You envision a project concept that has the potential to significantly benefit both you and a particular organization. You wrangle a meeting with either the decision-maker or one who has influence. Convincingly, you show that the proposed project will add money or prestige to the organization and that you are uniquely qualified to put the plan in motion and make it work. You are invited to submit a formal proposal and you see dollar signs twinkling for all concerned. Needless to say you are stunned when the proposal, which you perceived to be a confirmation letter since you received the decision-maker’s unqualified invitation to submit, is shot down. What the heck happened?
Kimberly Elsbach, associate professor of management at University of California / Davis, has done research that shows it’s not only the perceived value of the project that is at issue, but also the perceived value of the seller—you. According to Elsbach, the decision-maker makes a judgment about your ability to generate a genuinely creative and beneficial idea and that prejudgment diminishes its perceived value.
Elsbach reached this conclusion when she studied the Hollywood film industry, where filmmakers regularly “pitch” movie concepts to studio executives. She also attended meetings where entrepreneurs pitch business concepts to venture capital investors, yet another venue where brilliant ideas are proposed to those with the potential to fund them.
Elsbach emphasized that there are no reliable criteria on which to base creative potential, so decision-makers rely on purely subjective and often inaccurate evaluation stereotypes, which kick in very early in the pitch meeting. From that point on the decision is made, no matter what they tell you.
However, Elsbach discovered that there is sometimes a way to redeem oneself. The trick is to make the decision-maker feel that s/he is participating in an idea’s development. In other words, rather than bringing it in all wrapped up in a red ribbon, showing that you’ve thought things through and you’re basically ready for the roll-out, devise something for your decision-maker to do to feel needed and important. Make the decision-maker feel like a creative collaborator.
First, set the stage and gain the decision-maker’s empathy by finding common ground or perspective. If you’ve worked with this person before, then mention some shared memory of mutual success. “How is that program going these days? I so enjoyed working on that project. It is great to know that your customers have responded well…” If you’ve not worked with this person previously, go to their LinkedIn profile and look for common ground there. After the greeting and other pleasantries, slip into a shared experience or perspectives story, whether it’s a project you did for him/her, or an accidentally-on-purpose reference to a company that the two of you worked at (“So you worked there, too? I remember the days…”)
Second, when you segue into pitching your proposal, show the proper level of excitement and passion. Moreover, resist the temptation of being so thorough that you don’t give your decision-maker, who has an ego, a chance to put their hands in it and impact the project. As you are enthusing about the features of your proposal, ask qualifying questions that will engage your decision-maker in a discussion of what the organization and its customers really need from the concept you are pitching and together with the decision-maker be willing to improvise and compromise on your original proposal. If you can make the decision-maker feel some ownership, s/he is much more likely to identify with and support you at the meeting where projects and proposals are reviewed and the executive team finalizes what gets funded and what doesn’t.
Coming up with a brilliant idea is the easy part. Selling the idea to the organization with the means to fund that idea is the hard part. Psychology is a sales resource and the successful sales professional makes expert use of it.
Thanks for reading,