Project Management Institute

It's how you say it

Selling an idea is no different from selling any other product. You have to use the language persuasively and be sensitive to the environment that surrounds your “pitch.”

by John Sullivan, Contributing Editor

IN THE FIRST CHAPTER of Swim With the Sharks (Without Being Eaten Alive) (Bailan tine, 1989), Harvey MacKay defines marketing as “the art of creating conditions by which the buyer convinces himself.” He's used that definition to sell everything from envelopes to baseball tickets. It illustrates a significant concept: presentation is as important as product. That's especially true when your “product” is an idea.

Despite the claims, no product sells itself. No idea or project solution will sell itself, either. You're the person who has to persuade the project manager that your idea will get the job done.

What you say when presenting your idea to the project manager influences his or her decision. The communication professionals call this concept framing. “Framing is basically a linguistic device that helps define reality” says Dr. Louis Cusella, professor of organizational communication at the University of Dayton. He explains reality as “our view of the world.”

Research has shown that supervisors resist subordinate input when they perceive the input to be “one up.” A one-up statement “defines the world to the exclusion of any other option available,” according to Dr. Cusella. Supervisors (and project managers) tend to perceive one-up statements as threats to their authority That's because one-up statements restrict the options available to people in defining their reality. No project manager will approve something that even resembles a threat to his or her authority.

To avoid being perceived as a threat, Dr. Cusella recommends proposing an idea using statements that structure a relationship but don't dominate it. For example, don't say “This is how it should be done”; say “This is one of the ways we could go.” The second statement implies that you have considered several ideas and selected what you feel is the best one. (If you haven't considered several ideas, it is unethical to say you have.)

Additional research found decision-making to follow certain patterns based on the expected outcomes of the decision. Some decision-makers will seek certainty when faced with the prospect of loss. These same decision-makers seem more willing to accept uncertain options when faced with the possibility of gain. “In most organizations,” says Dr. Cusella, “things are reduced to gain or loss.”


So, will your idea result in a loss or a gain? If you want the project manager to take less risk or want the outcome to be negative, frame the decision options in terms of loss. For example, say “There's a 20 percent chance we'll lose.” This has a more restrictive nature— a kind of “preventive” approach. It suggests the prospect of loss and focuses the project manager on the “certainty” of the situation.

But if you want the project manager to take more risk, frame your pitch in terms of gain. Saying “The new system will increase compliance by 80 percent” focuses the project manager on the potential benefits of your idea. It has a more encouraging nature and is more of a call to action.

But framing alone won't win approval. Here are some basic techniques to consider when pitching an idea.

Realize That You Are Selling. Follow a basic sales presentation model when presenting your solution. Show the solution's features and benefits. Answer objections. Then close the presentation. My favorite closing line: “Is there any reason we can't do this?”

Gather Some Evidence. You need hard facts to make your case. Specify benefits in terms of the two real-world constraints: time and money. Any project manager will listen to you if you can save either (or both) of these. Three key words to use: Faster, Better, Cheaper.

Propose a Trial Period. If you can't get complete approval for your idea, get temporary approval. Ask for a conditional agreement and agree to evaluate things after the trial period. This can often lead to a permanent change.

Go Last. Every ad agency knows the last presenter has the best chance of landing the account. When your idea is being evaluated against others, try to schedule your presentation last. You have the advantage of knowing the competition and you can tailor your pitch to explain why your idea is better.

GIVEYOUR IDEAS a good pitch but don't be discouraged when one isn't accepted. Some ideas will never get approved no matter how well they are framed or presented. Just keep working and keep thinking of new ideas. Remember: The only way to get a good idea approved is to have a lot of good ideas. ∎

John Sullivan is a senior program planner for the Northrop Grumman Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, and an active member of PMI‘s Central Ohio Chapter.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • May 1997



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