Later this week at a resort hotel in Huntington Beach, California, a group of managers from a $2 billion program and construction management company will host a Shark Tank contest to conclude their two day conference. The winning team will receive funding to move forward with their concept, plaques, and heaps of praise from peers and the company’s CEO.
Such “idea bake-offs are part of a growing trend. In my travels of late, a surprising number of client companies are using Shark Tanks to elicit ideas from the troops, make real-time “go” or “no-go” decisions, and have some laughs in the process. (For my readers outside the United States, Shark Tank is a popular reality television series where contestants pitch their startup ideas to a panel of “shark” investors, often with lots of drama adding up to high ratings).
But whether you’re about to appear on Shark Tank, or just want to improve your effectiveness in this arena, here are my favorite tips to greater selling success:
- Realize that selling ideas is an essential skill. The days of top down, command-and-control leadership are over. These days, gentle persuasion or “leading from behind” is the new imperative, and “building the buy-in” (gaining alignment and support for a decision, idea or direction) is a vital part of the innovator’s toolkit. CEOs must sell their ideas to the board. Managers must sell their ideas to their teams and to senior managers and sponsors. Parents must sell their ideas to their offspring. And spouses should know how to sell their ideas to each other (“honey, don’t you think it would be fun to vacation in St. Croix this spring? There’s an incredible offer that just came in the mail.”)
- Do your homework. Before you try to sell an idea to others, sell yourself first. Gather the facts. At Gore-Tex maker WL Gore and Associates, they ask three questions of any potential opportunity: is it real? Can we win (if we take this to market)? Is it worth it? Think your idea through from these perspectives and size it up objectively. Do the necessary research as if your reputation depends on it, because it does. Be able to concisely summarize your concept from the standpoint of the user problem it solves and the opportunity it creates.
- Consider timing. You’re excited about the idea because, well, it’s your new baby. It’s natural to fall in love with your ideas, but is now the time to try and gain support to build and launch it? Would waiting till the end of budget season make more sense? Do you need to plant more seeds and talk up the idea informally before proposing it before the board? Decide on the best time to pitch the idea, and keep in mind that timing is everything, especially when selling ideas.
- Focus on what’s in it for them. “We invent by starting with the customer and working backwards,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told an interviewer. “The other guys (competitors) start by asking ‘what are we going to get out of this if we launch this idea?’” It’s never too early to ponder issues having to do with end-user value; what’s in it for them if they adopt and use your idea? Does your concept make their lives better, give them greater choice, simplify or increase speed? Does it help the company cut costs or improve engagement? The best idea evangelists focus on elucidating an idea’s benefits, the worst fixate on features and get lost in the weeds.
- Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm your idea-buyer with too many details, don’t slip into jargon that is familiar to you but Greek to your customer, and above all, avoid needless complexity. Concentrate on making the complex simple and understandable to the layperson, realizing that even the insiders will appreciate your gift at communication. If you can’t explain the essence of your idea in a few simple sentences, you haven’t thought it through sufficiently. If it’s a complex idea, come up with a metaphor.
- Help others visualize your idea. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a prototype can be worth a thousand pictures. A story illustrating some aspect of your idea, or a testimonial of how the idea is already in use elsewhere, can be of benefit in emotionalizing your audience. The more others truly understand your idea, the deeper their support. People don’t buy what they don’t understand, and social science research demonstrates that people are reluctant to admit that they are confused, and will go along silently without understanding. Make it a point to KISS: keep it simple stupid! Build a rapid prototype, create a stellar pitch deck (PowerPoint slides), or just sketch your idea out on a whiteboard, if that’s all you’ve got. They help people “see” your idea, and you help people come around to your way of thinking.
- Customize your communication style. How you sell an idea will depend to a great extent on the person or persons you’re selling it to. If you’re pitching to a numbers-obsessed idea selection team, that’s different audience than to a CEO whose goal is higher growth.
- Welcome feedback. If the idea checks out after you’ve done your homework, try out your pitch on trusted colleagues first to get the bugs out. Then, invite tough critics to poke at it and see if they can rattle you. If they can, you’ve got further homework to do to win. You can’t allow yourself to get defensive when they criticize your idea. You may not like what they have to say but realize their job is to discover flaws now rather than after you’re further along in the development stage. Think of these panelists as being on your side. Their feedback not only keeps you from overlooking weaknesses or better alternatives, but your openness and positive, humble attitude builds trust.
- Be open to input. One of the best ways to build support for your idea is to share it with others and ask for their suggestions on how it could be made even better. If you’ve thought it through and done your initial homework, you’ve earned the right to ask for their support and guidance. People love to give suggestions for improving an idea, and feel a sense of pride (and greater ownership) if they’ve helped shape your idea.