How to Sell an Idea


Recently I was in a One Smooth Stone meeting to catch up on agency business and do some near-term planning. One of my colleagues, Jonathan, shared the story of how he gained a client’s buy-in to adopt an idea for an event. It was interesting to hear Jonathan’s story. He explained that at first, the client pushed back when Jonathan pitched an idea to create a video to complement an event presentation. Undeterred, Jonathan pitched the idea all over again by using a visual treatment in an event space. This time around, the client loved the idea.

Jonathan’s story underscores an important reality in the events and communications industry: there is no one-size-fits-all solution for pitching an idea. To gain a client’s buy-in, you need to tailor your approach depending on the type of person you’re working with. Here are some tips for selling an idea:

Find the Right Format

Jonathan’s example demonstrates why you need to find the right medium to share an idea. Jonathan succeeded when he tapped into his client’s appreciation for visual content, which has more emotional resonance. But not all clients respond to a visual treatment. I’ve been in Jonathan’s shoes many times (and continue to be). When I sense that I’m working with a left-brain thinker who has little patience for watching a more immersive explanation, I might rely on a simpler, direct narrative. In fact, there are times when it’s more effective to create a theater of the mind — to use words that help clients build their own visual impressions. I think the key is to understand whether you’re working with someone who responds more to words versus visuals. And to do that, you need to pay close attention to how a client responds to visual and verbal cues in your day-to-day conversations.

Give Clients a Choice

How many options should you share when you’re pitching an idea? If you share too many options, you can distract a client. But if you share only one, you risk backing you and your client into a corner with a risky all-or-nothing position. I suggest giving your client 2-3 ideas that you feel confident about. It’s totally fine to tell your client which idea you prefer, but I also believe giving your client something to say no to moves the process along. When you empower your client by providing a choice, you build trust. When you give a client no room to say no, you risk creating an idea gridlock or an uncomfortable situation.

Share the Right Amount of Detail

Some clients like to have every detail of an idea spelled out to them. Others want to hear just a few conceptual ideas that they can chew on and develop along with you. How much detail you share depends on whether you’re working with an idea person versus a process-oriented person. Idea people tend to be right-brain thinkers who are concerned with maximizing the wow factor. Process-oriented people are more concerned with the “how.” Idea people are more likely to respond to a high-concept approach that gives them a chance to offer a lot of input on the creative development. Process-oriented people will want to hear more detail about how your idea will succeed. This is not to say that the “wow” factor is unimportant to them; it’s just they expect a more detailed plan from the start for how the idea will be executed. Be ready for both audiences.

Find the Right Tone

Tone is as important as content when it comes to getting a client’s buy-in. Regardless of what kind of client you are working with, I’ve found it important to be confident without being overpowering. A client needs to see you believe in the idea you’re selling. After all, if you seem uncertain, why should your client have confidence in you? But if you dominate a meeting in which you are pitching an idea, you risk encountering the problem I mentioned earlier in this post, which is failing to empower a client. Gaining a client’s approval means respecting the reality that your client has the final say.

What’s Your Approach?

One of the reasons it’s so important to find the right approach to secure a client’s buy-in is that the process of doing so requires you to really get to know your client. Gaining approval to manage one idea for one event is but a short-term victory. When you sell an idea because you have taken the time to really understand your client, you form the basis of something far more valuable: a relationship.

What approaches do you use?

We Love Live. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing

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