Ten ways to sell a great idea

If you walked into an art gallery with no knowledge of Rothko, and the plaque under Black on Maroon read ‘Two squares. Ever-so-slightly different shades. Artist does this a lot,’ you probably wouldn’t end up a Rothko fan.

If you walked into a performance of 4’33” by John Cage with no context and sat through quite literally nothing, you probably wouldn’t end up a Cage fan.

If you walked up to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ and all you saw was a toilet – well

It’s funny isn’t it. Some of the greatest ideas in the world actually require quite a bit of context to be appreciated.

We like to think great ideas sell themselves, but the truth is, great ideas without great packaging are really tumbleweeds (if not total disasters) waiting to happen. 

The same goes for the marketing ideas we present to our stakeholders. 

Think about it – how many times have you had an idea burned by a stakeholder, only to wish you could go back, repackage the idea, offer more context and sell it again? 

It’s happened to me more than enough times. But I always blamed my stakeholders when it happened. I decided they were too closed-minded, too un-imaginative, too conservative to appreciate what they were seeing or hearing. 

I never blamed the packaging.

Until recently. Over the last few months I’ve been deploying 10 tactics that have helped me sell ideas in the past, but that I’ve never really thought about or documented as part of a broader strategy. The results of deploying them together have been pretty damn good (if I may say so myself), which is why I decided to share them with you today. 

Have a read, let me know what you think, or even better – give them a go. 

(Quick caveat before we start: the tactics won’t be effective if you don’t actually have a great idea ready. So make sure you tick that box first…no pressure.)

The ten tactics:

1. Show why it’s necessary

Let’s face it: marketers get excited about good ideas. But stakeholders get more excited about solving the big challenges their companies are facing. 

So if you jump into a presentation and all you’ve got to show your stakeholders is a great marketing idea, you’re already on the back foot. First, you need to show why the idea is necessary. Why it solves problems. 

That means covering all your bases. Like doing persona research as early as possible, so you can map your idea directly to the challenges and goals your stakeholders’ prospects are facing. Or a content audit, so you can spot any gaping holes (a.k.a golden opportunities) in your stakeholders’ previous marketing strategies. It means doing competitor research, so you can see how other marketers have already tried to solve the problem. 

Then, once you’re presenting your idea, talk about it in the context of those findings. Explain how your idea plugs a gap you’ve spotted in your client’s marketing strategy. Explain why your idea is a perfect fit for your client’s ideal customer. Show why the idea you’re presenting is unique among competitors.

Do all these things, and your client will already have three big reasons to believe in your idea – before it’s even their turn to speak.

2. Show why alternatives didn’t work

Ever presented an idea you’re proud of only to hear, “Nice – but why didn’t you try this angle?” Or, “I was expecting you to focus on that.” 

It’s always awkward when it happens, but it’s also unnecessarily awkward. Of course you considered alternatives. Of course you had lots of other ideas before you found the best one. Of course you factored in your audience’s expectations. What you didn’t do, was demonstrate that you did those things.

It’s why whenever you present a good idea, you should talk about it in the context of your ‘reject’ pile. It’s daunting, yes, and you’ll need to tread very carefully when you explain why other routes didn’t work (especially as other routes may have been your stakeholder’s own suggestions). But it’s also a really effective way of showing why your idea is the best move forward.

Don’t worry – you don’t have to go through each ‘reject’ one by one to make this tactic work. In fact, definitely don’t do that – you’ll open up a whole new can of worms… Instead, just make one or two comments that anticipate the kind of ‘route’ objections your stakeholders might raise. For example, you might open with:

  • To nail this project, we needed to tick three big boxes: X, Y, Z.

  • I initially thought about going down B route, which is the route you may have expected, but actually, B wouldn’t tick those critical boxes (e.g. because B has been done to death already; B is too similar to our competitor’s approach; B doesn’t reflect the challenges of our ideal audience; B is at the wrong end of the sales funnel for present purposes – etc).
  • Here’s an idea that will tick those boxes…

Then move straight on to your idea and don’t look back. You’d be surprised how quickly this shuts down ‘route’ objections at the end of your presentation.

And if your stakeholders still push for the routes they expected at the end, well, so be it. Sometimes stakeholders ruin things. But at least they won’t think you overlooked a seemingly viable (or seemingly better) route. 

3. Reiterate the fundamentals – whenever and wherever you can

Sure there may be some fancy 100+ slide deck somewhere that runs through every decision your stakeholders have ever made about your marketing or messaging strategy. But the truth is, once those decks get approved, shared, edited and shared again, they get forgotten about. 

It’s why whenever you present an idea, in person or in writing, you should tie it back to whatever initial strategy you’re supposed to be following. 

This could be as simple as a comment at the beginning of a document you’re sending that reiterates the rules your copy will be following. Or a note in a design file that reiterates the creative restrictions and directions your ideas are supposed to be aligned with. Or a caveat at the beginning of a presentation that reiterates the current value proposition you’re working from, so your stakeholders have context on why your ideas might all follow a particular theme (say safety, data or product engineering).

Deploying this tactic also means your stakeholders will be less likely to over-edit your work, as they’ll be reminded that the vast majority of your moves were actually very deliberate ones – be they word choices, design choices or theme selections. And if they still want to push back on your choices despite the context you’ve supplied, their fight will have to be with the initial strategy – not you.

4. Think ahead (out loud…)

The best ideas don’t get implemented in isolation – they tie in with carefully designed user journeys. 

It’s why you should always be careful not to present an idea as a standalone. Instead, talk about how your idea sets a precedent for future material. For example, it might be a big enough idea to serve as a baseline for a whole campaign. It might be ‘tweakable’ enough for executing at different stages of the sales funnel. It might provide a nice segue into a future project. Or it might just be an idea that lasts for ages – say, an assessment tool or a high-level video.

Whatever enduring value you think your idea may have, make sure you cover it in your presentation – the greater the idea’s ROI, the better.

5. If it’s crazy, back it up

Controversial ideas are the hardest to sell – but great controversial ideas are 100% worth the challenge.

Which is why if you want to get a crazy idea off the ground, you should do so armed with examples of other (relevant) controversial ideas that have been signed off or seen success.

Take Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial for example. In fact, let’s watch it:

Now – that idea was hated by Apple’s stakeholders when it was first proposed. So much so that Apple wanted to sell their advertising slot to another buyer once they’d decided there was no saving the ‘terrible, costly, controversial’ ad. 

But something must have changed. Because in the end, they ran with it. And you know what? It became not only the most popular spot of the game, but one of the most famous commercials of all time.

And I’ll bet that whoever pushed for the idea backed it up with more than just “trust me” and a knowing look. 

I’ll bet they fought for that idea as hard as they could, had some awkward, painful conversations, made people angry, and most importantly – I’ll bet they sealed the deal by showing their stakeholders examples of when ‘break-the-mould’ paid off in the past. 

Why? Because no amount of reassurance gives stakeholders a reason to believe in a controversial approach like real, hard evidence.

Some other examples while you’re here:

Long story short: there’s a ton of examples out there of successful marketing ideas that were once big, expensive, monumental, gambles. And none of them would have been signed off if it weren’t for someone convincing their stakeholders the risk was worth it. So whenever and wherever you can, back up your controversial ideas with examples. 

Extra tip: don’t ever start with “okay, this one’s a bit controversial,” when you present it. That’s just asking for outright rejection. Say something like, “Here’s something unique. Something no one’s ever done. Something bold and daring like [insert your chosen example here].”

Oh – and never ever hold back from presenting a crazy idea if it’s a great one. Even if you can’t find any examples to back it up with. That’s just a big fat missed opportunity.

6. Shout out to your stakeholders

It’s tough to admit it sometimes, but almost every marketing idea we come up with is the product of something provided by our stakeholders. Whether it’s a unique industry perspective, a harsh truth about customer challenges or habits, an in-joke about the faults of market competitors, you name it – what we end up turning into a story is always some amalgamation of stakeholder input. 

Yet once we’re in ‘presentation mode’, we rarely make this explicit. Suddenly our idea is exclusively ‘ours’ – our baby; a miracle that emerged organically in our unique marketing minds. 

Not only is that not the case – it’s offensive to the people who provided the raw ingredients. And it’s a wasted idea-selling opportunity. 

Why? Because showing gratitude for creative inspiration is a low-risk, high-returns tactic. (It feels wrong even calling it a ‘tactic’ – we should be giving credit where credit’s due.) 

Showing gratitude makes our stakeholders feel like they’ve actually had some role in the creative process, some skin in the game – and more than that, they’ll be way more likely to approve of your work if they believe your biggest recommendations were their ideas.

7. Make it sound easy (if you’re confident you can pull it off)

Your stakeholders don’t want to sign off a project-management nightmare – they want to sign off something that’s enjoyable to work on, relatively low-risk and highly likely to succeed.

Which is why it’s your job to make sure your idea sounds like it can be deployed smoothly. For example, if it’s a big corporate video, perhaps you can save on building an expensive, complicated ‘office’ set full of extras, and film in your clients’ offices instead. If it’s a series of long-form materials, perhaps you can send your stakeholders outlines at the early stages so everyone’s aligned before you dive into the pieces. Perhaps there’s a ‘plan B’ format for executing on your idea that isn’t as expensive or cumbersome as your ideal format, if your client doesn’t have budget or scope. 

Think about all these things before you present – you’ll be much more likely to sell your ideas if you can reassure your stakeholders that there are ways to make the work low-hassle, and minimum-cost. 

And if you can, speak from experience – talk about how you’ve solved similar problems for other clients, and how repeatable or predictable your solutions are for present purposes. 

8. Research your audience

If you’re presenting to people you don’t know very well, it’s important to learn what they’re about – from what makes them tick to what makes them cringe. 

For example, if you can, do a LinkedIn and Twitter creep to see which projects they’ve worked on or endorsed in the past, then see if you can spot any patterns that might help guide your own work. 

And if it’s too late to let your stakeholders’ tastes shape your creative work, at least see if you can reflect those tastes when you describe your work. For example, see what words your stakeholders have used when they’ve endorsed pieces, then see if it’s possible to describe your work in the same way.

One last tip here (credit to Emile Kronfli for this one) – if you can get any insight into objections your stakeholders have had about content in the past, think about how you would handle the situation if they made similar objections about your work. Run through different objection-handling scenarios in your head – in fact, jot the best ones down on paper if you can, so you’re ready for battle if one of your hypothetical situations does arise.

9. Don’t overdo it

I’ve been guilty of this one. Ever set to work on the bare bones of an idea only to find you’ve kinda…done the whole thing a few hours later? Yeah, saaaaaaame. The problem is, it’s really hard to claw your way back to the idea-generation stage if your stakeholders have already seen what’s essentially a version one. They’re liable to get hung up on work-in-progress details when they should be imagining the idea’s potential.

And worse than that, it’s way harder to claw back money from your stakeholders if you’ve essentially done the work before they’ve signed off the time.

And even worse than that, it sets you up for the regular expectation that you can deliver just-as-much work at just-as-high quality in record time, every time

Long story short – when you’re selling an idea, really do try to sell the ‘idea’. Not the finished product. Your stakeholders, project managers and personal life will thank you for it. 

(Extra tip – don’t overdo the number of ideas you present to your stakeholders, either. They’ve come to you for direction on what they should be doing, not to be even more undecided than before.)

10. Present your ideas as end users will see them

This is the one I’m most passionate about.

If you’re creating web-page copy, or an eBook, or a gif, or a blog post, or a brochure, or a value proposition, or anything that involves words – let your stakeholders read the goddamn words.

If you’re creating a digital feature, or a game, or a survey, or a tool, or any kind of interactive experience – let your stakeholders try the goddamn feature.

Why? Because sharing your screen, while reading words aloud to your stakeholders, while telling them what they should be able to see on their screens is bad practice crazy!

To get feedback that’s fair and useful, you need to replicate the end-user’s experience as closely as possible. Otherwise, your stakeholders’ feedback is going to be rushed, irreflective of how their customers will feel, and based on a (very) suboptimal experience.

Honestly – it’s perfectly reasonable to allow your stakeholders a few minutes to look at (or play with) whatever it is you’re presenting before you talk about it. It’s fine to just send work over and have a feedback or run-through session later, when everything’s been digested (if you’ve packaged it correctly, of course, harhar). But reading work aloud then putting your stakeholders on the spot for feedback isn’t doing them or you any favours.

Right.

Okay, so those were the ten things. Let’s recap real quick:

  1. Show why it’s necessary 
  2. Show why alternatives didn’t work
  3. Reiterate the fundamentals
  4. Think ahead
  5. If it’s crazy, back it up
  6. Shout out to your stakeholders
  7. Make it sound easy (if you’re confident you can pull it off)
  8. Research your audience
  9. Don’t overdo it
  10. Present your ideas as end users will see them

Give them a go the next time you present an idea – I’ve found them to be really effective over the last few months and I hope you will too. 

And if there’s anything you’d add to the list, then please do drop a comment below.

Comments

All great tips. One point I would like to emphasize is quality over quantity.

Too often, creatives default towards pitching many half baked ideas instead of one or two fleshed out ones.

Your bosses and colleagues won’t be moved if they feel like you’re reading off a bullet pointed list of ideas.

    Hey Bhaskar, that’s for reading! And that’s a great one. Totally agree that overwhelming your audience with ideas is a bad shout – you’re there to give direction, not to ask for it.

Amazing tips. I think most startup business owners should embrace this attitude and practice, so they can create a reality check and ensure that their idea is viable.

    Hello Laura, thanks for reading my post! Excellent point – the number of pitch decks that kill a good idea is shocking!

Brillante y maravilloso artículo, Voy a poner en practica todos los consejos

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