IdeaSelling Excerpt: Present a Powerful Pitch

IdeaSelling by Sam HarrisonFor design professionals, hitting on the perfect concept—as hard as that is—is often the easiest part of the creative process. Much harder: Getting the client, committee, manager or decision maker to buy it. In his new book, “IdeaSelling,” creativity expert Sam Harrison provides colorful anecdotes, tips and exercises for selling your  best ideas. Following are a few of the tips and exercises from the chapter “How to Present a Powerful Pitch.”

In an exclusive Q&A, author Sam Harrison shares more tips from IdeaSelling for moving your ideas forward.

1. The Choice is yours
How many choices? In talks and seminars, I’m often asked how many options should be presented to decision makers.

It all depends on the idea and client, but I’ve most often shown one, two or three alternatives—never more than three. I asked other IdeaSellers the number of choices they prefer presenting:

David Schimmel, And Partners: “Usually two or three.”

Trish Berrong, Hallmark Cards:
“Depends on the stage of the idea—maybe a half-dozen early in the process, one to three when it’s call time.”

Don McNeill, Digital Kitchen:
“One to four, depending on the client.”

Sally Hogshead, author and copywriter
: “I show an extremely wide range at the earliest stages, so they can do a little shopping with options. Then, once we lock in on a direction, I blow that focused direction into a bell curve of choices.”


Lisa Maulhardt, Stone Yamashita Partners: “Three seems to be the magic number. Something resonates with people’s memories of fairy tales when they get three options to choose from—as in, ‘This one’s juuuuust right.’”

Organizing Choices Smartly. The follow-up to “How many choices?” is always “In what order should the choices be presented?”
Here’s what IdeaSellers said:

David Schimmel, And Partners:“It varies, but usually the best first.”


Don McNeill, Digital Kitchen: “First I show them what they ask for, then the safest, then our preferred recommendation.”

Trish Berrong, Hallmark Cards: “It varies—mostly by how involved the piece is.”

Jeff Long, Digital Kitchen
“I always tell them the order before I start showing so they’re not wondering what we’re up to. This contributes to the overall honesty of the presentation. I’ll say something like, ‘We have a set of solutions to show you—we like some more than others, but we’re comfortable with everything we’ll show.’”


One for you, one for me. In design school, Marcel Wanders initially met rejection from teachers when showing projects.

So he decided to create two versions for every assignment—one version he knew the teacher would like, and another reflecting his own interpretation.

The technique paid off. Wanders won three school design competitions. His final project was featured on the cover of a national design magazine. And before graduation, he had a chair produced by a famous furniture company.

Are decision makers rejecting your favorite ideas? Try Wanders’s approach—create one version that satisfies them, and one that thrills you.

Paul Arden, advertising and film creative director, says, “First show them what they want. Then show them what you want them to have.”

2. Ride The Carousel
There’s a scene in the TV show Mad Men 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, visual story that renders everyone speechless, a story that passionately conveys the spirit of his idea:

“This device… isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.
It goes backwards, forwards.
It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel.
It lets us travel the way a child travels.
Around and around and back home again,
to a place where we know we are loved.”

“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.”

What’s your story?

Your idea:


Problem it solves:

Stories to bring issues and ideas to life:



3. Try This: Fill-in-the-Blanks
When meeting one-on-one with a decision-maker, try a fill-in-the-blanks pitch. I used this technique out of necessity years ago when a printing error left several pages of my presentation partially or completely blank.


I’ve turned to it several times since, always with good results. And Seth Godin has blogged about a similar process.

Here’s how the fill-in-the-blanks pitch works:

  • Prepare a handheld, flip-chart-style presentation. Use simple visuals and words to guide and emphasize key points.
  • Delete bits of important information on each page—you may even decide to have a few sheets with only empty boxes or lines.
  • Print on quality paper and bind in a way that pages easily turn.
  • At the idea pitch, sit beside the decision-maker with the printed piece as your support center. Go through page-by-page, writing in missing information while discussing your idea.

This interactive process adds spontaneity—and glues the decision-maker’s attention to your main messages.

4. Focus

If I had to pitch this idea in one or two sentences, I would say:

Here are the three main points I want to make during my presentation:



Here’s the theme I’ll use to unite and focus my presentation:


5. Breath Test

If you can’t describe your concept without having to take a breath, you probably haven’t nailed your theme.
Yes, it’s possible—filmmakers do it all the time with their 30-second “high concept” pitches for two-hour movies. See if you can identify the following films from their one-sentence themes:


1. Scientists clone dinosaurs to populate a theme park, which suffers a security breakdown and releases the dinosaurs.


2. An unemployed actor disguises himself as a woman to get a soap-opera role.

3. A police chief, a scientist and a grizzled sailor set out to kill a shark that is menacing a seaside community.

4. A woman and daughter open a chocolate shop in a French village and shake the town’s rigid morality.

5. An insurance salesman discovers his entire life is actually a TV show.

6. An eight-year-old is accidentally left behind when his family goes on vacation, and he has to defend his home against idiotic burglars.

See Anwers below.

If you’re like most creative people, chances are high you’ve had your share of ideas picked over and pulled down. IdeaSelling has thoughts, tips and techniques to help you sell your good ideas to decision makers and start selling more ideas. Harrison is a professional speaker and author who provides creativity speeches and seminars, as well as writing workshops. Catch him at the HOW Design Conference this June.; buy the book at

Answers: 1. Jurassic Park 2. Tootsie 3. Jaws 4. Chocolat 5. The Truman Show 6. Home Alone



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