can list people you actually know. You may need to work through this network of people, and make several pitches, to achieve the results you want. Just getting to the real pitch situation may take days, weeks or months or preparation and pitching to subordinates.

Step 3: Start with their perspective

Put your pitch aside. Imagine you have mind-melded with the person you are pitching to. How do they think about the world? What kinds of things are they probably interested in? What is their typical day like? How many unsolicited pitches do they receive a day? Consider how the person you’re trying to pitch views the world, and keep it in mind while developing your pitch. The better your pitch fits into their needs, perspectives, and desires, the greater your odds of being successful (or even being listened to). This doesn’t mean sell out, or only create ideas that you think a specific person will like. Instead this just means you have to be aware of how your perspective is different from theirs, and improve your ideas, and how you communicate them, based on that awareness. This may help you decide who to bring your pitch to: The most powerful person in the organization might share none of your philosophy, but the 3rd or 4th most powerful person might. The later is going to be a better place to start.

Step 4: The structure of the pitch

Always formulate 3 levels of depth to pitching your idea: 5 seconds, 30 seconds, 5 minutes (Credit to Ari Blenkhorn for this simple breakdown). The 5 second version, also known as the elevator pitch, is the most concise single sentence formulation of whatever your idea is. Refine, refine, refine your thinking until you can say something intelligent and interesting in a short sentence. “My idea? It’s a way to make car engines twice as efficient, and 5 times as powerful.” This can be done for any idea: never allow yourself to believe your thing is so complicated and amazing that it’s impossible to explain in a sentence. If you were to use this excuse on me, I’d tell you it means you don’t have enough perspective on how your idea fits into the world.

If you can get enough perspective of what you’re really doing, have a half-decent command of whatever language you’re using, and spend some time at it, you can develop a good 5 second pitch. Practice it on friends, peers, anyone, by doing the 5 second version, then answering their questions, and then asking them to help you refine the 5 second version again. (And if nothing else, the 5 second version comes in handy at parties, when you need to quickly explain what you’re doing without boring people to tears). As proof that 5 second explanations are possible, here’s some diverse and complex ideas, and some simple 5 second explanations of them.

Discovering DNA “I’m researching how human cells reproduce”
Defragmenting hard drives “It makes computers run more efficiently”
Inventing light bulbs “It’s a way to make light from electricity.”
Writing a brilliant novel “The story explores twenty something angst in the digital age”
Improving anti-lock brake algorithms “It improves automobile safety”

The 30 second and 5 minute versions should grow naturally out of the 5 second version. In 30 seconds, there’s enough time to talk about how you’ll achieve what you described in 5 seconds, or provide specifics of the 2 or 3 most significant things about how the effect described in the 5 second pitch will be achieved. Provide the next level of detail down, adding in just enough interesting detail that the listener can get a clearer picture of your idea, and gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what you’re proposing. If you can’t distill down what you’re doing in 5 and 30 second versions, don’t worry too much about the 5 minute version: odds are you won’t get many people to listen to you for that long.

However, since some people prefer written proposals for pitches, this gives you a chance to deliver the 5, 30 and 5 minute versions all at once. In this case it’s often best to keep the same structure: start with your shortest pitch. Then provide the next level of detail down. And finally, the core of the paper or written proposal is a point by point detailing of how, giving the money & resources you need, you’ll achieve what you described in the 5 second pitch.

Also, remember that you won’t always have all of your materials with you when pitching ideas. At least briefly consider how you’d deal with the following different kinds of situations, and with the different asset limitations you’d have in each case.

  • The elevator – you.
  • The slow elevator – you, maybe something to show from your pockets.
  • The lunch – (you , maybe something to show, napkins to draw on, alcohol)
  • The conference room meeting – (laptop / slides / handout)
  • The executive review – (laptop / slides / handout / yes-men / splunge-men)

Sometimes it can be to your advantage to pitch with partner. Instead of one person pitching, you’ll be pitching as a team. If you can find a partner who compliments your skills, and who you can happily collaborate with, it’s probably worth it (And though your ego may try to convince you you’re better off alone, you probably aren’t). It doubles your network of organizational connections, and changes the psychology you’ll have when pitching. Instead of standing alone you’ll be a small team, and may even out number the person you’re pitching to.

Step 5: Test the pitch

The longer you spend with an idea, the more vulnerable you are to your own ego. Get out of your office / cubicle / apartment, and go find smart people you know to give you feedback. Ask them to pretend they are whoever it is you plan to pitch to (This can be fun if you can be specific, as in asking them to behave like Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or your own caricaturization of your boss). Then go through your pitch, responding to their questions (or ignoring their laughter). You won’t always get the feedback you want, but you’ll sharpen both your idea, and the way you talk about it. If the idea is amazing and groundbreaking and you’re afraid to run it by other people, find a close friend or parent and use them.

From your pitch tests, develop a list of questions you expect to be asked during the pitch, and be prepared to answer them.

Step 6: Deliver

Surprise – I don’t think there is a ton to know about actually pitching. If you’ve prepared well, have a good idea that you truly believe in, and manage not to get too nervous, most of the work is in the hand of whoever is listening to you. Be calm, be direct, state your case, and then listen. Like any kind of public speaking type situation, the more often you do it, the more comfortable it will become. But there isn’t much magic to the actual pitch. The only people that need to resort to tricks and manipulations are those that haven’t worked to understand their audience well, or don’t truly believe in what they are pitching.

The best delivery advice I can offer is to make sure you spend some time preparing for a positive response. What happens if they say “That’s an interesting idea. What do you want from me?” Do you want money? Other resources? A change in the project plan? A feature added to the feature list? Know what the sequence of steps are after they agree you have a good idea and be ready to ask for them. If there are other people involved who’s approval you’ll need, ask them to set up a meeting for you. If there is a form that needs to be filled out, make sure you have one with you.

Step 7: What to do when the pitch fails

When things don’t go well, your job is to harvest as much value from the attempt as possible. Always leave failed pitches with an understanding of what went wrong. Which points didn’t they agree with? Which of your assumptions did they refute? In many cases, you might learn there are criteria for green lighting ideas in your organization that you didn’t know about. It’s also possible they objected to something about your approach: maybe they didn’t appreciate that you accosted them outside their office, waving a stack of handouts in their face. If someone else in the room was there observing the pitch, ask for their feedback. In short, get as much learning out of completed pitches as you can. Recoup your investment in the failed pitch by mining any lessons out of it that you can apply next time.

From a tactical perspective: who else can you give this pitch to? Every organization has lots of people at peer levels of hierarchy. Would any of them be interested? Go back to your list from Step 2. Consider compromising on how much power is needed to make your idea happen, or how to split your idea into smaller ideas. Maybe focus on the first small piece of your larger idea, and revisit the rest after you’ve had some initial success.

Step 8: Do it yourself

In every creative industry you can find people rejected by the system who went off on their own, scrapped together their own resources, and made amazing things happen. Scrappy small budget films like Napoleon Dynamite, Clerks, Pi, happened only because a small group of people believed enough in their ideas to make the sacrifices, and do it themselves. Books and novels can be self published. Business can be started on small business loans or second mortgages. There is always a way to do it if you are sufficiently compelled by your ideas to take on risks, and make use of your own (unpaid) time.

If your idea is related to web or software, it’s entirely possible to make a prototype using Flash, HTML or other development tools. Go crack open some books, or if you have the money, go hire someone to make a demo out of your sketches and rough plans. Don’t ever allow yourself to believe that there is only one way to make ideas real: if you’re truly creative, you can apply the same talent used to come with your idea, to the problem of how to make your idea real.

References

  • Q&A from my pitching workshop
  • Business plans that win, Pitching Hollywood – There are many books on developing business plans and pitching screenplays. I’ve yet to make any exceptional finds here, but these are decent places to start.
  • Changing Minds – Howard Gardner provides a science based framework for how an individual changes the minds of others. More about general science and psychology than a practical guide.
  • Influence: the psychology of persuasion – A classic book on the basic psychology of persuasion. More about advertising and environment than one on one pitch-work, this books offers a framework for how individuals are influenced by the context messages come in, and how the messages themselves are designed.

113 Responses to “How To Pitch an Idea”

  1. Cory Forsyth

    Excellent advice. I’m preparing to give a talk, which is admittedly different from pitching an idea, but shares a lot of similarities and I found a lot of useful pieces in here.

    (Typo fix: I think you mean complement w/ two e’s at the end of step 4.)

    Reply
  2. bill

    Hi
    There are three main types of people to pitch to:
    – Those who can say yes and make it happen
    – Those who can say no because of technicalities
    – Those who are going to have to live with your solution

    If you miss any of them out, you may be doomed!
    Cheers
    Bill

    Reply
  3. Prince Ikechukwu

    I will like to get more articles on strategic implementation of ideas. Regards

    Reply
  4. janice

    Pitch, I read all about how to pitch what ever a person has to pitch. How to pitch a book that you believe in. Well first of all think about your book is it a book that someone would read. Will it keep a reader reading, and interested to a point they don’t want to put it down. Wow now that is a book if you can pitch a good idea like that then you have a pitch. Now for my self I am writing a book that is like that, but I need to find someone to pitch it to. I would almost lay my life down that it would make it some where and I do not mean in the trash can….

    Reply
  5. janice

    I belive in my book and I mean truly belive in my book called Tattoo granny… I would lay down my life it would make a great movie. It is fresh, new and nothing ever heard about. The story line is different and will hold your attention.. people with new, fresh interesting ideas should never give up. Some people who can make this come alive for me needs to believe in something that is new and fresh, as Ronnie Howard comes up with new ideas in his films, as mine would if given a chance… I believe!!!!

    Reply
  6. Mohan Arun L

    I am reminded of the movie ‘associate’. Not everybody’s pitches will be heard or acted upon by the right persons. Sometimes (or most of the time) you need to deviate and ask someone else to pitch for you. In the movie in question, Whoopi Goldberg invents an imaginary Robert S. Cutty in order for herself (black female) to make it into a white male dominated Wall Street.

    Reply
  7. DELENA DENHAM

    Scott- I wanted to take a brief moment to say how very much I appreciate this insightful and practical article. It was concise and thorough in its approach and suggestions. I indeed have an idea that has never been enacted or implimented before, so I will remember your advice and tips with great precision when I step into my VC’s boardroom to pitch my concept. Keep up the good work!
    Thank you again and much continued success. God Bless You.

    Reply
  8. Oliver Furlong

    This is a great resource/ reference. Thank you. I teach fashion students presentation skills, so i have only picked out concepts that can be translated into situations where students will have to present their fashion designs to their tutors. If you know of any links about presenting creative designs i’d be very grateful.

    Reply
  9. ML Web Consulting

    This is a great post. Thanks so much for then insight. I’m actually pitching an idea to a group of execs here in the company I work for. Very helpful tips.


    Mike Locke
    Web Consultant
    ML Web Consulting

    Reply
  10. Simon Raybould

    Beautifully put stuff.

    My I offer an example of when this happens in real life? Back when I was researching in social stuff at a University, we had the Two Minute Taxi Test. Essentially, if an idea couldn’t be explained in the two minutes, in the back of a taxi, that it too to get from the offices of our Members of Parliament to the House of Commons, where the laws are made, it wasn’t a good idea.

    We’d start with the five second pitch to check interest and then follow it up if they were….

    Simon

    Reply
  11. Monroe Hart

    Your article helped me refine my pitch to investors in a couple of weeks. I will definitely use your initial approach. Thanks.

    Reply
  12. Angelo Bell

    Nice Read. I browsed through it to pick up on the tidbits I needed. Item #4 has given me new life. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. Victor Mthunzi

    there are a lot of ideas people have in mind but to put them into reality is very hard because the environment or place does not allow them to explore their ideas due to unforeseen circumstances

    Reply
  14. Linda

    I recently did a keynote clinic presentation & would like to pitch the clinic idea to some other facilities. Also I have begin working on an idea , I have had for awhile . My dog recently got hurt & I have been home with him, taking some time off work. I have been able to finally start working on my new creation. I love the the 5 second pitch-amazing. That does sum it up !!! Thanks for your great information Linda

    Reply
  15. Pierre

    Thanks for fixing it so quickly. Valuable stuff indeed, part helpful, part reassuring. As a person on the verge of pitching myself and my ideas to a potential future employer, I sure got a lot from it.

    Reply
  16. Ben

    I have a new idea for a dating website who’s concept still remains unexplored.
    I have trademarked the URL but the idea cannot be patented and is easy to steal.
    I would like to pitch the idea to one, or more, of the large players in the field.
    How do I make the pitch without risking my idea being stolen ?
    How do I find the right person to pitch it to ?
    should I bring a lawyer with me ?

    Reply
  17. Francois

    “Don’t ever allow yourself to believe that there is only one way to make ideas real: if you’re truly creative, you can apply the same talent used to come up with your idea, to the problem of how to make your idea real.”
    – One of the best quotes I have ever heard. I started my own company and won a business plan competition off of this advice. THANK YOU!

    Quick typo:
    “you can apply the same talent used to come with your idea” to “you can apply the same talent used to come UP with your idea”

    Reply
  18. The Sir Duke

    Incredible Advice… I will definitely consider every word…

    (Typo: May be you meant: since some people “refer to written proposals” in the 5sec pitch – not sure)

    Reply
  19. Chris Goodwin

    Good stuff!
    Thanks for the advice on pitching, this was the most useful information I found on the web. I also checked out the video about innovation and that helped me realize I’m not so crazy and ‘off-the-path’ as this is where I need to be. Hopefully soon my product http://www.aquanite.com will rule the world and I can look back on this site (Scott) as helpful advise that helped me get there.
    Chris

    Reply
  20. AH

    love the advice.I’m planning to write a talk for someone. This will definitely help

    AH

    Reply
  21. Frederick Gilbert

    I have just your article and want to ditto many of the comments. By the date of the comments are you still reading your comments, I think done a great job to help me pitch my idea.
    My 5 second pitch ”TCX would partner with host countries and facilitate a new approach international networking with other willing agencies and organizations worldwide to develop a new systematic approach and logistical delivery system to meet major disaster or emergency situations, humanitarian, animalitarian and environmental needs.”
    I think I done at least up step 3 and just have not got any bits. I done 25 years of reseach and writing and rewriting of a 500 page book with half the book with illustrations, charts, photos and my own art work to show the concept could work.
    Many say it a good, but they leave at that.
    Last night I showed to two doctors, one my boss, they showed a lot of interest, no comment back today.
    One good interest I got back during my presentation was how my project would grow in phases. Is this important? I had presumed that was a given? I am going to follow your sugestions in rest of your article.
    Do have anymore ideas in pitching very big concepts?
    Another personal type question:
    I am disable, having no arms at all, ADDH, over weight and old 67. Do you think I should find a ablebody without the baggage to pitch my idea or just hide behind my book and hopefully no known until I have more support for it. Please be completely honest!
    Thanks

    Reply
  22. Pink Man

    Can you define “bestselling”?
    I have a crazy good idea, but need the right team…

    Reply
  23. Abdulmumen Naas

    This helped me alot,I’ve learned something was missing in me. Great article.

    “Always formulate 3 levels of depth to pitching your idea: 5 seconds…”

    Thnx

    Reply
  24. helen

    thanks for this, i’ve learn’t alot today, and yours was the most interesting and useful. thankyou. If it works out I’ll let you know.

    Reply

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