Abracadabra Moments, the Opening Line You Should Never Use, and 10 More Ways to Sell Ideas

A good idea can only become great if you've got the skills to sell it. We asked Sam Harrison, a speaker and writer on creativity-related topics, for a how-to in this excerpt from his latest book IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers.

Idea Selling by Sam Harrison1. "If they feel they birthed it, they can't kill it." David Schimmel touts this tenet at And Partners, his New York design firm. "If you truly collaborate with your clients and let them take credit for ideas," says Schimmel, "there's a good chance you'll sell your strongest ideas without having them watered down."

2. Leave creative chaos at the door. The route for discovering an idea is usually a winding, twisted path. But the way we present that idea should be a straight and narrow road. That's not saying pitches should be dull and didactic. Be bold. Rouse the room. Playing it safe is for wimps. But pitch ideas with a clear and logical flow. Meet clients on their mental turf. Gently guide them to your world.

3. Pause before you start. A few years ago, Edward Norton and four other actors participated in a discussion at the Directors Guild in Manhattan. The panel quickly adopted a rotation, with each actor commenting on film-related topics. When Norton's turn, he would always pause before speaking. The audience awaited his words. Norton's comments were no more profound than those of fellow panelists, but the pauses positioned him as the group's sage. For your next pitch, pause before starting. Lock eyes with audience members. Build anticipation. Capture their complete attention--then begin.

4. One opening line never to use. Never start your pitch with "You're going to love this idea." Kick off with that line and you'll kick-start skepticism. The decision maker will think, "Oh, yeah?" or "Wanna bet?" I learned this lesson on my first job out of college. To help roll out a new corporate identity program, I was dispatched to tell a plant manager he would need to replace his facility's signage. In my youthful exuberance, it didn't occur that the gruff, overworked manager might have other priorities. "You're going to love these signs we created for you," I said. Looking up from a mess of thick reports, he stared at me for a long time. "No," he said, "what I would love is to send you back to headquarters with those fancy signs stuck up your tail." Last time I used that line.

Lexington racehorse

5. Help clients visualize your ideas in living color. Lexington, Kentucky asked design firm Pentagram to develop an identity reflecting the Bluegrass Region's personality. Partners Michael Bierut and DJ Stout took Edward Troye's portrait of the great racehorse Lexington, changed its color to blue and named it Big Lex. "When we showed city leaders Troye's horse colored bright blue, their initial resistance was evident," says Stout. "But then we displayed ads and billboards. We also presented a small model of Big Lex for gift shops and showed Big Lex as a mascot, with a person wearing a blue horse suit and educating school kids. Before long, everybody in the room was tossing out ideas on how Big Lex could promote the city."

6. Stand tall, talk short. President Abraham Lincoln and orator Edward Everett spoke at the dedication of a cemetery for soldiers killed at Gettysburg. Everett talked for two hours, delivering more than 13,500 words. Lincoln spoke for two minutes, delivering 272 words. Nobody remembers Everett's talk, but Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is celebrated as one of America's finest speeches. When picking between a longer or shorter presentation, choose shorter. "I wish you had talked longer" are words you’ll never hear from clients.

7. Throw out handouts. Handouts are those ubiquitous pages distributed before pitches. The intent is for decision makers to follow along as you explain each point. But people follow handouts about as well as cats follow tour guides. They'll jump ahead. Double back. When you’re on page one, they're on page six. When you're at page six, they're back at page three. And pray for mercy if you include project costs on the last page. That's the first place clients will go. They'll scan the numbers and shake their heads. Then they’ll tune you out and turn on their BlackBerries. If you don't want audiences to skip past your ideas, skip the handouts.

8. Bank on leave-behinds. Leave-behinds are for after the sales pitch. Clients review them later to dive deeper into content. Leave-behinds also serve another powerful purpose--decision makers use them to sell your ideas to their bosses. So invest in leave-behinds, not handouts. Include samples, photos, examples, and case studies--anything to ignite the selling of your idea. Before starting your pitch, let clients know you'll provide ample content once you're done. Watch them sit back and absorb your pitch.

9. Stop selling, start storytelling. Storytelling is jet fuel for presentations. "There's something primal about stories," says Lisa Maulhardt of Stone Yamashita Partners. "They help us make sense of our world. By using stories in pitches, we're enticing people to follow along. Stories say, 'Come this way, take that hill, believe in something better.'"

10. Get personal. In the TV show Mad Men, ad man Don Draper advises Kodak executives on introducing the firm's new slide projector. Kodak calls the projector a "wheel." But Draper suggests the name "carousel," describing it as a childlike time machine. With family snapshots and soft words, Draper pitches his carousel idea.
"This device...lets us travel the way a child travels," he says. "Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved." Do you have an idea with emotional pull? Share personal episodes to connect with your audience.

11. Create abracadabra moments. Remember when Steve Jobs introduced the remarkably thin MacBook Air by sliding it out of an ordinary manila envelope? Truly an abracadabra moment--as memorable as a rabbit pulled from a hat. Look for ways to create dramatic, abracadabra moments in your pitch. Pitching his home-office products for our direct-mail catalog, a supplier opened his briefcase and dumped its contents--notes, receipts, pads, pens, paper clips, business cards--on my desk. He then grabbed a leather organizer and, in less than two minutes, placed everything in its proper place. Abracadabra.

12. Once you've sold an idea, don't buy it back. "I have watched creative people destroy their own work--after the client buys into the idea," says Brian Collins, CEO of Collins:, a New York design firm. "They blab themselves right out of the client's approval. For goodness sake, if the client finally says yes, then say thank you and leave the room with your idea sold. Tell them you will pick up the conversation later or call on the phone or send an email or telegram. But whatever you do, bolt."

Sam Harrison is author of the newly released IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers. He is a speaker on creativity-related topics and also the author of two other books, Zing! and IdeaSpotting. His Web site is zingzone.com.

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • Simon Holt

    I find people like to find a connection. Rather than opening their minds, they like to compare new ideas to something they are familiar with. "Is it like ... ?" they'll ask. Is it then wise to break down your new idea into components for which you can find comparisons? Or is it wise to leave comparisons well alone?

  • Sam Harrison

    Simon, I too like connecting a new idea with a familiar one. In "IdeaSelling," I talk about hitching your idea to a star -- if possible, find success stories with approaches similar to your concept, whether in same industry or distant fields. Once decision makers recognize opportunities for success, they'll more easily embrace your idea. (And the star we hitch to might even be one of our own past ideas that has achieved financial success.)

  • marcisegal

    Liking this. Great reminder for folks not in the ad or design business to prep their creative idea presentation ideas for acceptance. So many still think that their new idea will sell as it is, and if it doesn't, think their bosses, clients and other decision makers are stupid because they don't get it. Thanks Sam.

  • Sam Harrison

    Right - after all, we're asking decision makers to let go of an existing idea (maybe one they're fond of) in order to embrace our idea. And that takes selling rather than us saying "they don't get it." As David Ogilvy said: "Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it's presented to them by a good salesperson."

  • Michael Whitlow

    Loved the "don't buy it back" advice and turn of phrase. Looking forward to getting the book downloaded on my iPad versus getting the "handout" version.

  • Sam Harrison

    My publisher says "stay tuned" -- but in the meantime, I humbly suggest you also buy the printed book -- it can't really be placed in the same category as a "handout" since I'm not in front of you giving a live presentation! :-)

  • Alex Hayes

    Great advice. I work with a designer who always says, after presenting an idea, "So, do you hate it?" This always breaks the ice and lets the client say, "No, but..." which provides a window for honest feedback.

  • Sam Harrison

    Interesting approach! I would be concerned I was making it way too easy for the client to say, "Yes, I do hate it." But I get the icebreaker/humor. Your fellow designer obviously knows what works for his/her clients -- so if it works, don't fix it!

  • Andrew

    Great post, but I in some ways disagree with one of your points. You stated that handouts are worthless and that they simply confuse people, and on some levels I agree with this. However, the real value in a handout (especially a handout with your slides printed on them) is that if something happens with the slideshow such as a power outage, a corrupt file, or any number of horrible things, you have a back up.

    Shit happens, be prepared

  • Sam Harrison

    Thanks, Andrew! Can't argue with your point about having handouts as a backup for tech breakdowns. As I emphasize over and over in the book, be prepared for anything -- because anything can happen during a pitch. Having handouts as a backup plan is a great strategy -- but keep 'em under wraps for emergencies only! Sam