Illustration of a person unveiling a poster filled with charts and graphs

This is it! This is the project you’ve been waiting for. The one that’s going to define your career and challenge you and totally transform “the way things are done around here.” The project your team will point to five years from now as the inflection point that ushered in a new era of awesome.

If, that is, you can get the project approved, prioritized, and properly resourced.

Did you just get that sinking feeling in your stomach? You’re not alone. For every brilliant idea that ends up making a big impact, there are probably ten equally-brilliant ideas that never even get the green light. Why? It often comes down to how the project is pitched. Without an understanding of who you’re pitching to, what keeps them up at night, and how your idea can further their goals, your chances of getting buy-in are slim.

In this article, I’ll focus on the strategies successful project leaders use to make sure their ideas get priority when it comes to allocating time and resources. (By the way, most of the information here also applies to pitching a startup to venture capitalists, or pitching your services to potential clients. Score!)

1. Tie your project idea to your organization’s larger goals

Cannot. Stress. This. Enough. Before you start socializing your idea around or preparing a formal pitch, gut-check it against company- and department-level objectives. If your organization as a whole is focused on expanding market share in South America and your project is about reducing customer churn in Europe, you’ll have a giant uphill battle on your hands.

Look back at what your executives have been saying in all-hands meetings and announcements. Those “staff@” emails you dutifully skim, then promptly delete? Pull those out of your trash folder. A little digging should uncover some gold nuggets.

Don’t automatically trash your idea if it’s not an obvious fit, though. Examine it from different angles and see if there’s a way to connect it to big-picture goals. Similarly, don’t think this means there’s no room for innovation. Sometimes all it takes is a little re-framing or fine-tuning to take an idea from “unrelated” to “relevant.”

2. Demonstrate an understanding of the problem space

People won’t buy into the solution you’re proposing unless they agree with your definition of the problem, and are convinced you’ve explored it thoroughly. For example, the problem framing exercise in the Atlassian Team Playbook prompts you to think through:

  • Who – Who actually has this problem? Have you validated that the problem is real? Can you prove it?
  • What – What is the nature of the problem? What research or supporting evidence do you have?
  • Why – Why is the problem worth solving? What’s the impact on customers or internal teams?
  • Where – Where does this problem arise? Have you/your team observed this problem in its natural habitat

For extra sizzle when you deliver the pitch, humanize the problem with a story. Develop a fictional character your audience can relate to and talk about the impact this problem has on their life. Then refer back to them when you introduce your idea for solving it.

3. Craft a compelling, succinct summary of your idea

You’ve probably heard of the “elevator pitch”: a summary of your idea that is short enough to be told during an elevator ride (hypothetically speaking). Now is your chance to create one to use as you’re socializing your idea informally and when formally presenting it to the decision-makers in your organization. Feel free to use this handy template:

For [TARGET CUSTOMER/AUDIENCE] who want to [NEED / DESIRE], [PROJECT IDEA] is a [MARKET CATEGORY] that [BENEFIT].

For example… “For forward-thinking readers who want to get their biggest and boldest project ideas prioritized, this guide is a resource that will equip them with the strategies and techniques they need to succeed.”

You might even boil it down to a tag line or a short phrase that sounds like a headline. Resist the urge to compare your project to well-known products or services, however. This is your idea. Don’t start your pitch by giving most of the credit to someone else. Besides, nobody wants to hear about “the Netflix of <fill in the blank>” anymore.

4. Outline the project’s timeline and the resources you’ll need

How to be a successful project owner (without micromanaging)

Mapping out milestones and an estimated completion date shows that you’ve thought the idea through and are ready to get started. Don’t fake your way through this part, though. You don’t want to sell a timeline you can’t deliver on. If you’re estimating the project will require 30 hours of an accountant’s time, be sure to gut-check that with an actual accountant. Same goes for any budgetary resources. They’ll ask you how you arrived at your numbers, so make sure you’re ready with a satisfying answer. That said, keep this part of your proposal short and simple – just be prepared to offer more detail if they ask.

5. Explain how you’ll measure success

“Measure” is the key word here. Your boss and other stakeholders will want to hear numbers like estimated ROI and targets for other metrics (e.g., a 10% gain in market share). If numbers just aren’t a thing for this project, explain how you’ll gather qualitative data to determine whether the project was a success. Will you monitor social media for positive mentions of your brand? Gather feedback from employees about a change to company policy? Make sure you know which signals will tell you you’re on the right track.

6. Be candid about the downsides and any unknowns

It’s ok if there are some unanswered questions, or assumptions that need to be validated, or risks that need to be accounted for. Sometimes it’s simply not worth chasing down every detail until you know the project is a “go.” Just be open about it so stakeholders aren’t surprised later. Project owners at Atlassian often use a method called the Project Poster to lay out any downsides or uncertainties alongside the upsides. (There’s a Project Poster page template for Confluence; or, you can recreate it in MS Word or Google Docs based on the screenshot below.)

Image of project poster with questions and answer boxes.

7. Avoid slide decks if you can

Side decks are a pain to put together and take up time you’d probably rather spend working on the project itself. In many cases, if you really know your material, you’ll be able to pitch your idea without slides and perhaps even without notes. Depending on the scope of the project, you might be able to pitch it to your boss in your regular 1-on-1 meetings.

7 tips for better 1-on-1 meetings

Of course, if your organization has a strong culture of slide presentations, this might not be the smartest time to go against that norm. (Especially if your idea already involves making significant changes. In that case, it’s wise to meet people where they are and then gently pull them around to your point of view.) So if you must use slides, make them look sharp by employing your company’s brand font and color palette. And populate them mostly with charts, diagrams, and other images. If you put a lot of words on the slides, your audience will devote more attention to reading them than listening to you.

8. Inject a bit of “wow”

Show how this project can go beyond merely satisfying customers. Can you exceed their expectations by making the deliverable dead-simple to use? Including a bit of playfulness that makes them smile? If nothing comes to mind right away, try a technique called empathy mapping, which helps you see the world from their perspective – which, in turn, should lead to an “aha!” moment. Picture your target customer or user persona:

  • What are their worries and aspirations? What matters to them most?
  • What are they hearing from friends, colleagues, and other influencers?
  • What is their environment like?
  • How do they behave toward others? What attitudes to they express in public vs. in private?
  • What are their obstacles?
  • What do they stand to gain?
Tip

Download a free empathy mapping worksheet here.

Pulling it all together

Aim for a pitch that is well organized and tells the story of your idea not just in facts and figures, but also in human terms. Highlight who will be affected and the impact this project will have on them. Talk about how it will help the people in the room reach their goals.

Be sure to share supporting materials like your project poster, empathy map, or elevator pitch so everyone can reference them later. A page on your organization’s intranet (e.g., Confluence) or a Google Doc work great for this purpose because people can stay abreast of changes through push notifications, which saves you the trouble of sending email updates.

Oh – and remember to smile. (Just be sure to check your teeth for spinach first.)

The change-maker’s guide to pitching your project idea