It’s all about visualisation (and pitching isn’t just for sales)

Running a business, I’ve quickly understood the importance of a succinct, clear and interesting pitch to describe what I/we do.  A great pitch is one that you can deliver at will to a formal setting (from networking to potential investment) or a quick and friendly answer to the ‘what do you do?’ question. 

A pitch, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “a speech or act that attempts to persuade someone to buy or do something”.   There’s nothing unusual in that, but spending so many years in service/delivery roles I’d wrongly linked that definition firmly to sales (i.e. not something I needed to do).  Actually focusing on it however has led me to realise three things that have helped me significantly:

  1. Leading people, I’ve always been pitching (even if I didn’t call it that)
  2. Respect for context can dramatically impact the results of a pitch
  3. The authenticity of a pitch is as important as the outcome sought

I’ll break these points down to explain the relevance to leading, and I’ll include a few questions if you want to have a try.

1. Purpose

If you’re not (at least reasonably) clear on what outcome you want before beginning something, we can probably predict what’s going to happen.  Thoughts, expectations and actions risk misalignment and while things may get done, their value could be negligible.  This is true whether we’re stepping into a sales conversation (let’s have a chat is not a sales conversation), a negotiation (need I mention the UK’s approach with Europe?), a project (let’s build some stuff and see what happens, shall we?), or just about anything else.  Even William Tell would have had trouble hitting a target he knew nothing about, after all.

When leading people, clarity of purpose must be the primary priority of a leader such that they can understand progress and help to guide and coordinate others getting to a destination. 

Notice I don’t just say ‘purpose’ – it’s really important that purpose is clear and where possible, specific.  The generic mission statement on the wall, saying: “Our smart, entrepreneurial team are dedicated to delighting our customers with our product quality, world class customer service and competitive pricing” isn’t.

2. Pitch

A clarified purpose alone isn’t enough.  Purpose needs to be shared and understood by others for it to develop into a reality.  Some years ago I would have labelled this ‘communication’ or ‘comms’ but that tends to infer a broadcast.  Even if we assume that teams or individuals are listening, telling people where they’re going doesn’t guarantee its been heard, even less understood.

That’s where I draw in the parallel to pitching.  A great sale isn’t really selling at all (in the clichéd sense of used cars); it’s about connecting people to an outcome that would truly benefit them – helping someone to move forward if you will.  That is often achieved through visualisation – imagine a world where you didn’t have this risk or pain, where you achieve a certain status or goal, where you’re really proud of your home décor*.   A pitch that does this and the presents the solution has a high likelihood of landing.

So instead of communicating purpose to our teams, why not try pitching?  How can we explain the purpose of the team, individual or function in such that those people can visualise the outcome we want, and what it will mean for them?

To do that we need to think about the context our target audience is in and present that outcome in a relevant way.  To illustrate, here’s an example for an infrastructure team (items in square brackets are ‘stages’):

[Status quo] – In the last quarter we’ve had 6 customer-impacting incidents, and through the quick actions of our monitoring and network team have hit our published goals for service availability.  Well done!

[Purpose and Org Context] – We need to build on this result.  Customers understand issues happen, but don’t want the inconvenience of outages either and some have left us.  To meet this challenge, we are raising the bar to (new number) across all platforms, with a target of no more than (x) incidents per quarter.  If we achieve that, we’ll stand taller than our competition and our team can have a real influence on Customer loyalty.

[Local Context and Value] – To support that goal, I believe our focus needs to be on incident prevention, rather than rapid recovery.  We know that recovery takes us time and energy during, and often for a long while after an incident, and that prevents other, often more progressive work, happening.  Imagine for a moment what it would be like if our monitoring, automation and early action meant we had no customer-impacting incidents.

[Address Fears Head On] – I realise that on-call and overtime from incidents would drop, so have agreed an option of a quarterly bonus linked to platform performance.  I also know that some system changes and training will be needed, and we have a budget approved of X.

[Check Temperature] – We’ll need to be creative getting this result, and that could be fascinating. Who’s on board with the challenge of making this goal a reality?

Then follow up and refine.  Individually talk to people and get them to play back the aim to check for understanding, and include changes as you learn more.  You will need different content for different people and teams.

*A great example of visualisation was pointed out to me by Tomas Svitorka recently: Ikea.  Ikea lets you literally sit in a setup of what your room could look like, and unsurprisingly many of us leave with more than we planned to purchase.

3. Persona

Finally, I want to briefly include a note about the importance of how a pitch is delivered.  As I touched on in my article 7 reasons why individuals struggle with change in business, the politics of being human come into play.  Just as our clichéd ‘sales-y’ car salesman might immediately put defences up, so might someone who doesn’t believe in what they’re saying, or who comes across as having an agenda beyond their words. 

The framework above might give some headings, but critically it needs to be your words and your authenticity or you’ll lose the crowd.   If there isn’t anything about your purpose that resonates, excites or interests you, it could be you’re in the wrong place.

Here are some questions to think about:

  1. What is your team’s purpose?
  2. How does that fit into the wider organisational purpose?
  3. Can you succinctly and clearly describe that purpose?
  4. Have you checked that your team understand that purpose and their part in it?
  5. When you have described or pitch your purpose:
    • What were the results?
    • Which concepts or comments caused people to sit up or switch off?
    • What objections did you get that you needed to handle?
    • What questions were asked in the open and privately afterwards?
    • What needs refining?
  6. What happened when you followed up?

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