The perfect pitch

Suvi Nenonen explains what to keep in mind when you next pitch your version of the future.

Everyone is a salesperson. Regardless if you are self-employed or working for a large corporate, people at all organisational levels are pitching for something. 

The objectives of these pitches vary dramatically – raising capital for a new venture, rallying troops to implement a new strategy, proposing a new development project, asking clients to try out a new product – but in essence, they are all the same. You are asking someone to commit resources (money, time, emotional energy, people) to an uncertain future. So, what should you keep in mind when you next pitch your version of the future?

The problem with the future is that there just are no facts about it. We can make predictions about the future based on trends, but cold hard empirical facts are always about the present or the past. Therefore, a “fact-based” pitch about the future is, by definition, an oxymoron. However, the lack of empirical facts does not mean that you should convince people about your idea in an ear-deafening silence: you can use stories and value equations to make your case. 

Stories evoke emotion and are remembered

Even though many stories are about the real (“when I went fishing”), spiced up (“you should have seen the one that got away”), or completely fictional past (“once upon a time”), it is entirely possible to tell stories about the future. And this is exactly what you should be doing when talking about your big idea. 

Storytelling is the oldest form of conveying information – and thus our brain is configured to take in, remember, and retell stories. What is even better, stories are capable of evoking emotion, and research shows that emotion is the fuel that encourage us to take the first step in the change journey and to keep going when the going gets tough.

There are two basic story structures that have been tried and tested in various contexts:

• Dramatic structure: It is particularly easy for audiences to follow and remember stories that follow the classic dramatic story arc: setting the scene, the raising of tensions, climax, and then finally a resolution. Classical stories often also have recognisable characters: protagonist, hero, villain and a wise mentor. What, or who, would be the villain of your story? Even though it is tempting to present yourself as the hero, please remember that sometimes anti-hero protagonists are more likeable – and thus more effective in encouraging people to follow your lead.

• “I have a dream”: Alternatively, many great speeches have followed a structure that juxtaposes the (nasty) present with the (considerably better) future. You start by describing the current state, then paint the picture about the bright new future – while trying to make the gap between the present and the future as large and motivating as possible. After this, you repeat the present vs the future comparison a couple of times, ending with a vivid description of the future and a clear call for action: what should your audience do next to create this future. 


Numbers appeal to the rational side

A word of warning, though. If your pitch is all about the story without any figures to back it up, you are probably going to be dismissed as fluff. Numbers are needed – but how to generate them when you do not have facts about the future?

Usually the best strategy is to front up with the truth – that nobody has exact figures about the future, and neither do you – and to explain your business case as value equations. 

In a nutshell, value equations reverse-engineer the standard business case or market size estimation. They show the logic behind your calculations: what are the elements that you have multiplied to come up with the final figure, and what assumptions you have made during the process? 

Whereas the bottom lines of business case calculations are easy to dismiss, value equations are effective tools to engage your audience in a dialogue. As everyone in the room knows that the numbers presented are neither empirical facts nor fragments of your imagination, you can discuss every component dispassionately. Such a dialogue tends to create commitment to your venture, and you might even learn new things that enable you to fine-tune your value equations further. 

Similar to storytelling, communicating value equations effectively requires that you know your audience, and adjust your message accordingly. 

Nobody is going to get excited about how much this initiative benefits you; each stakeholder is first and foremost interested in their own wallet and wellbeing. Therefore, make sure that you have done your homework and customised value equations for each major stakeholder group. 


Associate Professor Suvi Nenonen
works at the University of Auckland Business School’s Graduate School of Management and teaches in the MBA programmes. Her research focuses on business model innovation and market innovation.

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