NOTE: Even though this article is written for getting executives to sign off on your event idea, I have also used the 11 steps outlined below to successfully pitch event sponsorships or marketing partnerships to executives.
Business executives are an odd bunch. They are uber-competitive. Think strategically. Almost always have a plan. Don’t mind taking risks. Love being at the center of attention. Get bored easily. Multitask to a fault. Commit errors of commission but rarely omission. Hate excuses. Great at internal politics. Don’t make the same mistakes twice. And are good at reading people but are hard to read themselves.
All these traits make them fairly intimidating to approach, especially if you are asking them to give you something (like time or money or resources). And if you do find yourself in that position, they become as critical and nitpicky as your painstaking 8th grade English teacher (though I can still probably diagram a sentence … thank you, Mrs. Henderson).
It’s not their fault. In fact, it’s what they are supposed to do … critically vet every idea that comes their way and judge it using the organization’s needs as the yardstick.
However, knowing this doesn’t make it any easier when you are trying to get in front of an executive to pitch your event idea. In fact, more than a few executives still see events as a cost rather than a value-add or a profit center, which just adds to the pressure.
So how do you get in front of a reluctant executive? What can you do to prepare your pitch? And what specifically do you say that will get C-level sign-off on your event idea?
I formulated these 11 steps as a marketing executive – when I pitched execs from funded startups to Fortune 500s on everything from events to ad campaigns – and I promise you that they will give you more than a fighting chance to get your idea green-lighted.
Step #1 – Determine how the event supports organizational goals
Obviously every organization is concerned with its bottom line, so costs and profits are certainly something you absolutely need to consider regarding formulating your event idea.
However, there are myriad other goals that organizations may have, including:
- Customer/member acquisition
- Customer/member retention
- Increased market share
- More funding/capital
- Increased shareholder value
- Improved customer support
- Enhanced business/organizational efficiency
- Increased donations
- Increased lobbying leverage
- Improved public perception/support
- Wider brand recognition
First, you should reach out to mid-level, director-level and VP-level employees of the organization to find out what are the 2-3 primary goals inside of the organization. In addition, you should also speak with customers, stakeholders, suppliers, vendors, members and any other strategic person who has special knowledge as to what drives the organization forward (because sometimes outside perception is often as telling as inside knowledge … who knows, as you may be able to tell the executive something they don’t already know).
Once you have this knowledge, you MUST align one or more of the organization’s goals with the intended outcomes of your event.
Step #2 – Learn about the executive’s priorities and preferences
Yes, an executive’s goals should (and usually do) align with that of their organization’s. But executives also have their own pet goals, and their priorities may change from quarter-to-quarter or, during times of duress, week-to-week.
In addition, it often depends on the type executive you are pitching as to their immediate priorities.
- Chief Executive Officers often are focused on revenues, trends and new opportunities/ideas.
- Chief Operations Officers’ concerns are more day-to-day and tactical.
- Chief Financial Officers are laser-focused on revenues, investments, capital and funding.
- Chief Technology and Chief Information Officers concern themselves with maintaining and enhancing the organization’s IT resources.
- Chief Marketing Officers focus on increasing brand awareness as well as lead generation, PR and sales.
- General Councils are the top attorney in the business and focus on protecting the organization’s assets as well as keeping it out of court.
Based on the executive you are pitching, you should again interview those people who have access to them and learn about their priorities as well as how they like to be pitched. Are they more introverted and talk less while they formulate opinions or questions? Are they more outgoing, dominate the conversation and pepper you with constant questions? Do they want to see you take command of the room? Or do they want you to be more deferential? You should know the answers to these questions before you move forward.
Step #3 – Grease the wheels to get a meeting
It’s not easy to get on an executive’s calendar. They are usually super busy and have many people demanding their time with pressing issues. And you have two things working against you: what you will be presenting to them is speculative, and they don’t know you from Adam/Eve.
So you need to pave the way with some professional politicking. First, vet the idea with your boss and work with them to refine the idea. That way you get buy-in from your most immediate superior.
Next, get to know the staff surrounding the executive. If they have an administrative assistant, they are usually the guardian of the executive’s phone and the keeper of their calendar. As such, they are instrumental to you in getting some facetime, so talk with them frequently to see how they can fit you into a small window of time (all you need is 10-15 minutes).
A good strategy is to tell them you are super-flexible and that if they have a meeting that gets cancelled, you would be available almost immediately to present your idea. Yes, it may be very short term and requires you to be prepared at a moment’s notice, but it also could be the difference between seeing them this month or seeing them next October.
Step #4 – Formulate 2-4 value propositions
This marketing concept is fitting to use here because you are essentially putting together a marketing and sales campaign to convert one sale.
A value proposition is a core attributes of what you are selling and clearly defines how your audience benefits from this attribute. According to marketing guru David Aaker, a value proposition can be a functional/tangible benefit, an emotional benefit (making your intended audience feel something) or self-expressive (helps your audience express themselves or their identity). Your event pitch value propositions should include at least:
- How the event fills a need/void or solves a problem
- Who the event is for and how it specifically benefits them
- How the event delivers value to the organization
You should come up with 2-4 value proposition benefits and your entire pitch should be built around them. In addition, they should be at the top of the 1-page leave-behind document you will provide to the exec (more on this later).
Step #5 – Develop realistic forecasts
One thing executives despise is inexactitude, especially when it comes to money. They are decision-making specialists, and so they seek out as much hard data as possible to make the most informed decision.
This means you need to supply it to them in relevant spots. Don’t get consumed with trying to put together comprehensive estimates for everything. The first pitch isn’t the place for massive spreadsheets.
Instead, focus on key numbers like potential revenues, attendee counts, marketing reach and costs. If you can get your hands on data from similar events, this would be a real coup because you can then bolster your own estimates with actual data in the real world (which execs covet).
Oh, and avoid pie-in-the-sky speculation like this: “If we only get say 10% of the entire target audience to sign up, we would make a bajillion in revenues.” Spit balling numbers like this doesn’t make you sound smart … it makes you sound desperate and that you didn’t do your homework.
Step #6 – Craft a working theme
During your pitch, you want your event to come to life so the executive can picture it in their mind. To do this effectively, you want to paint a picture with words and ideas and give them something tangible to wrap their head around.
Visualizing concepts isn’t one of those traits that all executives excel at. So for starters you need to develop a working theme for your event that starts to paint that picture.
Again, don’t feel like you have to come up with a perfectly formed idea that you can implement tomorrow. Your working theme should instead paint a picture of your general thinking and direction you want to take with the event (and possibly include concepts from your value propositions).
I would recommend to come up with 3 working event themes and position them as “potential/initial theme ideas” to your executive. This way they don’t get hung up on just one and don’t think that this is fixed in stone. Just make sure they are themes you can live with if they do get hung up on one, because it sucks to get buy-in on something you don’t really feel is ideal.
NOTE: Some people believe you shouldn’t go to this level of detail, but when I have been pitched event ideas, the pitches that have helped me visualize the event theme, content or cause got C-level sign-off more frequently than those that didn’t. Just saying’.
Step #7 – Compose a very brief pitch
Executives don’t want to hear all the details on initial pitches, and they may never want a full download on all the details (as they often delegate the minutiae to staff). And as we discussed before, they don’t have much time and are used to vetting ideas based on a thumbnail sketch.
Considering all this, plan on keeping your pitch to under 10 minutes but prep for another 20 minutes of Q&A. During the pitch, you should lead with your value propositions and overall rationale for the event, followed by your target audience, working theme ideas, forecasted numbers/data, and you should tie all this back to the goals of the organization and the priorities of the executive.
There are several do’s and don’ts that you should also follow during your pitch:
- DO share enough information that they understand the main points and concepts.
- DON’T share so much that they get hung up on a small point or idea. This includes not sharing things like potential venues, speakers/performers, food-and-beverage option, etc. (unless one of these things is integral to your event idea).
- DO bring along visual aids if they help (one or two would suffice .. anything more is overkill).
- DON’T prepare a big PowerPoint deck … or any PowerPoint deck, for that matter (more in this in a moment).
- DO practice the pitch both to yourself and to your boss and other peers until it is memorized.
- DON’T sound like you memorized it … that is, be relaxed and show you have control over the room and your idea.
- DO maintain eye contact the entire time.
- DON’T get flustered if the executive is critical (some execs try to intimidate you to test your resolve).
- DO read the executive’s body language and act accordingly.
- DON’T leave the room until you have discussed and settled on “next steps” with the exec.
Step #8 – Anticipate objections and compose rebuttals
Prior to the pitch, you should play devil’s advocate and try to poke as many holes in your event idea as you can. Be as critical as possible, because most executives either won’t hold back in their reservations to your idea or, even worse, may do this silently in their head and decide against your idea without even voicing their objections.
What I recommend is to write down as many objections as you can think of and then have your peers also write down their objections. Once you have this list, script a rebuttal to each one of these so you are prepared for almost anything.
There’s some disagreement regarding brining up objections yourself and proactively answering them during your pitch. A best practice here is, if there are a few obvious objections that all your peers brought up, then consider mentioning those in your pitch. What you don’t want to do is plant objections in the executive’s head that could shoot down your own idea before it can take flight.
Step #9 – Create a 1-page “business plan” handout
Some executives may hear enough of your pitch to make a “Go/No-Go” decision on the spot, but most will need some time to digest what you have presented before they can register a decision.
To help them decide in your favor, you should prepare a single-page leave-behind for them that outlines your pitch and includes your value propositions, forecasts/data, working theme ideas and how they tie back to organizational goals. It should also include your contact information if they have additional questions after the meeting.
Think of this document like a 1-page business plan that gives the highlights of your event idea. It should be quickly scannable and should not take more than a minute or two to digest.
Step #10 – Have a follow-up strategy
Don’t be surprised if you hear crickets a few days or even a few weeks after your pitch. Your event idea is probably not near the top of the C-level executive’s priority list, and it may take some time for them to return to the idea or warm up to it.
In fact, the length of time it takes to get C-level sign-off on your event may be directly proportional to the size/scale of your proposed event. For example, getting approval on a small employee retreat or holiday party will probably take vastly less time than a 2,000-person customer/user conference.
This is where pitching events takes on the characteristics of a sales cycle. Most salespeople never expect a prospect to say “yes” in the first pitch or presentation, but rather after a more lengthy courting process with lots of back and forth and negotiating.
As such, you should put together a follow-up strategy after your pitch that includes periodic check-ins with the executive and even follow-up meetings to talk about refinements to your idea.
Persistence is key here, because if you stay visible and remain on the execs radar, you are much more likely to get your event approved. And don’t worry if you feel like you are pestering the executive, as most of them tend to like people who are driven (because they see something of themselves in you).
Step #11 – If put off, ask for the “No”
Executives are like many of us in that we don’t like to deliver bad news. If this is the case, you may find that the exec is avoiding you, reluctant to schedule a follow-up meeting or is vague or indecisive about moving forward with your idea.
If you find your follow-up strategy is getting you nowhere after a 3-4 months, you should call the executive and either speak with them or leave them a voicemail.
In your call, you should be gracious and thank them for their time and opportunity to pitch your idea. You should also say that it sounds like either your idea missed the mark or that the time wasn’t right to pursue it, but that you look forward to approaching them with future event ideas that can help the organization achieve its goals.
I have used this “secret” weapon probably hundreds of times on pitches that I thought were close to dead, and it has resurrected more than a few. Here’s why…
- If the exec truly isn’t interested, you save yourself lots of time and make it easy for them to tell you “no”. This way you don’t annoy them with continued inquiries and leave the door open for future pitches.
- If they are interested but haven’t responded in positive fashion for one of many reasons, this will incentivize them to reply. Oh, and this truly does work … in fact, you may find them apologizing that they didn’t get back to you sooner because they have been busy with [insert important executive stuff here].
Finally, when getting executives to sign-off on event ideas, just make sure to be yourself, act like you’ve done this before (even if you haven’t) and focus on how your idea benefits the organization.