You’ve already put a great deal of work into preparing a solid business case for your project or idea. But when it comes to the critical presentation phase, how do you earn the support of decision makers in the room? How do you present your case so that it’s clear and straightforward while also persuasive?
What the Experts Say
Without a winning delivery, even the best-laid business plans are at a disadvantage. “The idea may be great, but if it’s not communicated well, it won’t get any traction,” says Nancy Duarte, the author of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations and CEO of Duarte, Inc., a company specializing in presentations and corporate messaging workshops. A memorable presentation transforms “numbers on a page” into something more tangible, says Raymond Sheen, author of the HBR Guide to Building Your Business Case. “It becomes a business opportunity that we’re grasping, a problem we’re resolving, a step forward for the company.” Here’s how to create a persuasive pitch.
Craft an emotional story
You may be tempted to stick to facts and figures to do the persuading for you, but great presenters know that the best way to hook an audience is through a story. This ‘story’ can be as simple as outlining the need, impact, and solution; the key is to present what’s at stake through a clear arc. But the more you can inject an emotional appeal or human connection into your narrative, the stronger and more memorable your case will be. That could mean illustrating the effects of a proposed customer management system with testimonials from actual customers, or describing how the data-sharing project you want to expand helped keep employees connected during a major outage. “With a business case, odds are that you’re trying to insert change,” says Duarte. “The first reaction to that change is typically fear,” and the only real way to get your audience to overcome their reluctance is to “appeal to the heart and not the mind.”
Lead with the need
In order to grab the attention of your audience from the outset, immediately identify the business need you are trying to address. Begin by asking yourself, “What is the message that I’m trying to get across?” says Sheen. Is there a market opportunity the company is overlooking? Does the firm need a new IT system? Clearly articulate this need as soon as you begin, because no matter how well researched or innovative your solution, you won’t get support if the need isn’t apparent or convincing. “Make sure you also show how that the need aligns with corporate goals and strategies,” Sheen says. “Just because you see an opportunity doesn’t mean that the business will want to pursue it.”
Address your audience’s concerns
Addressing the individuals concerns of stakeholders in the room will go a long way toward winning you allies. “If the finance person frets about keeping expenses under control, discuss expense numbers,” says Sheen. “If you have someone who is interested in growth in Asia, show how your project helps the company grow in the region.” Research past presentations and the outcomes to make sure you have your bases covered. If there are “issues that other projects have had, you should have an answer for those,” says Sheen. You might also consider giving decision makers a preview of your presentation ahead of time, and asking for their input. You can then salt their recommendations into your presentation, which will increase their investment in your success. “When you let people feel like they co-created your content, then they’ll not only support you but then they’ll feel empowered as ambassadors,” says Duarte. “They’ll feel like they’re representing their own idea.”
Find the right medium for your message
Well-presented data can do wonders for persuading an audience. But overwhelming slides with needless detail or trotting out tired visuals will also quickly lose you favor. Think carefully about the message you want to convey. Does a bar graph, table, or pie chart more effectively present your position? Are you able to circulate documents ahead of time, which might affect the data you want to emphasize in the actual presentation? Or will a unique, more entertaining route be more persuasive? “You have to know the best medium for the information,” says Duarte.
Don’t forget to connect
But above all, make sure you avoid “relying so much on your slides that you forget to make that human connection,” says Duarte. It might also be worthwhile to use colorful metaphors, videos, or other multimedia to make your point stand out. But sometimes simpler can be better, says Duarte. One of her clients convinced his CEO to fund a multimillion project by relying on basic graphics he drew on a whiteboard. The real power of his presentation, she says, was in the strength of his narrative.
Have an elevator pitch ready
No matter how much time you’re allotted to present, you won’t know until you walk into the room whether you’ll actually have 5 minutes — or 50. It’s critical to have a short elevator pitch ready in the event your time is short. “Know which one or two slides you’re going to pull out, the ones that can tell the story,” says Sheen. By the same token, you may be asked to do a deeper dive into one facet of your case in the middle of the presentation. That’s when having some appendix slides can be helpful, so that you can expand on certain elements of your case. You don’t need to have every data point memorized, Sheen says, but if someone asks, ‘What happens if we expand into Eastern Europe?’ you need to know what the general effect might be. It’s critical to “plan for short,” says Sheen, “and be prepared to go long.”
Principles to Remember
• Tell a story — it will make your case more persuasive and memorable
• Spell out the business need — it gives the audience a reason to listen
• Have both a short and long version ready — you never know how much time you will have
• Overlook stakeholders’ pet concerns — address them directly to win allies in the room
• Overwhelm your audience with needless detail
• Read directly from your slides — no one wants to attend a boring read-along
Case study #1: Build buy-in ahead of time
Erik Mason, the marketing communications manager for an aesthetic skin laser company in the Northeast, felt the firm needed a new image. “Other companies with slicker marketing were gaining market share even though they had inferior technology,” Mason says.
Mason decided to pitch a total rebranding — a new logo, new tagline, and new copy and photography for ads and communications — to the new executive team brought in to prep the company for an IPO. The price tag? An 8-fold increase in the marketing budget. “Marketing was a bit of a nebulous concept for the executive team,” he says. “They knew they needed to do it,” but they weren’t sure why or what tangible effect a new marketing strategy might have.
To build support for his case, Mason approached executive team members individually to ask them what they thought competitors were doing right, and how that compared with their own company’s strategy. Those conversations “gave me a roadmap of sorts for how I needed to present the recommendations to them,” Mason says, “so it felt tailored to them based on their input.”
He crafted the presentation as a story of each of the company’s primary competitors, showcasing their branding and visuals side-by-side with their marketing spending and earnings. That analysis not only showed those with the most compelling brands and integrated marketing support had impressive revenues, but also the most positive performances on Wall Street, a helpful fact given the company’s IPO aspirations. “The cases showed how a marketing investment pays ahead, especially when it comes to shareholder value,” says Mason, now the head of his own marketing firm.
Not long after, the executive team approved a full funding of Mason’s initiative. And in short order, the company achieved consistent double-digit sales growth — and a successful IPO.
Case study #2: Impress with unique visuals
When the 2008 financial crisis necessitated painful cuts at a Silicon Valley insurance company, chief information officer Jag Randhawa knew he needed a creative solution to boost morale and keep employees engaged. He decided to try to launch a bottom-up innovation program, which would allow IT employees to submit ideas to improve customer service, business processes, and products. But first, he needed the approval of management.
Randhawa didn’t yet have data to illustrate how the program might work, only anecdotal evidence from companies in other industries. He knew that if he wanted to persuade management, he would have to make an emotional appeal.
When it came time to present, Randhawa began by asking his audience to do a selective attention exercise, also known as the “invisible gorilla” exercise. The task involves watching a video and counting how many basketball passes are made between players wearing white jerseys. Most viewers are so focused on counting the passes that they completely overlook the man dressed as a gorilla who walks through the frame. Randhawa’s audience was no different.
Not only did the video lighten the mood, “it was also very relevant to my core message,” says Randhawa. “It demonstrated the need to have extra sets of eyes on a problem and the importance of diverse perspectives that employees can offer.” As the management team asked questions about how the program might work, it was clear that Randhawa’s hook had worked. There was already a “clear sense of collective ownership,” he says. In the end, he received an overwhelming “yes” to implement the program.