Pitching Creative Ideas

IdeaConnection Interview with Sam Harrison, author of Zing!, IdeaSpotting, and IdeaSelling
By Vern Burkhardt
"If you can't describe your concept without having to take a breath, you probably haven't nailed your theme." IdeaSelling, page 133

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Would you remind our readers about the 5-step method for generating ideas which you described in Zing!?

photo of Sam HarrisonSam Harrison: Sure, Vern – and thanks for having me at IdeaConnection again. I'm a big fan of your content and honored to again be included on your site.

cover of ZingIn Zing!, I express my five-step creative process using the mnemonic of "Explore Freedom, Embrace Life." The first step is Explore, which is personal, hands-on research for insights. The second step is Freedom, which is brainstorming. The third step – indicated by the comma – is Pause, which is incubation so the subconscious can go to work. The fourth is Embrace, which involves the editing of ideas. And the fifth step is Life – bringing the idea to reality through prototyping and selling to decision makers.

VB: Do the principles and tips you provide in IdeaSelling apply to virtually all situations in the business world in which we are trying to persuade others to do something?

Sam Harrison: My book focuses on presenting ideas to managers, clients and other decision makers, but its techniques can be applied to most situations requiring persuasion. Building chemistry, establishing credibility, asking questions, understanding body language, dealing with objections and other basic selling techniques are all important for persuading others.

VB: What is a "pitch?"

Sam Harrison: A synonym for selling – frequently used in design, advertising, marketing and other brand communications when we're talking about presenting our ideas to clients.

VB: Is being able to make a pitch one of the key differentiating skills in the business world?

Sam Harrison: Absolutely, especially since so few people are good at it!

VB: Why do we need to sell creative ideas; won't great ideas sell themselves?

Sam Harrison: It's often what we assume, isn't it? And that's why creative people often walk out of the presentation room complaining that the client "just didn't get it." But, as advertising pioneer David Ogilvy once said, management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it's presented to them by a good sales person.

The bigger and bolder the idea, the more it needs selling. After all, we're asking decision makers to let go of an existing idea – perhaps one they are fond of – in order to grab hold of our new idea. That can be a scary, risky move for clients.

VB: Is it usually easier to identify the features of a creative idea than its benefits?

Sam Harrison: Yes, but when we do this, we're talking about the "what" rather than the "why" of the idea. And we need to lead with why we believe the idea is beneficial and valuable for the decision maker and other stakeholders.

VB: Do you have any advice about how to arrive at the "best" idea to try to sell?

Sam Harrison: The best go beyond novelty and have value for the decision maker and other stakeholders – this is true creativity. I also use four C's to test the excellence of ideas and presentations – Clarity, Content, Creativity and Craft.

VB: Some people, like your 6-year old Godson, seem to be naturals at selling and closing a deal. Is this talent mainly innate or can most people learn to "be great in the room?"

Sam Harrison: There are natural sales people to be sure, but fundamental selling techniques and presentation skills can be learned. I've coached lots of people who had been excluded from participating in presentations because of their shyness or lack of abilities. With awareness, focus and practice, these people gained the necessary skills – and confidence – to make effective, compelling pitches.

VB: A lack of perceived credibility and trust seem to be significant reasons for failure in sales. Do you have any tips about how to overcome these inhibitors to success?

Sam Harrison: You're right – a lack of credibility tanks many pitches. Credibility is a combination of competence, trustworthiness and attraction. We demonstrate competence with expertise in our field and by being well-rounded in other areas. Trust comes from a track record – from doing what we say we'll do again and again. And attraction comes from neatness, body language and how we dress. I'm not one of those dress-for-success hardliners, because clothing varies by age, geography, profession, and you name it. Wear what works. Wear what will get your idea sold. And remember that nobody has ever had an idea rejected because he or she looked too good!

VB: Does it help to sell an idea if you are a good actor or have studied improv?

Sam Harrison: I include improv exercises in many of my presentation-skills and idea-selling workshops, because they help people think on their feet and be less nervous in front of others. Improv also teaches that it's not about the individual; it's about the team. An important lesson, because in an idea presentation, it's not about the person who came up with the idea, it's about the decision maker and others who will find value in the idea.

VB: Is making an emotional connection with the person you're trying to convince a key requirement, or perhaps the key?

Sam Harrison: Selling ideas isn't rocket science, it's rapport science – developing a relationship and a chemistry with decision makers. And in addition to knowing their wants and needs, it's important to involve decision makers in the creative process, to collaborate with them. If they assume a level of ownership, they'll more likely okay the idea at the approval stage – if they feel it's their baby, they won't kill it.

VB: Our readers will likely be familiar with the term "group think." In your experience is group think something you have to constantly guard against in the corporate world and even in advertising agencies, and how does it differ from the term you introduce, "group mind."

cover of IdeaSellingSam Harrison: For this one, I'll point to Trish Berrong, creative director at Hallmark Cards, and one of the bright people I interviewed for IdeaSelling. Trish likes going into presentations with the spark of an idea, then letting decision makers and others contribute to the idea's energy. She calls this "group mind" – the wiring together of brains and elevating of thoughts.

In contrast, group think often chains brains together and causes them to sink to the lowest common denominator.

VB: It seems it takes a lot of time and effort to prepare for making a good presentation and pitch. Are there any shortcuts?

Sam Harrison: The search for shortcuts almost always shortchanges idea pitches. People spend days, weeks and months coming up with ideas, then rush to put together presentations in a few hours. We should spend about as much time researching and developing our pitches as we do in coming up with the ideas.

VB: Is it hard for non-creative people to appreciate highly creative ideas and proposals, making it almost impossible to sell these ideas to them?

Sam Harrison: Not from my experience. At one point in my career I reported to a CEO who came from a financial background, a real left-brainer. But he had an appreciation and respect for creativity if it was presented to him in a logical way. The onus is on us creative people to make sure others understand our ideas and see their value.

Much of this has to do with the way we organize our pitches. Too often we'll present an idea the same way we created it, and that's the wrong approach. The creative process is often lateral, perhaps chaotic. But the presentation needs to be linear and flowing, with A leading to B leading to C in a straight line.

A good pitch is like a good story – with a beginning, middle and ending.

VB: "The secret of a good presentation is sacrifice. In other words, focus." Would you talk about this?

Sam Harrison: When I interviewed branding-expert Al Ries for IdeaSelling, he talked about how too many presenters take all the features, benefits and reasons a client should buy, then list them one by one, hoping something will stick. They use a shotgun rather than rifle.

An effective presenter knows the power of editing, of reducing down and focusing on those key points that match the likes and dislikes, wants and needs of decision makers.

I think it was John Maeda who said simplicity in design is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful. That's also a good principle for developing presentations.

VB: If you had a choice would you ban PowerPoint from being used in presentations?

Sam Harrison: Not necessarily. It's not so much the use of PowerPoint as the misuse. People go with the application's standard templates and wind up with cookie-cutter graphics, boring charts and way too many bullet points.

A good slide should be like a good magazine ad. Attention-grabbing, uncluttered, and easy-to-grasp. If you have to read your slide to your audience, you have too much information on your slide.

VB: You talk about being "present" at a sales meeting. Why is this so important?

Sam Harrison: Sometimes we walk into a presentation room already thinking about how we can get out of the room! It's probably because we're nervous and unprepared. But even when we're confident, we'll sometimes rush things along, eager to get the okay and exit.

Instead, be present and in the moment. Ask questions, listen intently and stay focused. Otherwise, you'll miss opportunities for relationship-building and ignore cues about the decision maker's needs.

VB: You caution against being a "time bandit" when trying to convince others of your idea. Is being a time bandit a sure way to get a rejection of it?

cover of IdeaSpottingSam Harrison: One of the most offensive things we can do to someone is steal his or her time. Yet we've all had sales people tell us they "just want five minutes to talk about a great opportunity," and then take a half hour or more.

Don't be that type of person when you have an idea to pitch. Let the decision maker know how long you'll truly need. Be on time, start on time, and finish on time. And if the presentation starts running over because of questions and discussions, ask the decision maker if it's okay to add an extra fifteen minutes. You'll gain credibility and trust.

VB: What tips do you have for "staying in the now" when making presentations?

Sam Harrison: Really listen to decision makers. Stay focused on their comments and body language. Ignore distractions. And when they're talking, avoid thinking about what to say next. Take a deep breath, get relaxed and pay attention.

VB: Do you still experience times when you have to unplug yourself from the Negative News Network, or are you now immune?

Sam Harrison: As you remember from our earlier interview, the Negative News Network is my label for the bad-news broadcasting that happens in our heads – the voice telling us we can't do something or that our idea sucks or that we're poor, helpless victims.

I've become much better over the years in dealing with my own Negative news Network's signals, but, no, I'm not immune The important thing is to be aware of when it's broadcasting, realize the messages are not reality and quickly tune them out by thinking and moving in more positive directions.

VB: What books in addition to IdeaSelling and your other two books do you recommend for those who wish to learn to be better at generating and selling great ideas?

Sam Harrison: What else could you possibly need? Just kidding. You know, I was so honored that sales guru Brian Tracy endorsed IdeaSelling, because one of his earlier books, The Psychology of Selling, is a masterpiece. It's not specific to selling ideas, but his sales advice is universal, and I highly recommend it.

My friend and fellow HOW Books author, Stefan Mumaw, has a book called Caffeine for the Creative Team with excellent exercises for team-generated ideas. And I love Seth Godin's books and blogs – much of his marketing and branding advice can be applied to creative and selling processes.

VB: If people read your book will it be easier or more difficult to successfully sell them an idea or product because they'll know the people doing the selling are following your techniques – assuming they are?

Sam Harrison: Great question. The only way I know to answer it is by saying that when deciding what to put in or leave out of IdeaSelling, I would ask myself if I were the decision maker, would I want the person pitching to know and use the information.

So the techniques in IdeaSelling are never intended to deceive, mislead or voodoo someone into accepting an idea they don't want, don't need, or can't afford. That would be high-pressure selling.

I never apply high-pressure selling, and I don't want it used on me. When I'm considering something, whether it's a new idea or new computer, I want the sales person to really understand my wants and needs, hopes and dreams. And I want him or her to explain the concept in a clear, credible and compelling way.

When sales people do this, they become trusted advisers rather than high-pressure sales people. My goal is for IdeaSelling to help people assume this advisory role.

VB: You refer to Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King as having been able to make great presentations. Are there any present day leaders in business or politics you consider to be especially compelling and skilled at doing this?

Sam Harrison: President Obama had remarkable speaking skills in the campaign, but those talents are missing from so many of his presidential speeches. Of course, Bill Clinton was and is a highly skilled communicator, especially when talking to small groups or one-on-one. Everyone who has encounters with him says you feel like you're the only person in the world he's interested in during the time you're together. Such attentiveness is a powerful tool.

As for business leaders, I bow before Steve Jobs. His presentation skills are remarkable, because he conveys such a passion for his company and its products. And he often adds subtle drama to his presentations, like pulling the MacAir from an ordinary manila envelope to underscore its thinness.

VB: You have worked with highly creative people for many years. Do they enhance your creativity by association?

Sam Harrison: No doubt. I also live in an artistic "new urbanism" community where creative energy is always bubbling up. Lots of studies in recent years prove that we pick up the good habits and bad habits of those with whom we live and associate. So it pays to associate with creative people.

If you want to be a better tennis player, play tennis with tennis players who are better than you. If you want to be a more creative person, hang out with people who have better or different ideas than yours.

VB: "Some of the best lines in my talks – ones I use over and again – are small stories where I poke fun at myself." Would you share one of these stories?

Sam Harrison: Oh, gosh – where to begin. Actually, an episode came to mind a few minutes ago when you asked about the Negative News Network.

Several years back, I was on my way to pitch the NFL on a promotional idea. I was fully prepared and totally pumped about it – right up until I got out of the taxi in front of their Park Avenue offices. Then the Negative News Network began broadcasting in my mind. "Who do you think you are trying to sell an idea to NFL?" "They deal with huge players like Nike and Coke – they don't have time for you." On and on.

The broadcasts were still streaming as I took an elevator to the top floor, and then I remembered a mentor once telling me to yell at the negative voices to shut them up. Since I was all alone in the elevator, I took the advice and start shouting: "Leave me alone!" "Get out of here!" And suddenly a voice came through a speaker at the top of the elevator asking, "Are you all right, sir?"

The happy ending is I laughed at myself. And that laughter made the negative thoughts disappear. The pitch went great and was the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship with NFL.

VB: Have you plans for another book?

Sam Harrison: Right now I'm basking in the glory of IdeaSelling and giving lots of talks and workshops on generating and selling ideas. I have several book ideas marinating in my mind, but I'm not ready to move forward on any of them at the moment.

VB: What speaking engagements do you have scheduled in the coming months?

Sam Harrison: I just completed a series of public talks and workshops in California, Colorado, Nevada, New York and several other states. For the fall, I'm primarily concentrating on a long string of private in-house workshops for firms, agencies and other organizations. A couple of public engagements this month include a keynote in Austin on September 14 for a communications group and a session in Atlanta on September 30 for IABC Southern Region Conference at Georgia Tech.

VB: What other questions should I be asking you?

Sam Harrison: As you probably know from my books, that's my favorite closing question to ask when I interview people for books and articles – or when I interview clients at the start of a project.

We didn't talk about handling objections, and that's a large component of effective pitching. I talk a lot about this in IdeaSelling, so I'll just end the interview by giving three quick steps – Pause, Agree, Ask.

If you get an objection to your idea, pause for a few seconds. Breath out tension and decide how to respond.

Next, agree. You don't have to agree with the objection, but agree that the client has a right to object. Acknowledge her concern by saying something like, "I understand why you would feel that way…"

Then, ask. Clarify the decision maker's objection by stating it as a question – "When you say you don't like the artwork, can you tell me more about the problem you see?" This will let the client know you're listening – and provide you with valuable feedback.

VB: Thank you for sharing your ideas about how to sell ideas.

Sam Harrison: Vern, this has been great fun. Thanks again for including me in IdeaConnection. All the best to you and your readers.

Author Sam Harrison provides many useful tips on how to present our ideas in a confident, convincing way. After all, our creative and innovative ideas are of little value if we can't communicate and sell them to decision makers – they may as well be thrown on the cutting room floor.

One of his tips is to ask questions to evaluate our presentations before actually making them. If we can't answer yes to all these questions we would be well advised to read IdeaSelling.

  1. Clarity. Does the pitch clearly explain the idea? Will it connect with decision makers at their level?
  2. Content. Is it well researched? Does it address how the idea meets needs and objectives? Is it complete, yet concise?
  3. Creativity. Is the pitch interesting, compelling and informative? Does it contain showmanship and storytelling? Does it demonstrate the idea's originality and value?
  4. Craft. Is the presentation well organized? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Does it flow? Are visuals appropriate and meaningful? Have you practiced delivery?

Sam Harrison's Bio:

Throughout his design career in creative communications as a freelancer, agency designer, consultant, academic and in-house client, Sam Harrison: has learned a lot about creativity – including how to find, keep, and express it. He was a senior vice president with an S&P 500 firm, and has worked with such clients and affiliates as National Football League, Major League Baseball, Hallmark, Microsoft, American Express, Merrill Lynch, Quicken, Hasbro, John Denver Environmental Groups, U.S. Humane Society, Arts Alliance, and Zoo Atlanta.

He teaches creativity, writing and presentation-skills classes at Portfolio Center, a graduate-studies program for writers, designers and photographers in Atlanta, Georgia. He has also guest-lectured at many colleges and universities.

Sam Harrison is also an in-demand professional speaker and member of the National Speakers Association, presenting highly rated seminars and keynote talks to agencies, firms, and associations throughout North America and beyond.

He is on the advisory council for the HOW Conference and has been a speaker at that conference for the past five years. He is also a recommended speaker for the International Association of Business Communicators and a frequent speaker at IABC's World Conferences and its local chapters.

Sam Harrison is the author of IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers (2010), IdeaSpotting: How and Where to Find Your Next Great Idea (2006), and Zing! Five steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command (2004). His fiction and non-fiction works have appeared in various magazines, newspapers and trade publications.

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