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What Your Survival Instincts Know About Pitching Ideas

What Your Survival Instincts Know About Pitching Ideas
Published July 21, 2015 by Carmel Hagen
So you have a big idea—or maybe your team does—and the time has come to put it to the test. Specifically, the test of The Pitch, that distressingly concise opportunity to walk into a room with a blueprint, and walk out with a real foundation, be it funding, client sign-off, or even a simple thumbs-up from your boss. But despite the exciting chance to transition your idea from concept to reality, the prospect of having to sell that idea can generate feelings far less pleasant. After all, how the hell do you sell?

In certain industries, there are prescribed answers to that question, and all you need to find them is a search button. But if, like many creative types, you’ve found they only skim the surface of what you’re hunting for, your question might be misdirected. Do you really need answers on how to sell—or do you need to get sold on being uncomfortable? Let me explain.

Putting ideas under scrutiny is scary business for anyone, and almost always synonymous with vulnerability, a word whose definition reads like a veritable checklist of unsavory scenarios: Capable or susceptible to being hurt, as by a weaponopen to criticism or attackfrom the latin "to wound." So if consciously opening yourself up to these things makes your guts reel from terror, don’t fret, that’s just your survival instinct talking. 

And you should listen to it.

Because the thing is, that survival instinct is actually saying a lot more than just “run away!” Somewhere past its first nervous chirp is a deep intelligence, one that’s pretty good at pinpointing where your weaknesses lie. And despite all those internet tips on perfect hooks and seamless storytelling, all great pitches are built upon an honest dissection of discomforts; a simple but categorical confrontation of vulnerabilities that leave your idea subject to rejection.

Somewhere past its first nervous chirp is a deep intelligence, one that’s pretty good at pinpointing where your weaknesses lie.

So how do you get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and use these feelings to your advantage? All pitches are unique, but the good news is, the ways they freak us out are not. Presenting an idea will produce some very predictable forms of squirmishness, and building your best pitch ever, is as simple as looking them in the eye. Here, we lay out five of the most common types of pitch-prep discomforts (and what each type is trying to tell you), so you can confront your own vulnerabilities and walk away with a win.  

1. I’m worried my idea won’t make sense.

If you’re feeling queasy about the clarity of your pitch, that’s your clue to consider two critical things. First, the structure and flow of the information you’re presenting, and secondly, the specific chemistry of the audience you’re presenting it to.

While it may feel awkward at first, willing friends or colleagues provide the perfect sounding board for safely working out any kinks related to flow or structure. Just share your pitch, then ask for gaps in your logic that need bridging. Once you reach the point where the dots connect without a big follow-up Q and A session, your fear should be replaced with a quiet confidence that will go far on the big day.   

Unfortunately, friendly pitch-testers are rarely a fair representation of your final audience, which is why you’ll probably still feel nervous until you do some research into who, exactly, you need to win over on P-Day. Will there be a finance person in the room that won’t give a green-light before understanding budget requirements? Researching your audience will help you understand the goals and objectives that drive their individual decision-making, and uncover the easiest path to “yes.”

2. I’m worried this idea is terrible, and sharing it could adversely affect my future.

Everyone's seen a presentation that could have used some more work, but thanks to the presenter's deep excitement, those details melted away. Everyone’s also seen a pitch where the information seemed reasonable enough, but the presenter hadn’t convinced themselves that it was a good idea, leaving their audience feeling wary as well.

Experiencing uncertainty about your idea’s quality is a normal part of the prep process, and addressing it is often a simple exercise in reconnecting with your passion. What is it about this idea that lights you up inside? What is there to be gained by executing it, or lost by not executing it? What are the selfish reasons that you want this to happen, like getting to flex new creative muscles, or even just landing a raise? Whether you’re pitching something that you’re personally ecstatic about, or even just nobly presenting an idea on behalf of a bigger team, a firm hold on your very personal motivations for selling it through will provide the fuel for a powerful pitch—and even if the idea is ultimately turned down, you won’t gain anything but respect for sharing it so passionately. 

3. I’m scared someone will challenge my idea, and I won’t know what to do.

Almost all pitches are met with questions, but getting over the fear of being shaken by them takes just two things: Research and a realistic understanding of what you’re really required to know.

A great exercise is to practice your pitch in front of a friend, then ask them to overplay the role of a cynical VC or know-it-all. They’ll have fun pretending to be a jerk, and you’ll get to jot down any question you don’t know the answer to. If any of their interrogations could actually ground some abstract pitch prose with more concrete theoretical outcomes, consider building in some more statistics, quotes, or case studies. But if not, remember that you actually don't need to provide answers to everything on the spot. An honest admission of just not knowing something is rarely judged with contempt, so never feel afraid to say, "That's a great question that I don't know the answer to, let me do some research and get back to you later today."

Remember that you actually don't need to provide answers to everything on the spot.

4. I’m scared they’ll say "no."

Worrying about rejection is probably the most common source of fear when pitching an idea, and also the most personal to pinpoint. First and foremost, fear of the word "no" is your clue to actually spend time considering that outcome: What happens if you do get turned down?  

Sometimes this question has very real consequences, like having to execute a colleague's idea you think is inferior, or having to go back to the drawing board entirely. But sometimes, you're just fearing the sting of not getting what you want—and you're probably missing the big picture. The perks of pitching are much more diverse than just getting to "yes," and include lessons for all types of future endeavors. What can the pitching process teach you about human nature, self-awareness, or bravery? Acknowledging how much more there is to gain from pitching than a "yes" will help disarm your fear of hearing "no," and help you uncover different types of success within the whole process. 

5. I’m scared they’ll say "yes."

Agonizing over a pitch gone right might sound silly, but it's not uncommon to experience some pretty deep discomfort over what could happen if your pitch goes perfectly. That voice is definitely trying to tell you something, and plays the critical role of ensuring you're set up for success. Are you ready to lead this potential undertaking? Are you being realistic about the resources it requires? Are you prepared to execute the idea, not just daydream about it?

The leap from concept to reality can be a bittersweet time for creatives, because it's often when the heavy lifting starts. You can start to deal with these feelings by double-checking your resource requirements, and reminding yourself that people won't expect you to know everything or to not need any help. You probably wouldn't have pitched this idea if it had already been done (and you definitely wouldn't have gotten a "yes" if they didn't believe in you), so take comfort in the fact that you'll be able to tackle this challenge a day at a time. Just like you proved to yourself with this pitch, you're capable of more than you know. After all, being uncomfortable is your most obvious indication of learning and growth, so enjoy the new territory—you earned it.

More about Carmel Hagen

Carmel Hagen is the founder and CEO of Sweet Revenge Sugar Co., a company developing mindfully delicious alternatives to refined sugar. For creative kitchen inspiration and mixologist tips, follow Sweet Revenge on Instagram at @enjoyrevenge or visit

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