Sam Harrison is the author of a fabulous book titled: IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers. He joined the show recently. You can listen here.
I read a lot of books as part of this show. This book was one of the most compelling, best presented, best organized book that walked its talk. At first glance, I thought it may have been...light. But as I read it I found I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I found that each page triggered so many ideas and ways to apply what Sam shared on how to successfully pitch creative ideas.
Sam’s a veteran of pitching ideas: He’s has been on all sides of creative communications, marketing and branding – the agency and freelance side, the client and corporate side and, most recently, the academic and consulting side.
He is 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 also teaches creativity, writing and presentation-skills classes at Portfolio Center and he’s worked with a bunch of Fortune 500 clients.
How are you? I don’t encourage stalkers. But I know you’re up to some cool new project. Where are you and what are you doing?
One of the most exciting project I’m working on now is creating an artistic compound parallel to where we live now. It’s a place where we can bring artists to teach and share and our community members can learn.
Let’s jump into your book: IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers. Again, great book! You definitely offered great ways to pitch your ideas. Congratulations on the book and the great reviews and the great site with it.
My friend Erika Andersen coined a great phrase in her book Being Strategic. That phrase is reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future. What was your reasonable aspiration or hoped for future in writing this book?
When we have a new-born whether it’s a baby or a puppy and we fully expect everybody to find it beautiful and perfect. And the last thing we expect to hear is that’s an ugly baby or about that puppy ‘what’s the value for it’.
We expect everyone to ooo and ahhh at our ideas. We’re shocked when they point out it’s ugly.
My reasonable aspiration is to remind people that it’s ok that people are shocked by their ideas and to prepare for that with a good presentation.
How will you know you have reached it? What are the signs that you’re there or getting there?
I give a lot of talks and seminars on creativity, finding inspiration and how to generate ideas. I always have a long line after taht talk from people telling me they can’t get their bosses to buy them. One thing will be anecodtally that there will be fewer people in these lines.
And I have carefully placed the book with people who have written me about their problems selling their ideas. I’ll be closely watching their progress.
I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. Bruce once said that he sings each show to one person in the audience. In the millions of readers in your audience, who did you write your book for? Describe the reader you had in mind as you wrote this great book.
I like that line, that technique. It reminded me when I was working full time in branding and marketing communications and I’d tell the writers to go and find a photo in a magazine of the person they were talking to. That way they’d be more likely to talk to that person and not their computer.
I always had in mind and tried to speak with those creative communicators out there. All those people who have ideas and have to first get past their boss or their client and could not see a way to sell it. It’s all those people in the lines at my talks who say they could not sell their ideas.
Why do they need your book? What are three reasons they should go out and buy the book today?
The first one is what we’ve just talked about. Most creative people are never taught selling skills. The first is to provide them with fundamental selling ideas.
The second is to reinforce the idea that we need to sell our ideas. The better ideas we have the more likely we need to sell them. We’re asking people to let go of their ideas, they’re fond of, in order to grab hold of our ideas.
Thirdly, it’s to build a community of people where people can talk together...about how they sell ideas and techniques that work for them.
I created a one-page narrative format here so that people can use it as a guidebook. They can read straight through it or go to a specific page for a particular tip they can use...for some help right before they make their pitch.
The best compliment I got was a friend of mine that owned a marketing firm and she bought it for her 15 employees and she took it to one employee who never reads a book. He opened it up and flipped through it and said...gosh this isn’t a book at all!
You profile and shares tips and advice from a number of great presenters. Who was your favorite? What best practices did they use in their presentations? Would those work in today’s culture?
One of the things I’m most proud about in IdeaSelling is the ideas don’t come out of my head. I relied on a lot of smart people...out in the trenches selling ideas every day.
One person, a historical figure, is Winston Churchill. He’s one of history’s greatest orators and persuaders. I used his 5 guidelines on how to make a successful presentation or speech. That would be the one person I would pick, first and foremost.
What were his best practices?
He had 5 little tips.
- Have one theme.
- Have a strong start. Get everybody’s attention.
- Keep it simple, not simple-minded.
- Paint pictures. Show, don’t tell.
- Add drama, appropriate drama, so it’s interesting and fun.
One of the reasons you’re on the show today is I liked your pitch. It was simple, direct, with a medium I used: You tweeted me if I wanted a free copy of your book. That was it.
How do presentations get so complicated?
I think it’s because we’re far too focused on our selves and our ideas to be much value to others...rather than immediately knowing the wants and needs of our audience and going straight there.
What are the three most common complications in a presentation?
Narrowing it down to three is tough.
1. Overwhelming the audience with our research.
2. Presenting the idea in the same way that we created it. Creativity is sometimes a messy process. It takes a lot of going in different directions to create an idea. Sometimes we try to make that pitch flow in the same way. We need to make it more of a linear flow, A goes to B goes to C.
3. Not helping the audience visualize our idea and how it plays in the real world.
We leave the listener with confusion or vague ideas about how our ideas can help.
How will a presenter know their audience is overwhelmed with too much data?
We have to become scientists of body language. We really need to pay attention to where they’re giving us eye contact, or giving us some of the more simple body language, are their arms crossed...If we see our decision-maker looking at their watch or stare out in space we need to quickly regroup and move on to the next thing.
I want to drill a bit on these points. How do presenters KISS their audience or Keep It Simple?
We really need to...we get hit with over 5000 promotional message per day and there’s more data presented in the past 50 years than in the past 2000. We’re overwhelmed....We do have to find a way to get through that somehow and keep it concise.
A journalism professor always reminded me that if you’re writing about seeing a bear while you’re hiking don’t start by talking about your shoes.
Start where it’s going to interest the decision-maker.
Write out your presentation. And then ask yourself what can I take out. Pretend you’re the decision-maker and ask yourself ‘why do I care’?
Perfection is achieved not when there’s nothing left to add but when there’s nothing left to take away. You will never hear a client say “I wish you would have talked longer."
Yesterday’s guest talked about today’s frazzled customer. That’s all of us isn’t it? It’s getting worse, too.
Now bad presentations of creative ideas are delivered to an audience of distracted decision-makers.
How does a successful pitch cut through that cluttered mind of a frazzled decision-maker?
I hope I did it by connecting with those audience of decision-makers with their wants and dislikes. I’m constantly around creative people. I’ve asked them a lot about how they sell ideas. First and foremost I try to make sure every word on every page was something they could pick up and use.
I think that’s a lot of it.
People don’t read ads. They read something that is interesting. Sometimes it’s an ad. On and on. We gotta make sure it reaches our audience with the right information but presents it in clear, concise, way.
It’s about building rapport with that decision-maker.
I love the last 3 words of your book’s title: other decision-makers. All this talk about transparency and partnering with customers, collaboration and employee engagement...the power of pull replacing the power of push and top-down decision-making all this points towards us all being decision-makers. And us all needing the ability to successfully pitch creative ideas.
We’re constantly selling ourselves, ideas, throughout our life. That engagement requires building a system of rapport with all these decision-makers.
Every day I have an idea for a book the first person I have to sell is my wife. I’m going to be spending a lot of time writing, preparing, editing....and I’ll have to rearrange my home life.
You’re a professor. You teach writing and presentation skills. What’s the state of the student now for presentation skills. Are they better or worse now than 2000?
I think they’re probably about the same. They’re certainly no better. But where I teach, the Portfolio Center, those students are on their feet for two years presenting ideas... they get a lot better...fast.
I’m wondering if we’ll see a sharp decline in presentation skills with our children. I was at a TEDX conference and a speaker had some good statistics on how much computer and online time kids spend. They spend more there than they do in school. There’s even a version of FB for kids under 10 years old called ...Togetherville.
It’s an indicator for how they will communicate. I wonder how it will effect their face to face communication skills, personal presentation and interaction skills.
If we look at our economy as your client, our abilities to pitch a successful idea seem pretty weak. Innovation seems to be declining. Banks seem more reluctant to back an idea. People are afraid. Discourse is divisive.
Do we have the skills as a nation right now make a successful pitch?
I’m not an economist. I’ll say this...a personal observation. To sell anything you have to have credibility. Banking is certainly one of them that have lost credibility.
We need leaders who exhibit confidence and competence.
We need leaders who exhibit confidence and competence.
We have to build a track record of strong courageous decisions.
We have to exhibit that we are changing things and the ethos are there to build our credibility.
Are we training students and workers, everyone, in the skills needed to make a successful pitch? What are the most important skills and which one is most lacking?
I think students are getting some of the skills. I think in the C-suite they get the speaking skills. There’s not enough of it going on. I think it’s a shame. Presentations skills are the difference between success and failure.
First and foremost we say a lot about ‘be yourself’. I tell students to be yourself, but be your best self. Rise to the occasion. Every pitch is a performance. People, when we stand up, expect us to perform to be the best version of ourselves. I can tell when students get it. “I need to be myself. But I need to rise to the occasion. I need a little bit more poise. I need to express myself with a little more strength.’ Every presentation is a little story. It’s easy to dissect it then. Every storyteller understands their audience. A good skill is curious. A good story teller has stage presence. How to gesture, how to pause before speaking. A good presenter has to have credibility. A good story has structure. A beginning, a middle, an end. A good presenter has to be able to present content in a digestible way. A good story always has drama and anticipation. It’s a performance and a story.
First and foremost we say a lot about ‘be yourself’. I tell students to be yourself, but be your best self. Rise to the occasion. Every pitch is a performance. People, when we stand up, expect us to perform to be the best version of ourselves.
I can tell when students get it. “I need to be myself. But I need to rise to the occasion. I need a little bit more poise. I need to express myself with a little more strength.’
Every presentation is a little story. It’s easy to dissect it then. Every storyteller understands their audience. A good skill is curious. A good story teller has stage presence. How to gesture, how to pause before speaking. A good presenter has to have credibility. A good story has structure. A beginning, a middle, an end. A good presenter has to be able to present content in a digestible way.
A good story always has drama and anticipation.
It’s a performance and a story.Let’s say President Obama brought you to the WH. And he realized our ability to grow as a nation is dependent on the ability to communicate and collaborate, share ideas and find new ways to implement them.
And, he’s walking you through the Rose Garden, got his arm around your shoulder and turns to you and says:
Sam, what are the skills we’re not providing our students in order to pitch creative ideas and what are three thing we can do today to give them the skills to successfully pitch ideas.
What would you say?
First of all I’d have to ask what happened to you presentation skills? He was so powerful as a candidate. He made the best talks. Unfortunately he put that aside. I would have loved to have seen him show the leadership and make those talks he made as a candidate.
We’re doing a good job teaching students what to think, but not how to think.
Second I think...we need to do a better job of interpersonal skills. Awareness, perception, ethos. A lot of team projects with guide or mentor would help.
Help students improve their public speaking skills. Just simple training on how to speak, how to present and give them opportunities to present in the classroom.
Leaders are readers. Jim Rohn said that. You’re a leader. What books have you read this year that just wowed you?
The Last Child in The Woods. It's almost required reading for our community. And the kids can go out on their own, and build forts and create games and help build creative skills and interpersonal skills. Now, pretty much, they're taken from one organized activity to another, to another and they're losing the ability to invent.
Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation, by Sally Hogshead.
The Genius in All of Us. There's still a lot of good information in it...we're not prisoners of our DNA as people once thought.
Love is the Killer Ap, by Tim Sanders
Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A corporate fool's guide to surviving with grace by Gordon Mackenzie
A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
City of Thieves by David Benioff
Where can we find you on the web?