3 secrets to pitching a project idea at work

Have you come up with a great idea to improve your company, but you are struggling to find traction with your boss and stakeholders? Is it hard for you to convince others that your idea is worth pursuing? Pitching a project at work is actually not that hard if you follow simple steps.

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Things to remember

Before we get into the details of preparing your pitch, I just wanted to highlight a few things for you to keep in mind throughout the process.

It is going to take time

All ideas, no matter how great take time to implement. Your boss and stakeholders might have various objections that you will have to overcome as you go. You should also remember that unless your project idea is high on their list of priorities, it will take longer for them to respond or make decisions. So prepare for a long game.

They will say no

In most cases, your stakeholders will say no initially to your project or will try to pick holes, or at least it will feel like this. The reason they are doing this is to identify potential risks and make sure that you have thought this through thoroughly. Don’t be put off by this. If you believe that your project will benefit the company, keep working on your idea.

Do you have time to lead it?

Your boss might be concerned about your workload when you are pitching an idea that will take a considerate amount of your time. You can suggest how you going to handle your ongoing work or provide evidence that this project will be much more beneficial to the company. Some people advocate for showing your boss that you have spare time to handle the project, but I would advise against it. Showing that you have spare time, can suggest that you need your boss to assign you more work and it might be from the projects that you are not so excited about. Personally, I would stick to showing the short-term options of handling your workload rather than suggesting that you are out of tasks.

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First Secret: Analyse, question, assses

This is the basis of any well-prepared project or a project pitch. You need to make sure you have an in-depth understanding of the problem that you are trying to solve. Make sure that you look at it from every angle. Not only how it looks now and how you want to change it, but what are the longer-term consequences of implementing your plan? And what are the long-term consequences of not implementing it?

Ask as many questions as you can think of to understand stakeholders’ views of the situation. Is there anything else that is more pressing for them? Is there anything that makes this project important? What are other priorities they have?

Consider as well what objections your stakeholders might have, and listen to any concerns they have. Have a think if they are solvable? Is there anything you can implement in your plan to prevent them from happening? Being able to assess risk adequately is a very important ability when creating projects.

You can think of implementing new software to your company as an example. It may solve some problems, it may support teams to be able to track their productivity or make more visibility to the wider business, but how the implementation is going to look like? How many people will need to be involved to link it to your internal systems? Would there need to be any changes to internal procedures, or would the system adapt? How long will the training take and who will be doing the training? How many people need to be trained? What if someone takes longer to learn? Will implementing this system have any long-term consequences outside of the immediate team using it? This leads us to the second secret to pitching a project idea at work.

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Second Secret: Identify ALL stakeholders

Have a think for a moment as well if your project – or the problem you are solving – is going to affect other areas of the business. This is a very important factor, as when forgotten it can cause long-term problems and struggles for other internal teams (or even external).

For example, in one of my previous companies, the Head of Maintenance implemented a new maintenance system to commission vendors. It was a great idea on paper as it was supposed to simplify how his team works and help him track the works. Instead of calling and having no trace of the works done, the team was supposed to log all jobs via the system, which would match them with a suitable supplier.

Unfortunately, the person who implemented this system didn’t think about the other departments and didn’t consult us on the project. The system was linking his team to the random vendors that were selected by the company leading the software. The software was used as a bridge between us and the maintenance companies, however in the end it was the end vendor raising an invoice.

It has caused lots of issues for the purchasing department, as we had no contracts, or even basic agreements in place, we have never run background checks on them or negotiated pricing. In long term, we were exposing our company to a lot of risks and cost increases, as the costs were not challenged and just went through the system.

It has also caused numerous issues for the finance department, especially AP, as the vendors were not set up in our internal systems. Finance had to verify each individual invoice manually with the maintenance engineers and then – manually again – add the vendor to the finance system. It was not only time-consuming but also left lots of opportunities for errors and delays in payments to small vendors, who were relying on timely payments.

If both our purchasing department and the finance department were consulted on the structure of this system, even though implementation would take longer, we could have it organized in a smooth way. Or perhaps we would have identified that such a system is not the right product for us and we would look for something more suitable (which we ended up doing in the end. I believe the system we used went bust a few months later).

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Third Secret: Simplify

If you do a word search on my blog, the first word you would get the most hits would be most likely ‘stakeholder’ and the second ‘simple/simplify’. I do believe in simplicity. Very often people use big words, creative graphics, or complicated tables and graphs to show how intelligent they are. But when we are presenting an idea to a wider audience, the spotlight doesn’t need to be on you. You have already proven your worth and importance by getting the job and analyzing an issue that the company is facing. Now is time to put the spotlight on the idea.

You can still do a 20-page presentation filled in with graphs, use big words, and complicated analysis, but I can bet you that it will take you longer to get your stakeholder buy-in than if you used a 3-page presentation and talked in simple terms.

You can still do a 20-page presentation filled in with graphs, use big words and complicated analysis, but I can bet you that it will take you longer to get your stakeholder buy-in than if you used a 3-page presentation and talked in simple terms.

The secret to having your ideas heard is making them easy to be heard. If you explain your idea easily, make it simple to digest to listeners, they are more likely to agree to it quicker. Making things more complicated, will only mean that they will need more time to process it and make sure that they do understand what you are trying to achieve and how.

No executive – hopefully – is not going to make a decision regarding a project they do not understand, as they have to understand how this will affect their business. If you provide them with too much complicated information, they will need to take it away to absorb it. But as you know, other things usually take priority and your project might get attention at the very end of the queue – if ever.

So how to prepare a simple version of your idea?

  1. Sitck to 3-5 pages if using PowerPoint or 1-2 if it’s a Word document. Reduce the word count to only necessary words and make sure that graphics are self explanatory and have all required legends.
  2. Do a ‘mum test’ – would your mum understand what you are talking about if you were to give a presenatation to her? Otherwise, you can also do your presentation first to a collegue who has nothing to do with your project, so for example, if you are in finance, tell it to the Head of Marketing or Product and see how they react and what questions will they ask.
  3. Have a data file at hand – the questions will come and you need to be prepared for them. But instead of putting all your eggs in one basket – the presentation – keep the data at hand in a well prepared Excel file, that you can whip out if needed.

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5 tips on how to smash presentations to senior leaders

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Have you ever pitched an idea to senior leaders at work? Or presented a report or any other work you have done? How did that make you feel? Did you feel confident and competent, or did you wish you didn’t have to do that and go back to your Excel/ERP/other work computer program?

What is more – how did they react to your presentation? Were they interested, interactive, asking insightful questions? Or were they quiet, checking their phones, and just said ‘no’ at the end? (or ‘we will get back to you on that’, which is even worse…)

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What if presenting could be easy? What if you could stand in front of the leaders and be confident, knowing that you have the key to what they want, knowing that they are listening to you, are interested and inspired by what you are sharing?#

You might want to start your journey here – I have recently written an article about stakeholder engagement, which lays down some basics for understanding the people you are presenting to.

A little thank you

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This article is dedicated to one amazing female professional, who has been a massive supporter of my work. As she is my first supporter on Patreon, I wanted to give something back and asked her what topic would help her the most at work. So presentation skills it is!

If you would like to have an article written on a topic that is interesting for you, you can do this by supporting me on Patreon and sending me a message with the topic you would like to learn about.

But back to the topic at hand!

Is presenting to senior leaders really that different?

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Some of the advice you will find in this article, like starting with the framework, is just a piece of good generic presentation advice, however as you progress in the company and present to more and more senior people you might discover that they actually need less information than you are used to presenting.

Usually, when presenting to a wider audience with various levels, you might find yourself required to dive deeper into a specific topic or explain in more detail. The audience might be also more interested in the journey that you were on and the details you have discovered.

So how would you present to senior leaders?

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Presenting to senior leaders tip no 1: Start with a framework

Your framework for the presentation can be a summary of the main points that you are going to address, stating whether you would like the audience to ask questions during the presentation or after or just sharing the structure of the presentation and time.

Having a framework sets expectations for the audience. They know what will happen and what is expected from them. This is a good generic presentation tip, but I thought that highlighting it here is important. Having a clear framework communicated at the beginning of your presentation will make it sound way more professional and highlighting the main points might make your audience more focused, especially if you are going to talk about solutions to problems they have been having.

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Presenting to senior leaders tip no 2: Keep it simple

Simplicity is the key. People often try to make their presentations sound smarter by adding big words or having lots of analyzed data on the screen. This doesn’t help absorb information!

Senior leader are usually faced with dozens of topics every day. They need to absorb complex information quickly and make decisions. If your presentation is complicated, the best that can happen is that the person you are presenting to will take time to analyze it themselves (which will take time) and draw conclusions. The worst-case scenario is that they will decide it is not important enough and therefore not worth their time.

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I like to do what I call a ‘Mum test’. Would my Mum understand the presentation if I gave it to her? My Mum is a very smart woman, but she doesn’t know anything about my job.I revise the presentation, keeping in mind that the person might not be familiar with some aspects of my job, but also that I don’t want to overload them with details and still keep it light.

Keeping it simple means also having your data consolidated. Don’t show what you have done, but what conclusions have you drawn. Make sure though to show the link.

Let me give you an example from my line of work (I am in sourcing). Recently my colleague helped me run a benchmarking exercise between two print providers. They have looked through every single item to identify the differences in cost of materials, transport, labor, and finished products. When they presented the data back to me, they have included all their calculations and the final conclusion: the pricing varies by x% (low), therefore we can stay with the current provider.

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Simple right? Well, no. Their final analysis didn’t include any information about how they had drawn this conclusion, only a massive spreadsheet with hundreds of lines to analyze. Once I started looking into this data, digging in, and asking questions, I have realized that the whole exercise was not thorough enough.

The cost of materials varied around the year – was it considered that we were comparing cost from Jan 2020 to cost in June 2021? What would help me understand the conclusion – and trust it more – is showing me that considerations like this were included. I didn’t need to see the whole calculations but being given the considerations like:

  • cost of materials changed by x across the year
  • company Z assumes X people working on the projects, whereas company Y assumes X people
  • seeing a price comparison analysed in detail for one product

These simple points would give me more trust that the analysis was done correctly, I would trust the final conclusion and I wouldn’t require to look into the work again by myself.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about this point.

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Presenting to senior leaders tip no 3: Have additional data

Very often if you miss any considerations mentioned above, the audience might ask you questions about the data behind. It is a good practice to always have available additional information.

If we continue on the above example of print suppliers, if I would present, I would look into the current print market, see who are the key leaders and why we do/or why we do not engage with them. Are there any trends that we are not taking advantage of?

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Additionally, I would also have a cleaned-up spreadsheet with all the calculations. What do I mean by cleaned-up? Make sure you remove anything that you might have added during the analysis process (I sometimes write my thoughts on the side to remember to check or analyze something), structure the data so it’s easily readable, and make sure that you are showing your thoughts process (formulas rater than final numbers).

Having these things at hand, you will make sure you have the answers when the questions are asked. However, if you are faced with a question you don’t have the answer to – don’t try to make it up on the spot. It is normal to say ‘Let me get back to you on that after the meeting’ as nobody has the answer to everything. Make sure that your answer is well researched, as this will give you more credibility than answering on the spot with incomplete data.

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Presenting to senior leaders tip no 4: Evaluate risks and anticipate potential questions

When preparing your presentation, think about what the leaders you are presenting to are caring about. What is important to them?

If you are talking to a marketing executive about the print vendor, what in this process is relevant to them? I have noticed in many companies that marketing is usually well funded and might have less consideration around the cost. They might care more about the image of the company or simplicity or processes. If that’s the case, you can talk about environmentally friendly materials and consolidating ordering rather than focusing on the cost.

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If I were to recommend a switch of the supplier, I would think about the risks associated with the move, setting up accounts, processes, the supplier understanding our internal processes, collaborating well with the team, and delivery times. Have a think about what is relevant and consider it before the presentation. Maybe check some additional information. You don’t have to raise the risks during your presentation (this might be useful when dealing with a specific type of leaders) but having prepared for this type of question will support your professionalism and credibility when asked.

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Presenting to senior leaders tip no 5: Know your audience

This last point ties in nicely with all the four before – knowing your audience will make the whole process easier!

Understanding what challenges they have, what are their current objectives and where their teams might need support, can help you develop any presentation and tailor it to the person you are presenting to.

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If you are not sure where to start with knowing your audience, I have created a Stakeholder Questionnaire (click here), which will help you analyze your stakeholders, including senior leaders, that you may be presenting to. Make sure you go through all the prompts and consider how your project or data that you are presenting is impacting them.

Let me know below if this was useful and what other topics would you like to hear about!