How to Pitch a Project
So you have a project idea and you want to get approval to work on it? Since this is presumably something that’s not within your current authority/ability to do, you’re going to need to pitch it to someone. Having been on both the pitching and receiving end of these, not to mention just being in the room as an observer, I’ve developed a particular approach for these. Since I’ve found myself providing this advice to folks several times recently, I figured I’d write it down.
The Essence of a Pitch
You’re going to need to be able to describe:
- the problem you want to address (or the opportunity you want to capture)
- what you want to do about it–your approach
- how much it will cost
- how long it will take
I’ll describe these in a little more detail, but if you don’t have answers for these questions, your pitch will likely not be successful, and you’ll be sent back off to go figure them out!
The problem statement is the why of your project. Your organization has a set of well-known problems; the closer you can align with solving one of those, the better. Similarly, your organization has a set of goals it is pursuing. If your project can help advance the pursuit of one of those goals, that’s great too. Sometimes you can describe a project as either a solution to a problem or a way to capitalize on an opportunity (these are often two sides of the same coin).
If you find that your project doesn’t align well to one of your organization’s well-known problems or well-known goals, this will be a much more challenging pitch, as it requires getting the organization to understand and pay attention to something entirely new. This is a good self-check: your project may have merit, but is it more important than the other things that are already going on? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t mean to discourage you here–new ideas and initiatives have to come from someone–but just realize that this will take more work.
This is what you want to do. Do you want to collect data? Write software? Contribute to open source projects? Release something under an open source license? Migrate from one technology to another? Purchase something? Create a new team? By creating new positions? By reorganizing existing staff?
Do you want to work on it? Lead it? Do you want someone else to work on it?
In general, this is your “ask”. Be explicit about what you want. I’ve seen a lot of pitches where this was left entirely implicit. Even if the person you are pitching to is receptive, it is a lot easier for them to say “yes” to something if you’ve actually asked for it!
How much will it cost?
You may be familiar with the phrase “time is money.” This is both true and not true. It is true in the sense that you have to pay your staff for their time, so saving them time saves money. You can also spend money to go faster. You might buy software instead of building it, or you might hire additional staff or contractors. Startups with a runway and a burn rate are keenly aware of this.
But in other ways it is not true. I once pitched an automation project, calculated I could save N engineer hours, and based on assumptions for average salary, determined I’d saved the equivalent of M dollars. I will be eternally grateful to my colleague from Finance who stopped by my desk to have the following conversation about it.
Finance partner (FP): So, you think you saved M dollars?
FP: No, you didn’t.
Me: What? But look at all the time we’ll save!
FP: Well, ok. Are you going to fire anyone?
Me: No! We’ll just have them work on other stuff they couldn’t get to before.
FP: That’s great, but you didn’t save any money. The exact same number of dollars will walk out the door of the company.
Me: [mind blown] Woah.
In short, if the person you are pitching to has to manage to a budget, then “what will it cost” is really “what don’t you have budget for”? If your project doesn’t actually require new dollars to walk out the door of the company, then it is budget neutral, and this can be super helpful to point out.
You may also want to be aware that many leaders don’t have a “slush fund” in their budget. If they are going to fund your project, they are going to have to find the money somewhere, usually by deciding not to spend money on something else (which may involve pulling dollars from someone else’s budget). Your project may be important enough to do that, but you should also be aware of these dynamics.
How long will it take?
This is sometimes another way to get at “how much will it cost?” where what you want to do is use existing staff to work on something. Here you’re essentially making a backlog/priority argument that we should work on your project sooner or instead of something else your organization already has planned.
For a lot of projects I’ve seen, this is often phrased as “X people working for Y days/weeks/sprints/months/quarters/years”.
However, it’s also important to think in terms of when the organization will start to see the benefits of your project–either the solution to the problem or capitalizing on the opportunity you described in your “why”.
Your pitch deck should have one slide: the “executive summary.” This should have nothing on it but four bullet points which are the pithiest sentences you can find to describe the answers to “why”, “how”, “how much”, and “how long.”
That’s it. That’s the slide.
Everything else goes in the Appendix.
Your appendix should have at least 4 slides, one for each of “why”, “how”, “how much”, and “how long.” This is where you provide the next level of detail for each of those things. The more data you can provide, the better. Feel free to add additional detail slides as needed, as long as you add them to the Appendix.
Delivering the Pitch
First off: if you need multiple people to approve your project (say, because it requires multiple leaders to contribute staff time to it), then you are going to want to have multiple meetings. Your deck will also need to be modified to show which leaders will be contributing how much budget or staff time. It’s ok if you don’t know, because you may be soliciting ideas during the next step: the roadshow.
The roadshow is having one-on-one pitches with each of the leaders you need approval from (if it’s only one leader, then you can skip ahead). But the idea here is that each leader will likely have different questions to ask, and this lets you solicit their questions/concerns in a way that will help you refine the ultimate end pitch. Only once you’ve gotten feedback from everyone involved (and are confident they are all on board) should you try to get them all in a room to agree to it.
So, how do you approach these meetings? I suggest sending your whole deck in advance (attach it to a calendar invite, even), and if it will be in-person, potentially bring handouts. I have found different executives have different preferences with respect to having hardcopies or not, but come prepared. But the point here is: no surprises. Let the leader you are pitching have access to all the information.
Now, in the actual meeting, what you do is go through your one slide, the executive summary, in five minutes or less. Then stop and ask for questions. “That’s the general idea. I have a lot more detail ready we can discuss, but I’m most interested in understanding what you think we need to do to make this happen. What do you think?”
In general, let’s give these leaders the benefit of the doubt that they are in decision-making positions because they’ve demonstrated the ability to make good decisions. They are likely pretty intelligent and comfortable rapidly absorbing information. I’ve watched (and cringed) as people have spent 25 minutes of their 30 minutes with a hard-to-get-on-the-calendar executive slowly walking through their thought process like they were a lawyer arguing a court case or a mathematician presenting a proof or a mystery novelist building up to a surprising reveal. All the while, the executive has already flipped 5-6 pages ahead in the handout. I’ve even seen instances where an executive tries to break in with a question, and the pitcher doesn’t let them get a word in edgewise, because they are trying to finish their thought! This is unproductive.
Your goal is to get to “yes”. So start with the general idea and see how far you get. Maybe the executive has scanned your deck already, gets it, and is on board, and you can just end the meeting after the first five minutes. But if they are not on board yet, then you need to spend most of the meeting addressing the questions or concerns they have, and spend as little time as possible on the parts of your projects they already understand or are bought into. And the best way to figure this out is to ask them! Let them drive the rest of the conversation. This is where you hop to the appropriate slides in your Appendix as those topics come up.
Watch the time. Make sure you have time at the end for a wrap-up. Think in terms of being an appliance salesperson. “What will it take for you to walk out of here with a new fridge today?” Explicitly ask whether they are on board. If not, ask what’s in the way. Maybe they need more information, in which case, you get a clear homework assignment to get ready for the next attempt. But they may also raise an issue: maybe your project doesn’t bring enough bang for the buck for it to make sense. That can be a hard reality to face, but it may help you refine you approach to the problem.
If the outcome of your meeting is a homework assignment rather than a flat-out “yes, let’s do it”, that’s still a success! The leader sees enough promise in what you are talking about that they are willing to consider it given more information. The reality is that many large projects start as much smaller projects that demonstrate incremental value or incremental progress that justify further investment over time.
Things to Consider
At some level, the leader will be considering return on investment (ROI). You can improve the ROI of your project pitch by either (a) capturing a bigger return by solving a bigger problem or capturing a bigger opportunity; or (b) reducing the investment required. Answering “why”, “how”, “how much”, and “how long” is really the core of a value proposition.
In particular, incremental funding can be your friend. What’s something smaller you can do that will make progress on the problem? Maybe it’s building a prototype, or maybe it’s collecting data and doing a more detailed analysis of the problem. It’s a lot easier for your leader to say yes to “I want to spend a week analyzing this further” than “I need $10 million to hire a brand new department.”
Another good reason to have articulated all the “why”, “how”, “how much”, and “how long” is that before you actually approach with your pitch, you should re-examine the “why” and ask if there are any ways to solve that problem in a cheaper or faster way. I see lots of engineers fall into this trap. They get an idea for something technical to do, and it actually solves a problem, and they get excited about building something. But they don’t stop to ask whether that’s actually the best way to solve the problem. Having ideas is fine, but the business ultimately values having a problem solved more than the way you solve it.
Good luck! Remember these four basic items, focus your pitch on them, and you’ll be much better prepared for success.
- What problem are you solving? (why)
- What do you want to do? (how)
- What will it will cost? (how much)
- When can we see results? (how long)