Wrong. In fact, “IdeaSelling” author Sam Harrison says that in reality, the bigger and bolder the idea, the more it needs sold to decision makers. By presenting an idea, you’re asking decision makers to rearrange their thinking or let go of an existing idea — maybe one they’re quite fond of — in order to accept your new idea. That takes selling.
In an exclusive Q&A, Harrison shares some of these tips from “IdeaSelling” for moving your ideas forward.
How did you get the idea for this book?
After my talks and workshops on creativity, people walk up afterwards to say, “Hey, when I do have ideas, they just wind up getting shot down by my boss or client.”
I know what they’re talking about. I’ve had my share of ideas rejected or reshaped beyond recognition, particularly in the early years of my creative career.
But over time, I picked up more and more presentation skills, and my success ratio greatly improved. I wanted to share the sales knowledge I’ve gained — both from my own experiences as well as from working and talking with lots of highly successful creative people.
There are tons of books out there on selling, but IdeaSelling is the first one focusing on how creative people can sell their ideas to decision makers.
Did you sell things when growing up?
All the usual stuff, like newspaper routes, gift wrap and magazine subscriptions. But my best selling experience as a kid happened in my grandmother’s neighborhood café.
She would often let us young grandchildren take lunch orders. We quickly discovered bigger tips came our way if we were familiar with how the regulars preferred their meals; extra pickles for Miss Wesson, no onions in Mrs. Kendrick’s salad, and — prepare to gag — a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of a bowl of chili for old Mr. Blanton.
This was a great lesson on the payoff of knowing the wants, needs and lifestyles of your clients.
Are sales people born or made?
Both. There are natural sales people who intuitively know how to connect with clients.
My wife, Hope, is such a person. She’s successfully sold everything from real estate to artwork to medical supplies. I’ll lose her in a store, then find her two aisles over explaining the value of a particular toaster or coffeemaker to a total stranger. I’ll quietly remind her she doesn’t work there. That’s a natural sales person.
But sales techniques can be learned by those of us not born with such abilities. We can develop fundamental selling skills to help get our ideas across the goal line.
In the chapter “How To Present a Powerful Pitch” you say that even the best ideas are held back by a poor pitch. Why does this happen?
We often assume that because we know the details of an idea we know how to pitch it. So our presentations focus on the idea rather than on the idea’s value to the client.
As a rule of thumb, we need to spend about as much time preparing to present the idea as we did in generating the idea.
A great presentation is like a great story. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has style and focus. It has drama and anticipation. Like an enticing story, a compelling pitch tempts and then satisfies its audience.
You explain in the chapter “How to Handle Objection” that this doesn’t always have to be a dark cloud. Do you believe that one can harness their emotions and make objections work in their favor?
Objections can actually be a good sign — they indicate interest. If you don’t get any objections at all, you’ve most likely lost decision makers’ attention and they’re just quietly waiting for the first opportunity to bolt out of the room.
So objections can be worthy. But when we get an objection, our first reaction is usually to tense up and maybe slap back. After all, this is our baby they’re calling ugly. But we need to exercise self-control and uncover concerns causing decision makers to object. That’s why I recommend a three-step response to objections — Pause. Agree. Ask.
First, pause. Take a breath. Don’t say the first thoughts that enter your head. Those are probably fighting words that will ultimately backfire. Activate the filter between mind and mouth.
Next, agree. You don’t have to wholeheartedly agree with the objection, but force yourself to publicly acknowledge the client’s concerns. Maybe something like, “I can understand why you might have questions about this approach,” or “I can appreciate your concern” or “I’m glad you stopped me on that point.”
Then, ask one or more questions to clarify the objection and dig deeper. “When you say you’re turned off by the layout, can you tell me more about problems you see?” or “You say this idea looks risky — could you elaborate on how we might face trouble?”
The goal behind Pause, Agree, Ask is to stop the door from slamming shut on your idea. You’re buying hang time. The longer you hang out with the client, the more likely she’ll reveal her true needs and fears. Once you possess that knowledge, you can more easily alleviate concerns and get the go-ahead.
You refer to Winston Churchill as a great seller of ideas. How can his philosophies relate to designers?
Selling ideas isn’t rocket science, it’s rapport science — building a chemistry and relationship with your decision makers. When that happens, you start becoming a collaborator and advisor.
Churchill was a rock star when it came to building relationships and allies. He understood the dynamics of human interaction.
“If you want a person to take an interest in you,” he said, “take an interest in them first.” Great advice. If we want decision makers to be interested in our ideas, we have to first be interested in their lives and their needs.
Churchill also offered five guidelines for successful presentations: Have one theme. Make a strong start. Use simple language. Paint pictures. Add drama.
I’ve used these five guidelines in my own career to turn out successful pitches. And I dive into details of those guidelines in “IdeaSelling“.
You teach presentation and speaking skills in your workshops as well as at Portfolio Center. What’s the number one piece of advice you give people who will be standing before an audience?
Be yourself — but be the best version of yourself. Display your unique personality and style, but don’t be as casual, lackadaisical and unprepared as you might be when knocking around the house or hanging out with friends.
Give audiences the best of yourself, because that’s what they expect when you stand to speak. Rise to the occasion and rachet-up your preparation, projection and poise.
About the author
Sam Harrison has successfully pitched ideas to the NFL, Major League Baseball, Hallmark, American Express, Hasbro and dozens of other clients and affiliates. He is now a speaker, coach, and author on creativity-related topics, as well as a teacher of writing, presentation skills and creativity classes at Portfolio Center.
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