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Remember these three tips when you’re pitching

A former Group Creative Director at AKQA tells us how he gets his pitches to stand out

Illustration by Julia Wytrazek

You’ve done it. You’ve come up with the perfect idea. It’s taken days/weeks/months, but now the heavy lifting is over. Once it lands on the desk of the ideal person or appears at the next big meeting, you’re in…right? According to Ian Wharton, designer and author (whose previous positions include Group Creative Director at AKQA and Chief Experience Officer at Superunion), this attitude is a common stumbling block when it comes to pitching an idea effectively. It’s not just about getting your foot in the door and delivering the right idea to the right person. 

“The mistake most people make, whether it's in the venture capital world, or in agencies pitching to clients, or any other world where you're trying to get an idea commissioned, is being unaware of the odds of selling that idea,” he explains. Whether you’re trying to bring a script to fruition at the BBC or get funding from a VC fund, it’s not landing the pitch meeting that’s the hard part — it’s convincing people that your idea is worth buying.

Wharton’s online, three-hour D&AD Masterclass Principles of Selling Ideas is designed to make sure your ideas have the best possible chance of being executed, drawing on tried-and-tested methods to ensure your pitch stands out. The most important thing, he says, is to “be memorable” — and he has three key steps to get you there.

Preparing to sell shouldn’t be an afterthought

When it comes to pitching, most people, Wharton observes, underestimate “how important preparation is.” It’s understandable. So much of the energy goes into coming up with the solution that it can be easy to forget that you now need to explain it to someone else clearly and persuasively. “You do all the work on the idea,” Wharton adds. “You've got this thing — it's solving this major challenge. It will take care of itself and succeed by its own virtue. But this idea that we don't need to do the selling, that this will taint the purity, is completely inaccurate.” 

In other words, ensure that you or your team have adequate time to prepare and hone your pitch — and take it as seriously as the ideas generation part. See it as a distinct stage, rather than an afterthought. As well as hooking the person in front of you, an idea expressed with clarity will also travel further. “When you sell an idea, it's almost never bought there,” Wharton explains. “You're dependent on that person [you pitched to] going and selling your idea to other people in your absence. If you've given them the right knowledge, the right understanding for everything you've told them, they might repeat it broadly accurately. If you don't, they might convey a completely different idea. And then the thing gets commissioned, but it's not really your idea anyway. That's usually the most painful bit.”

Tell a story with your idea

So how do you express an idea clearly? And what can you do to make it memorable? The easiest way to do this, Wharton says, is to tell a story. “One thing people can do is adopt some of the very primary elements of narrative structure,” he says. “Every time we sell an idea, we're addressing an audience who is looking through the lens of a lifetime of experiencing narrative. It’s the vehicle for how we consume entertainment, sure, but also our information.”

He has a tried-and-tested formula for this. “The first step is the inciting incident, which is the first major event in any story. It turns the hero's world on its head and compels them to take actions that address the upheaval. The great thing is, they don't need to succeed. It's the very act of trying to overcome challenges that makes us rally behind them.” Relaying this raises the stakes. It makes others invest in the outcome. 

Like all good storytelling, it also requires understanding of character. “You can't introduce conflict if you don't know who your protagonist is,” Wharton adds. “Who's the hero when you're selling your idea? For the avoidance of doubt, it's almost never you as the person selling the idea.” Instead, he recommends taking a step back to identify who it’s aimed at. “Who will benefit from your idea is either the person who's looking for your services or, more commonly, the market where the people are who will benefit from the idea being fully realised.” Once you’ve figured this out, the story can unfold. “Identify that first figure. What is this immense opposing force getting in the way of them succeeding/ having a great life/ being happier/ having more fun/ whatever it is?” Once you have that opposing force, your idea can be introduced as a means of overcoming or solving the problem. 

Know your audience

Narrative also requires a sound understanding of audience, which means ensuring you’re pitching it at the right level and keeping it concise. “Processes, facts, methods, frameworks, and loosely connected events — people don't remember any of that, which is how most consultancies, and most people, pitch ideas,” Wharton explains. It’s not enough to say “look at our great process for following this particular thing, look at our great proprietary bespoke methods” — you have to distil it down into something readily consumable. 

Wharton also recommends paying close attention to context. “You, as the seller of the idea, are in one world. The people who are there to commission the idea, hopefully, are in a completely different world,” he observes. “Both worlds have their own frames of reference, methods for decision making, biases, distractions, and one thing you have to do when selling an idea is find a way, as quickly as possible and as meaningfully as possible, to bridge that gap.” In other words: “speak in a language that is well understood for their environment.”

D&AD’s online 3-hour Masterclass Principles of Selling Ideas gives you the pitching tools you need to get people on board with your creative ideas, and get them made. Sign up here. You can also explore do at your own pace courses here, as well as upcoming in-person and online teaching here.

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