How to sell a good idea, and not shoot yourself in the foot

September 29, 2008
Liz Strauss

Liz Strauss

You have an idea. You want to influence someone, or maybe an audience to take the idea seriously. You will have less time than you think to achieve that vital first impression

It is often said that in business, you are not selling your idea, you are selling yourself. Like most maxims, there is a grain of truth in that. It is particularly important if you are in a competitive situation, and have not met your audience before. MBA Elevator pitches, speed dating, and strictly come dancing formats come to mind. Even those ’round the table’ introductions deserve more pre-planning than they usually receive.

It takes the briefest of times before most people arrive at those important first impressions. Being aware of that is a vital element for effective leadership. The fine lines between over-selling and under-selling require careful management.

Here’s one of the best and simplest elaborations of what to do. The author, Liz Strauss, certainly sold her idea to me.

According to her own account , she was ‘always shooting herself in the foot’. Then she figured out a better way. Here what she decided was going wrong, and what she did about it.

I need to know what I do before I can tell someone else. My fear of self-promotion was turning me into someone else.

I picked the three things I love doing most. I wrote a sentence about each one and what my participation brought to that kind of work.
Those three sentences are what I want to do and what I do well. When someone ask me that same question now, I have those three sentences in my head. I can choose one or all and choose to elaborate on them or not. No longer am I trying to figure out what someone wants or needs to hear. I simply answer the question with what I know is a fact. I’m relaxed and I no longer limp away from conversations that start with “What do you do?” You don’t need three sentences. You really only need one that is uniquely you.

Great advice. Prepare that vital sentence until it is part of you. That is to say until you believe in what you are saying. And what you are saying captures briefly and memorably the idea. What’s different about it. What’s important about it. Why it deserves special attention.

Meat first or one-minute fuse?

That doesn’t mean to say there is only one way of presenting an idea or making a successful pitch. Each speaker has a comfort-zone according to his or her personal style.

However, unless you are a consumate professional you risk shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t get the point across within two minutes at most.

The meat-first approach is the one which starts with the polished statement. Let’s call it the punch-line or idea title. Note that creativity is required both for the technical quality of the idea and for its presentation.

The one-minute fuse approach is one in which you take a minute but not much longer building-up to the punch-line. It helps if you are skillfully signalling that a punchline is not far away (study how your favorite comedians do this. Then, with appropriate emphasis, you deliver the punch-line.

You may not have the experience of a professional performer, but everyone can work on their performance.

More complex presentations

These principles can be applied to more complex presentations, with more than one presentor and with more than two minutes for the pitch. For example, if you have been alloted ten minutes, you need at least one more punchline just before the presentation comes to an end. (I leave you to decide what you need from each individual speaker).

So good luck.

Why not let subscribers to Leaderswedeserve know how you did?

Creative Leadership and Creative Problem-Solving

September 28, 2008

Research into creative leadership and creative problem-solving seem to be converging. Gerard Puccio outlines work coming out of Buffalo’s International Center for Studies in Creativity

Two research groups which can claim to be among the longest-established internationally are those at The Manchester Business School England, and at the State University New York, (SUNY) Buffalo.

The groups have collaborated on the nature of creativity since the 1970s exchanging ideas and scholars. Buffalo has appointed two Alex Osborn visiting Professors from Manchester, and Manchester has been where members of the Buffalo group (including its current Director) have completed their doctorates in creativity. Further collaboration between the groups is planned after exchange of visits this year.

In his visit to Manchester, Professor Gerard Puccio, Director of Buffalo’s International Center for Studies in Creativity traced the origins of the Buffalo creative problem-solving model from the pioneering work of Parnes and Osborn (inventor of brainstorming) to its current form.

For many years the Parnes Osborn model of creative problem-solving was taught as a sequence of steps which were sometimes modified, but retaining the appearance of a mechanically-applied process.

The Manchester and Buffalo work arrived at similar conclusions through countless practical applications of the basic model. At Manchester, cohorts of MBA students tackling business projects with the MPIA model (Mapping, Perspectives, Ideas and Actions).

Its similarity to the Parnes Osborn classical model of Objectives, Facts, Problems, Ideas, Solutions, and Action steps (OFPISA) is clear.

Both groups have moved towards a process-oriented approach to creative leadership and creative problem-solving.

The approaches also subscribe to the importance of a team facilitator or leader whose job is primarily to encourage the other team members to be open in the generation of ideas.

The view from Harvard

The principles are accepted by other researchers into creativity. At the time of writing of this post, [September 2008] an article in Harvard Business Review by Professor Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire of Harvard Business School offer similar guidance for stimulating creativity. They advise leaders to map stages of any project so as to target creative opportunities, create mechanisms for enhancing diversity and its benefits; for better collaboration, and for leaders to achieve ‘an appreciative audience’ .

Obama McCain Round One: Blink and You’ve Got It

September 27, 2008

The long-awaited debate between the Presidential candidates takes place. In a well-rehearsed encounter, the moves practiced on the campaign trail are brought into the living room

Asleep on my watch, I missed the debate as it happened. A few hours later the first reports were available, as well as full video transcripts.

The BBC provided a neat ‘as it happened’ commentary which interlaced commentary from BBC North America editor Justin Webb with tweets from interacting viewer plus clips from blogs. The format works quite well for sports transmissions, and has been effectively transplanted. A nice innovation. It also included a 5-minute clip on the exchanges over foreign policy (the focus of the first of the debates)

The clip is more than enough to confirm some expectations. That the two candidates are operating according to stereotype. Mr Obama is prone to the extended answer; Mr McCain appears more drilled and perhaps less flexible. Neither (in the clip) appears to be far from a well- rehearsed performance.

Some of the tweeters indicate that they had heard it all before. This point was reinforced by Justin Webb.

This is a huge disappointment – set piece memorised stuff from both candidates

The combatants were sticking mainly to the polished moves thoroughly practiced in dozens of speeches during the campaign. By sticking to their comfort zones, they reveal ingrained stylistic aspects of their performances. Mr McCain may have successfully taken advice not to say ‘my friends’; Mr Obama to be less professorial. But the leakage was there for the body language enthusiasts. Did John blink too many times? (I haven’t counted). Was Barack tempted into verbosity? Perhaps.

Just rhetoric?

So is what we see anything more than a display of rhetoric? You could see it that way. Political performance art where the audience reactions could not have greater consequences since the battles in the Coliseum of ancient Rome when gladiators received the thumbs up or down from the Emperor.


Google presented me with a snippet that looked as if John McCain was a clear winner. Here is the entire line (obviously extracted from a longer statement).

1957 In the nearest thing to a presidential debate so far, at a Californian megachurch, McCain is widely perceived to have bested Obama with a straight …

My reaction was that [Google states that] McCain is widely perceived to have bested Obama.

The snippet came from the BBC report above. If you go back to the original you find that it refers to Mr McCain besting Mr Obama in the answer he gave to a specific question. Arguably, it was the only thing in the entire post that could have indicated that McCain was a clear winner. This was confirmed in other reports. Curious. Is there a republican bugging Google’s search engines to find headlines that support Senator McCain? It is early morning still. My conspiracy brain-cells are over active.

Setting aside obviously partisan views, initial reports suggest that neither candidate was ‘bested’ in this battle. It’s still all to fight for.

Bush wages war on financial terrorism but fails to rally the troops

September 26, 2008

President Bush launches one more campaign in the war against terror. But this time it is against the terror that threatens global capitalism

The aging generalissimo is preparing to step down. Perhaps he will hand over to a dynamic young leader. Perhaps to one even older than himself. But step down he will, in a matter of months.

While he might have wished for respite, he has to confront one last crisis in his last days as President. The United States faces the most severe financial crisis since the 1930s.

His plan is to fight the financial war with a $700 billion attack force. But he has to win support of his financial generals who are not convinced.

When he addressed the nation he looked tired and had lost the jaunty air which has been a feature of his press conferences.

Peering at events from the UK, BBC’s celebrity journalist Robert Peston suggests that Bush is trying to bully the troops into line.

Political impact

The political ramifications of this battle are becoming clearer. The presidential aspirants have been dragged into the crisis before they would have chosen. Senator McCain has made the more assertive move, claiming that it calls for a temporary cease-fire in the Presidential campaign. He suggests a face-to-face debate scheduled for Friday [September 26th 2008] should be cancelled. Senator Obama gives a more nuanced response (a ‘yes and’). Sure, the financial crisis is vitally important and urgent. But a wannabe President has to deal with more than one thing at a time.

That exchange struck me as significant. McCain made a plausible move. Obama’s response worked better for me.

So what?

So what? I don’t get to vote in November.

There will be plenty more mud flying around, but more seems likely to stick onto the Republican candidate and his high octane vice-Presidential candidate around their grasp of financial affairs. These hits may be harder to brush off.

It just looks, for the first time in months, that the odds are swinging back to Obama, and that vulnerabilities in the McCain campaign will do his prospects real damage.

Miliband, Brown and the Heseltine Moment

September 23, 2008

An overheard remark by David Miliband is interpreted as evidence of his covert campaign to dislodge Gordon Brown. The treatment of his reference to a Heseltine moment is the journalistic equivalent of trading in junk bonds

One week on, and the city’s traders are widely criticised for self-centred avarice. Much the same terms could be used in the journalistic trading in a remark by David Milband overheard and turned into a headlined story.

The BBC report was no more reluctant than any other filed, as a story was eeked out of an overheard remark. This has, anyway, become accepted as legitimate journalistic practice. Bush and his remark to Tony Blair, and Cherie’s muttering at last year’s conference were recent examples. The practice is as unreflective of its dubious ethicality as were those behaviours of gamblers in the short-trading game over the least few months.

David Miliband has been overheard telling aides that he toned down his speech to Labour’s conference to avoid it being seen as “a Heseltine moment”

[He was] discussing his speech with staff who told him that it was being given six marks out of 10, and was heard to reply
“I couldn’t have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment.”
His aide replied
“No, you are right. You went as far as you could. That was what the party needed to hear.”

His comments [were] an apparent reference to one of the occasions Michael Heseltine challenged the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Journalistic Junk Bonds

This is no more than trading in journalistic junk bonds. I would uncomfortably accept the right, duty even, of a journalist who had overheard clear evidence of the duplicity of a potential Prime Minister. Suppose Milband had said to his aide

‘Yeah. I almost blew our cunning plan. It’s not easy hiding my superior talents, just in case people think the truth, and I’m seen as being disloyal to Gordon’.

I might have (reluctantly) accepted that it was worth reporting, provided the words were substantiated.

But this does not have to be an overheard Cassius moment with Brutus musing over the time in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on the fortune.

Michael Heseltine was hardly duplicitous. His ambition was never concealed in public. Maybe Miliband was using shorthand to say

‘Yeah. It’s getting a pain to stay in second gear because if I go any faster I’ll overtake Gordon and get a twenty five second penalty, and dish my chances when Gordon finally runs out of fuel’.

There’s just not enough to justify the conclusions being drawn. For me, there’s not even enough to justify creating a news story out of a private remark overheard. Leave it to the junk bond traders operating in the gossip market.

Nick Faldo and the Tall Poppy Syndrome

September 22, 2008

The much-fancied European team loses the Ryder Cup. Within hours, the recriminations begin against team captain Faldo. The predicted process of cutting down the tall poppy has begun

This is a postscript on the week-end’s post on Ryder Cup leadership. In particular the observation on the tall poppy syndrome …

[S]horthand for the process in which high-profile figures receive celebrity status and at the same time become vulnerable to attacks ‘to bring them down to earth’. The process began when Faldo, someone always likely to be unswayed by popular sentiment, omitted public favourite Darren Clarke, and appeared to have given Ian Poulter (another quirky and gifted personality) preferential treatment even as other players struggled for the automatic places available on the team through tournament rankings.

As it happens, the captain’s pick, Ian Poulter, was the outstanding success of a patchy performance from Europe’s best golfers. That has hardly lessened the post-match criticisms.

Was Faldo a bad captain? Nowhere nearly as bad as he is now being presented.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well, and maybe needs as much attention as those other pernicious poppy harvests around the world.

Faldo, Azinger and Ryder Cup Captaincy

September 21, 2008

Nick Faldo

Nick Faldo

Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger

Ryder cup captaincy is an unusual kind of leadership. The pre-match picks, the pairings of players, and order of play in the decisive singles all call for judgements of a complex kind and which make a difference to the outcome of the match

The biennial Ryder Cup has become an immense sporting occasion, capturing the attention of non-golf fans in the way Wimbledon is said to capture non-tennis fans in England.

Captaincy calls for a special kind of leadership. Decisions are exposed to the scrutiny of a hundred commentators and millions of viewers, many of whom enjoy the vicious pleasures of casting doubt on the captain’s judgment, and my implication his fitness to lead. That’s not so unusual. Football phone-ins are saturated with emotional and angry view of fand who appear to believe they could do better jobs of running their favoured team than the managers. Some seem to believe anyone could do a better job than the incumbents.

Faldo and Azinger

Faldo and Azinger conform to the expectations of players and public. They need to be former Ryder cup captains, and ideally one of the available greats, playing in sufficiently recent memory in Ryder Cup battles to have iconic status in the minds of the players.

Faldo, and Azinger meet that requirement. Although I have no more to say on it, the selection of the captain is itself the outcome of leadership selection processes worth studying.

Faldo’s potential as captain, his playing career, and high-profile person life have all been extensively covered in Europe. Azinger’s profile has been far less examined, certainly in the UK press coverage. I suspect the converse holds in the USA (confirmation or otherwise of this point welcomed).

In his playing days, Faldo tended to present himself to the public as a somewhat taciturn figure. Public image was way back in his priorities to winning. But rapidly after this retirement he revealed concealed skills as a commentator, albeit still with a quirkiness and self-possession that had little of the professional camera appeaser of a Gary Lineker, a football star who also successfully made the transition to pundit and public figure.

As a player his obsessive style and determination always appeared to be accompanied by an intelligence applied to the multiple facets of winning golf tournaments. If there were pre-match rumblings, it was perhaps because the media expected more truculence and less treacle than usual from him.

Azinger presents himself as a more traditional sporting figure with a duty to treat the public and media with upbeat respect. The style may also be more of a necessity in the USA than in Europe, where the cultural differences of say the Scandinavians, Mediterraneans, and the Anglo-Saxons offer a wide range of personal styles for the public persona. Interviews with the players of both teams have always made fascinating viewing to the culture theorist as much as to the sports fan.

On Captaincy Choices, and Tall Poppies

I have not written much about tall poppies, shorthand for the process in which high-profile figures receive celebrity status and at the same time become vulnerable to attacks ‘to bring them down to earth’. The process began when Faldo, someone always likely to be unswayed by popular sentiment, omitted public favourite Darren Clarke, and appeared to have given Ian Poulter (another quirky and gifted personality) preferential treatment even as other players struggled for the automatic places available on the team through tournament rankings.

The decision-making process

The decision-making processes required of the Ryder Cup captain is massively complex. Faldo seems likely to have operated with little regard for the views of others, and after considerable conscious thought. Other successful captains such as Ian Woosnam have been far more intuitive. One such, on Sky Sport’s treatment was the much-admired earlier English icon Tony Jacklin.

As far as I can see, with little insight into the technicalities of the decision, the process has ultimately to reply on untested beliefs. Decisions are in part judgment calls. But the captains and their decisions are themselves judged on the performances of the players.

The Players

Like millions of others I have watched more of the contest than I expected to. Is it possible to write anything worthwhile about the Ryder Cup without reference to the heroic struggles of the players? Without these heart-stopping dramas upstage, and not as context, commentary is a near irrelevance.