How to Get Thumbs-up on Your Ideas

Excerpts from:

IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers by Sam Harrison, HOW Books 2010

12 pages

Are far too many of your concepts and ideas being put down or picked over by managers or clients? If so, step back and take a look at how you’re selling those ideas.

After all, ideas don’t sell themselves, regardless of how brilliant they might be. In fact, the bolder the idea, the more it needs selling – you’re asking decision makers to move out of their comfort zones and try something different

Two ways to raise your idea-approval ratios are to involve clients in the idea-development process and include story-telling in your presentations. To help in those two areas, here are a dozen tips from my new book, IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers:

1. “If they feel they birthed it, they can’t kill it.”

That advice was given to David Schimmel, And Partners creative director, early in his career at a Miami ad agency.

“The agency owner encouraged us to remove our egos from the presentation and let the client take credit for the idea,” says Schimmel. “His philosophy was to do everything possible to enable clients to take ownership of the process.

“I’ve used his advice at And Partners. We allow for client feedback at all stages. This insures client participation and buy-in. Waiting to have the big reveal of an idea at the end of an eight-week process never gives us a positive outcome.

“If you truly collaborate with your client, there’s a good chance you’ll sell your strongest ideas without having them watered down.”

2. Collaborating with clients.

Many IdeaSellers build buy-in by collaborating with clients during ideation.

“When I used to go into presentations saying ‘I have an idea,’ I would make it too personal and precious,” says Trish Berrong, creative director at Hallmark Cards. “Going into a presentation with the spark of something – and letting the group contribute to the energy of the idea and make it their own – is almost always more successful for us.”

Because of this success, Berrong says her team often holds work sessions with clients rather than a series of formal presentations.

“This doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to defend great ideas,” she says, “or that I don’t recognize the difference between collaborating and ‘committeeing’ the life out an idea.

“Group mind – wiring brains together and elevating thoughts – and group think – chaining brains together and sinking to the lowest point – are two very different processes.”

3. One brick at a time.

Hallmark’s Trish Berrong performs with an improv comedy group during her off hours and finds the experience helps when collaborating with clients.

“With improv, you’re working with other performers to quickly come up with ideas,” she says, “and the process almost always results in something greater than any one person could conceive alone.

“And there’s a sense of play in the work – which immediately lowers defenses
and puts everybody on the same side.

“It’s great when client meetings and presentations are like that. When you leave the room, you have The Idea – and everyone owns it, everyone champions it. It’s bigger than any one person – it belongs to the group.

“At my best, I remember I’m not building the wall – I’m bringing a brick.”

4. Have an action plan to involve decision makers.

Before idea-generation for your next project, anticipate steps you’ll be taking from start to finish. Decide how to involve decision makers in any or all steps.



Decision Maker Involvement:__________________________________



Decision Maker Involvement:__________________________________



Decision Maker Involvement:__________________________________


5. Hitch your idea to a star.

Our team wanted to sell high-end stationary and home desk items using a magalog – the combination of magazine and direct mail catalog – with editorial content as well as products.

To fund this high-end project, we had to convince decision makers of its value – so we began by familiarizing them with the magalog genre.

We created a glide path for acceptance by hitching our ideas to stars. Before revealing our prototypes, we showed decision makers samples of successful magalogs, like the ones from Patagonia and Neiman Marcus.

We walked decision makers through those catalogs, discussing product positioning, editorial approaches and marketing techniques. We shared their sales figures, garnered from industry publications and our extrapolations.

These preliminary showings made the eventual selling of our ideas easier and faster. When we presented our prototypes in following weeks, decision makers were already at “understand” and even “accept” positions on the Buyers Bench (see page 26).

Facing the tough sell of an unfamiliar idea? Find success stories with approaches similar to your concept – in the same industry or a distant field. Use these to educate and guide decision makers.

6. Shine your own stars.

You can often sell an idea by hitching it to stars from other industries, as discussed on the previous page. Or perhaps a lucky star from your own past can help sell the new idea.

That’s how Stefan Mumaw of Reign Agency pitched unfamiliar TV spots to a retail client. The concept revolved around a funny character that seemed a stretch for the client’s comfort level.

“They were far more comfortable doing a ‘Nike-esque’ spot,” Mumaw says, “something that showed the passion and athleticism of tennis players.”

So Mumaw pulled stars from the agency’s past campaigns. “We showed examples of ads that stretched other clients in new directions,” he says. “And when we discussed the financial success of those leaps of creativity, the decision makers agreed to do the spots. Our track record made the difference.”

7. Tell a story.

“Tell me a story” are four of the most important words in our language, says novelist Pat Conroy. Storytelling connects us as humans, reminding us of our common bonds.

That’s why storytelling is jet fuel for presentations.

“There’s something primal about stories,” says Lisa Maulhardt of Stone Yamashita. “Aural, verbal, written and visual stories help us make sense of our world. I’ve heard that selling is the same as leading. Since telling a story is a form of leading, presentations benefit from storytelling.

“By using stories in presentations, we’re enticing people to follow along. Stories say come this way, take that hill, believe in something better.”

8. Pitch = Story

“A pitch is a story,” says Stefan Mumaw, designer and author. “When we pitch a client, we are telling the story of the idea – but, more importantly, we are telling the story of what the idea means to their consumers.”

The deeper the story, explains Mumaw, the deeper the connection to the idea.

“We pitched a sporting-goods retailer on an ad campaign about the passion tennis players have for the game,” he says. “But our idea was to notch up the passion to an addiction.’

The agency pitched the idea by telling a story about an addicted tennis player. “We told what he does, how he thinks,” says Mumaw. “At the end of our story, we attached the client’s product to the same principle.

“Without the story, our campaign idea lacked depth or life. The campaign tells a story to the consumer, of course. But without us telling that story to the client in the pitch, the idea would have never reached the consumer.”

9. Make your client the hero.

“I once heard Nelson Mandela talk to a group of very influential folks about investing in South Africa,” film produce Peter Guber told Best Life. “Not once did he mention rates of return, gross profits or tax benefits.”

Mandela simply told the story of his country. “Sure, the investors would pat their pockets,” said Guber, “but that’s not what they were talking about when they left the room. They were abuzz with the impact their investment would have on future generations.

“That’s the key to effective storytelling. Make your listeners feel not only generous but also like the heroes of a great story.”

10. Ride the carousel.

Remember the Mad Men scene where Don Draper pitches Kodak executives about the company’s revolutionary new slide projector?

Kodak called the projector’s slide holder a “wheel.” Draper changes the name to a “carousel,” describing it as a childlike time machine.

With tender words and family snapshots, Draper uses the carousel to tell a personal story that renders everyone speechless, a story that passionately conveys the spirit of his idea.

“Draper communicates the very essence of the idea in his own life,” says designer Stefan Mumaw. “He tells a personal story. If we want our clients to be passionate about our idea, we have to first own that passion.”

11. Share yourself.

In one of my workshops, a creative director told how she punches up pitches with stories about her experiences in a community theater.

“I talk about forgetting my lines in The Glass Menagerie to underscore the importance of remembering customer service,” she said. “I describe being in a scene with rambling dialogue to punctuate the need for focused copy.”

Sharing personal episodes helps illustrate your points – and adds a human touch. Not self-serving monologs, of course. Just a couple of short stories from sports, hobbies, everyday life.

The creative director’s examples worked especially well because they were also self-deprecating. Some of the best lines in my talks – ones I use over and again – are small stories where I poke fun at myself.

“I always laugh the hardest at the stuff you see in day-to-day life,” says actor Luke Wilson. “It’s great when somebody can tell a joke that really makes you laugh hard, but to see some kind of personal interaction that no one could write is so good.”

People like people who appear human. And who don’t take themselves so seriously.

12. Pick personal stories for your next pitch:

Your idea:____________________________________


Problem it solves: _____________________________


Stories to bring issues and ideas to life:



2. ______________________________________________




Sam Harrison is a speaker, workshop leader and writer on creativity-related topics. The above information was excerpted with permission from his new book, IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers. His website is