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.

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