Pitching a Big Idea
Here’s everything you need to know about pitching a big idea, including how to overcome 32 common objections to big ideas and 10 must-have attributes of a great big idea.
If you read this, you’ll be way ahead of the rest of the pack in terms of understanding why big ideas get shot down and how you can avoid that happening to your great ideas.
The Big Idea Fail: We’ve All Been There
You have a killer idea. It may be the best idea you – or anyone else – has ever come up with. But when you pitch it to management (or to a client) and it gets shot down immediately or it goes nowhere fast and dies a slow death.
What’s going on? What could you have done differently? Was it something you said? Could you have presented it differently and gotten approvals?
For a marketing agency like Walker Sands, an agency that takes great pride in our creativity, the success of our ideas is very relevant.
But in reality, getting approvals for big ideas is very relevant to anyone that draws breath.
Why? Because if we can’t move our ideas forward, what’s the point of trying? What’s the point of thinking? Why are we banging our heads against the wall, just to go nowhere fast?
A little later in the post, I’m going to cover 32 Common Objections to Big Ideas you’re likely to hear and how you can counter them. But before we get there, it’s important to have the right perspective about rejection.
A Rejected Idea Isn’t the End of the World
An executive I worked for long ago told me that “the hardest part about my job is saying no to great ideas…we just can’t do all of them.”
This might be small comfort when your big idea is rejected.
But essentially, he’s saying that it’s not necessarily that your idea was outright bad (although maybe it was).
Instead, maybe your idea just wasn’t good enough for people to pursue, relative to other ideas that were better than yours.
Take heart. If your idea really was a good one and it wasn’t acted on, here are three things to remember.
Big Idea Fail Consolation Prize #1: You’re an Idea Person
Rejection of your idea is not a total loss. You are now known as an “idea person,” and people will now appreciate your creativity and your initiative.
In our agency, we are often contacted by prospective clients who tell us their current agencies just doesn’t seem to have any creative, fresh ideas. We land the business because of our ideas. But in some cases, we’re surprised to later learn that the client doesn’t want to act on our great ideas.
I’m convinced that we get points just for having the ideas, even though the client isn’t willing to pursue them. In our business, people prefer to hang with creative, innovative types, not zombie dullards.
Long story short, a client might say, “I don’t like this idea” but they might be thinking, “I love that these folks come to me with these awesome ideas.”
Big Idea Fail Consolation Prize #2: No Doesn’t Always Mean No
The second consolation is that you may not win the battle, but you may be winning the war.
On more than one occasion, I’ve pitched a big idea and had it shot down only to see it get resurrected months later. The lesson: Sometimes “no” means “not now, maybe later.”
When you pitch a big idea, think of it as planting seeds. If you’re very lucky, they will grow immediately like the ones from Jack and the Beanstalk. But more likely they will grow slowly over time. And, eventually, the client will circle back to the idea when circumstances change and give it the green light.
I’m fairly certain it’s the subconscious contemplation of the idea over the course of many months that ultimately leads someone to suggest that it’s now the right time to move forward.
In other words, I believe it’s often because the big idea has aged over time that it gets activated – without the necessary incubation period, the likelihood that the idea would ever be approved is slim to none.
So, when you hear “no,” recognize that your decision maker might really mean “not now.” (By the way, being able to discern between the two is an art worth mastering – it’s a critical determinant of career advancement.)
Big Idea Fail Consolation Prize #3: Rejection Is Inevitable
You have to come to terms with the inevitability of rejection if you want to be in the big-idea-pitching business.
When you get rejected, remember that even the best baseball players strike out. A lot. Baseball legend Ted Williams once said that in baseball those who fail only seven times out of ten attempts will be the greatest in the game. Ty Cobb, who tops the batting average list, failed 63.4% of the time.
Andrew Davis, a speaker at a conference I attended recently and the author of Brandscaping says that a big idea involves “making a commitment to owning an audience instead of creating campaigns with short lives and rented audiences. When you (and your company) make a commitment to enhancing the lives of a specific audience you serve, then you end up increasing demand for the products and services you sell.”
Davis used to pitch TV show ideas. He said that after pitching 60 shows, his team had two relatively good successes. Tons of effort resulted in 58 “no” responses and two “yes” responses.
These are the types of success rates you need to be comfortable with. If you’ve been rejected 58 times, your big break may be just around the corner. Like they teach in sales training classes, every “no” gets you closer to “yes.”
When your big idea is turned down, smile and move on, with the understanding that nobody gets every pitch approved.
It helps if you don’t have too much ego wrapped up in one idea. Instead, know that you will have another at-bat soon and think about what you learned from your “no” so you can increase your odds of success the next time.
32 Common Objections to Big Ideas
Let’s get down to business. In sales, it’s good to anticipate sales objections and prepare for them.
Given that pitching a big idea is just a niche form of selling, we need to apply this process to pitching big ideas. Let’s work through all the big idea objections, and explain how to address them.
By the way, after we get through these objections, I’m going to translate this discussion into 10 Key Attributes of a Good Big Idea Pitch.
Objection #1: “No.”
This is really a non-objection, since they aren’t giving you any feedback. When you get a simple “no” without any reason for the rejection, you need to probe and get the details. This can be an awkward exercise, especially when you have to relelentlessly dig to find the root cause.
You might first say something like, “I understand that you are not interested in this idea, but I’m curious what specifically is missing the mark. Do you mind elaborating on why you’re not interested in pursuing this idea?”
Most people are reticent to tell you the real reason they are rejecting your big idea, so you need to keep pushing and not take their statements at face value.
For example, if you push past “no” and the decision maker says, “We don’t have budget for this,” then you might say, “What else? Let’s say money was no object. If you did have budget, or let’s say we got crazy and offered to do this idea for free, would you pursue this? Or would you change it in some way? So I can learn from this exercise, what else strikes you as not being right about this idea and are there aspects of it that you like?”
If you keep pressing, you’ll find the real reason, which may be something you can address and still get to “yes” eventually. Even if you can’t keep the big idea pitch alive, you can at least pick up some “lessons learned” from your efforts and increase the odds of getting an approval the next time.
Objection #2: “It doesn’t align with our priorities.”
You should never get this objection.
Before you pitch a big idea, you need to be intimately aware of the pitch recipient’s organizational (and personal) priorities. What are the business goals? What are their marketing objectives? Is there a high-level strategy that your big idea needs to accommodate?
With those insights in mind, your big idea pitch absolutely must tie the idea to what the organization wants to accomplish, and do so in a compelling fashion.
Alternatively, if you think the organization’s priorities are shortsighted or outright wrong, your pitch needs to address that. Maybe you say, “I know that your priorities are X, Y and Z, but here are four reasons why you might want to consider adding W into the mix. This big idea nails the W objective for you.”
Objection #3: “No, because I want that money for my pet project.”
Many of these objections won’t be said out loud, but they may be thought. This is one of those objections.
Big ideas cost money. I recently pitched a big idea to a company, and a senior person in the room, one of several, made a move to co-opt the idea (and the money behind it) and channel everything to advance his business unit.
A counter argument was made by others that the big idea as it had originally been presented was good for the entire company. But in the end, the idea had to be morphed to chase after the original big idea, while carving out a portion of the effort to be more focused on lead gen for that one business unit.
It happens. Sometimes the best approach is to modify your big idea to accommodate the needs of others. Handle this big idea sales objection with grace. The key takeaway here: Be flexible about your idea and leave your ego at the door.
Objection #4: “I don’t think Bob will like that.”
This one drives me crazy. There’s somebody one or two levels up the chain in the organization that everyone is afraid of. Every decision-maker in the organization channels ideas through a, “Will Bob (or Jane or whoever) like this?” filter because they’re worried that they will get fired because Bob didn’t like what they did.
So, doing nothing, or doing what they’ve always done, is the safest career move.
In this case, it’s not that Bob is a decision maker in the traditional sense. Rather, he’s a larger than life figure at the company, and everyone wants to do right by him. These Bobs tend to be uber-busy and never accessible in my experience.
The only way to overcome this objection is to avoid it. The entire organization is obsessed with what Bob thinks and is starving for Bob love and trying to channel their inner-Bob on every decision. So, you’ve got to do that, too.
Before you get to the idea stage, you need to find out what projects Bob has liked, and then part of your big idea pitch game plan has to include directly explaining why this big idea of yours is something that Bob will absolutely love (and don’t forget to remind the folks that work for Bob that he will also love anybody that is involved with the project).
Objection #5: “If this fails, I may get fired.”
This isn’t an objection that anybody states explicitly, but if you were a mind reader, you’d be surprised how common it is.
Notice that this objection is not about organizational risk. When I think about risk, I think about it as quantifying the potential for meaningful loss. A concern with organizational risk would be expressing worry that the big idea might fail in a way that is negative to the organization. With this big idea objection, the person is more concerned with personal risk.
It shouldn’t surprise us. We know from economic and decision theory research that people strongly prefer avoiding a loss to acquiring a gain.
So how can you overcome a big idea pitch challenge in which a decision maker is afraid to try something new because their career advancement and job security could be negatively impacted by the outcome?
To change a person’s core personality from being risk averse to being more comfortable with risk would require you to start them on a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program. It’s just not going to happen.
My advice is that you need to proactively address this personal risk and make sure your decision maker has assurances from his higher-ups that they want him to take risks and that they will not punish risk-takers.
To do this, you need a fearless champion, someone at a higher level than the rest of the decision makers, who says to the group: “We need to do something big. We are taking a new approach that embraces risk taking. This will be my initiative and if it fails, that is fine. Often, we learn by failing and the best successes come when we get outside of our comfort zone.”
The implication of this approach is that long before you get to pitching a specific big idea, you’ve got to pitch the idea of people being receptive to a big idea. Any big idea.
One approach we’ve seen work well with Walker Sands clients is getting the CEO to endorse the idea of a Big Idea Offsite Retreat to brainstorm on big ideas. Once that initiative is announced, everyone starts to feel comfortable with taking on a little more risk.
Getting the CEO to do this is a sales effort unto itself, but it’s the best way to eliminate this objection to your big idea pitch – and many of the others below.
Objection #6: “I’m not convinced about the ROI.”
I’m guessing you didn’t invest all that time and effort thinking through your big idea without anticipating that this sales objection would come up if you don’t cover it explicitly in your presentation.
If you’ve prepared well for your big idea pitch, it includes a discussion on the benefits and the ROI.
Only rookie big idea pitchers get this objection. Make sure you nip it in the bud by addressing ROI up front and backing it up with solid numbers.
Objection #7: “We don’t have the money.”
This sales objection is often a red herring. The best response: “I know it’s an investment. But let me ask you this. If you had the money, what else would make you hesitate about moving forward with this idea?”
People tend to find money for great ideas. When money isn’t available, it’s not a question of budget, it’s a question of benefit.
One way to approach this is to ask them when budget might be available. In some cases, if they really like the idea, you can get budget allocated for, say, next year. It’s a delayed sale, but remember what we said earlier about how big idea pitches often plant seeds that are reaped later? If money is tight now, maybe it won’t be in the future.
Another approach for this objection is to have a pared-down or phased approach in your back pocket. The big idea costs $250,000 but you’ve got a version of it than can be done for $100,000. It’s good to have these scaled-down options figured out before you go into the pitch meeting.
Start as big as you can because you’ll often get the response, “That’s a great idea. Is there a way to do it on a slightly smaller scale?” In contrast, it’s rare to hear somebody respond to an idea pitch with, “That’s a great idea, but what could we do that would be even bigger than that?”
Objection #8: “I like to talk big, but act small.”
This is another sub-conscious objection that you’ll need to learn how to sniff out. Sometimes you get people who frequently ask for big ideas, but never pull the trigger on them.
Why do they ask for them? Because they get a personal thrill from talking about ideas. Their adrenalin flows and the endorphins kick in to give them a high. But it’s the talk they love, not the action.
I find the only solution here, frankly, is not to pitch them. Your creativity is not a drug that people can take to get high. It needs to be executed upon and used to change the world for the better.
Don’t walk away from these big talkers. Run.
Objection #9: “I can’t decide between all of your ideas.”
Avoid this objection by not overwhelming the folks you are pitching. Loads of people hated multiple choice tests in school, and an overabundance of choices freezes them like deer in headlights.
I’m among that crew. I can’t stand restaurants that have menus with 50 million options. It hurts my brain, and I know I’m not alone.
Unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise, I recommend that you pitch a single idea — your best idea. You can have some backup ideas at the ready if your big idea is a flop, but only use them as a last resort. And don’t pull them out until you know the first idea is at a dead stop and doesn’t have a chance.
Too often, when pitching a big idea, people ask, “What do you think?” and when they can’t stand the wait and the silence, they quickly undermine their own idea. “It’s just one idea. And it might not work. But I’ve got three other ideas here.”
If you do that, you’ve just killed the deal on your big idea. Let your customer kill your big idea, not you. Embrace the silence after you ask for the client’s thoughts and don’t panic.
Objection #10: “Not now, maybe later.”
In the past, I used this a lot. It let me be polite to somebody who is selling me something, and not feel like I had hurt their feelings. But I’ve abandoned it now that I realize it’s just a waste of time and only encourages the person to keep asking me about something I don’t want.
But sometimes this is an honest response. The person you are pitching may really think they will take you up on your big idea later.
The lesson is that this one requires further probing. If I heard it, I might say something like:
“Listen, I’ve said that before myself. Sometimes I mean it and sometimes I’m just trying to dismiss the person. It’s important for you to be clear with me on which meaning you have in mind when you say it. Because if you really aren’t interested, I need to know or else I’ll keep bugging you about it. But if you are interested, I want to understand your thoughts on timing and next steps for further discussion.”
Objection #11: “We’ve never done that before.”
It’s hard to avoid rolling your eyes when you hear this one, isn’t it?
You want to say: “Well, yeah, you’ve never done it before. Did you want me to come in here and pitch you on things you’ve done before? Things that you’ve already told me are not moving the needle on your business goals? The whole idea of me being here is to bring you novel ideas, isn’t It? Hello!”
Of course, you can’t say that.
You have to say something more like this: “I know this would be a fresh approach for you, but it’s something that many others have used with great success and that’s one of the main reasons we are bringing it to you.”
With this approach, you must be ready to talk explicitly about who else has done something similar. By explaining who else has done it and how well it’s worked for them, you make the big idea less risky and that makes it more likely that you will get the “yes” you are hoping for.
Objection #12: “I just wanted to see your creativity.”
Very similar to Objection #8 (“I like to talk big, but act small”) above. In this case, you were just being tested for your ability to come up with good ideas.
Actually, I have no problem with this sales roadblock when our agency is already being compensated for other work. For example, if we have a monthly retainer and a client says, “You’re not bringing us new ideas lately. We’d like to see some fresh thinking,” I’m more than happy to go through big idea ideation cycles and the pitch effort, even if I know they won’t buy.
If you’re window shopping, but you’re already renting the house from me, no problem. In all other cases, well, see #8 above. Moveon.org, as my kids used to say. Life is too short.
Objection #13: “I don’t like the idea.”
I love this objection because it’s usually based on something real, and we can have a conversation about what’s wrong with the big idea.
In some cases, you can turn it around and change the idea to address specific perceived weaknesses. Or you can have a good dialogue about whether the perceived weaknesses are real or might, in fact, be unlikely or overblown.
In the worst case, they are right that the idea is flawed, and you get to learn why. This makes you smarter for the future and informs future ideas that you come up with.
It’s all good with this sales objection. The only time it gets rough is if the person cannot articulate what they don’t like. In that scenario, you need to be able to guide the conversation to get to what they really don’t like.
Objection #14: “Nobody else has done this.”
This is different from “we’ve never done this” (#11 above). In this case, the client for your big idea is saying that nobody in the world has done what you’re suggesting.
This one is likely to rub you the wrong way. You’ve come up with a wildly brilliant original concept, and your client is effectively saying, “Nope. I’d rather do what everybody else is doing. I don’t want to be different. Give me something a little less original.”
Despite your instincts to feel frustrated, it’s best to interpret this comment as conveying a fear of risk, which is probably what is really being said here.
To overcome the fear of risk, you need to focus your response on why this is a low-risk proposition.
That may involve explaining that parts of your big idea are not new and are battle-tested, proven concepts. Others haven’t done it exactly like this, but they’ve done pieces of it. That’s why you think your concept can work, and why it’s not as “out there” or risky as it might seem at first glance.
Objection #15: “Did I ask for this?”
Never offer a big idea to a completely unreceptive audience.
Long before the meeting when you pitch your big idea, you need to plant seeds for it and make sure your decision maker is open to the idea of a big idea or completely new approach.
You might say:
“There are some things we’ve seen in the market that are different from what you are doing now, but they are working really well for the companies that are trying them. If, as we continue to work together, we come to you with some big ideas, new approaches or radical concepts, is that something you’d like us to do? I ask because in some cases, people just really have no interest in thinking through big ideas, so there’s no sense wasting everybody’s time. What’s your perspective on this?”
Objection #16: “I like this, but I don’t think you can execute on it.”
Sometimes when you pitch a big idea, people will be skeptical of your ability to execute.
Suppose a client hired us to get PR placements, and now we are encouraging them to have the CEO write a book and build a microsite and marketing lead gen campaign around it. Since they aren’t aware of our other capabilities, they’re skeptical.
Again, this is one where you deal with the objection by planting seeds early. Weeks and months prior to pitching your big idea, let them know about things you are doing that would ultimately make them feel confident that you can execute on your big idea. During your big idea presentation, allude to your skills and success stories that address this objection.
Objection #17: “I am not a decider.”
This is a sales mistake – one I make more often than I’d care to admit.
I present the idea to a person who is not the final decision maker. Regardless of whether the non-deciders like or dislike your idea, you’re doomed in this scenario.
Again, you have to ask the question multiple times in multiple ways prior to your meeting. Any and all of these questions come in handy:
- “Who would need to be in the room to make a decision on this?”
- “What about John, your CEO? Would he need to give this a green light?”
- “I had one client where we got really far along with a great idea. We were a couple of months into it and then the CMO looked at it, having not been involved at all, and put the kibosh on the whole project. Has anything like that ever happened here? Are there any decision makers who might enter the equation late in the game, and need to get their two cents in? Should we get them involved now?”
By the way, if you do get all the decision makers in the room, recognize that not all decision makers are created equally. There may be one individual, not necessarily the most senior person, who is respected by all the others. Everyone else will follow that person’s lead. In this case, you may want to focus your presentation heavily toward that person’s point of view.
But be careful. If you only speak to one decision maker and ignore the others, you may risk pissing them off, resulting in something like this: “I don’t like her idea. She didn’t make eye contact with me once during the meeting.”
It’s a balancing act, deciding how to speak to multiple players in the room. Like most things in life, you’ll find that practice makes perfect.
Objection #18: “I am the decider (but I lie).”
As with Objection #17, we’re concerned about a worst-case scenario in which we sell a big idea to some folks only to find out later that we were not talking to the right folks.
Typically, when you dig deep to find the decision makers you’ll get a straight answer.
But sometimes, for weird reasons, people will say they can decide when in fact they can’t. There are some hidden decision makers out there, and your contact won’t be honest about who they are.
Maybe it’s hubris. The cause doesn’t really matter; you just need to work past this obstacle by doing whatever you can to avoid it before you pitch.
In addition to the questions asked in Objection #17, ask questions like, “Once you’ve made your decision, who else will need to hear about this idea?”
Notice that with this approach you are not questioning the facts as to who makes the decisions. Once you get an answer, you can ask if it might make sense to have those other people in your pitch meeting to make sure you get appropriate feedback on the concept.
In many cases, however, no matter what you try you won’t get access to the real decision maker. Sometimes, this is because there is a gated pathway to a more senior decision maker. For example, maybe the CMO doesn’t want to let you present to the CEO until after the CMO hears your concept and buys into it.
If the path to a final decision is tiered in this fashion, it’s important that you get that critical path defined by your contacts.
Maybe you say, “OK, just so I’m clear, we will present to you and the marketing team on Monday. If you like the idea, we’ll have the opportunity to incorporate your feedback into our presentation and then present to the CEO the week after next. Is that right?”
You just want to take all the ambiguity out of the process and get clarity around what’s needed.
One more thing: Sometimes you’ll present to your contact and then he will ask for the decision from somebody else. This is bad because you are no longer in control of the sale. If they present the concept in tepid fashion or neglect to include your discussion of benefits and ROI, the idea can get shot down by somebody who is reading an email on their smartphone while getting out of a taxi.
An approach that can mitigate this is to record your pitch in a short video. Then, ask your contact to share the video with the hidden decision maker you weren’t allowed to meet. At least with this approach, you control how your big idea is presented.
Not ideal, but better than the alternative!
Objection #19: “We like our way better.”
Sadly, some people think that the best way to stay on a straight path is to keep one wheel in a rut.
Social scientists call it status quo bias. It’s an emotional devotion to the current state of affairs, and a perception that abandoning the old way for the new way is a loss. Did I mention earlier that humans prefer avoiding a loss to acquiring a gain? That’s what’s happening when you hear this objection.
They are not willing to try new alternatives. Your job is to convince them that there might be a better alternative to “business as usual.”
Here are a few questions that might get these folks off the dime:
- “What if I could show you that this idea is more productive for you than what you are doing now and has a higher ROI than your current approach? Would you be open to considering my idea if that were the case?”
- “My understanding is that you’re not hitting your objectives with the current approach. Do you think it might be time to try a new approach?”
- “What if you don’t have to do this the way I’ve outlined it? I think we can scale it down and run a small, affordable pilot to test the results. If we took a more measured approach and tested it, would you be willing to consider moving forward?”
- “What we’re talking about here isn’t abandoning your way. You’d keep doing that, but you would start down this path in parallel. Who knows? You might find that you like this approach better than your old way. We’ll never know until we try it, will we? Does that approach of running this in parallel to your current methods address some of your concerns?”
The most important thing on this one is that your big idea must solve a known pain point that your decision maker has shared with you.
There’s an expression in sales: “No goal, no prospect.” It means that you cannot sell something to someone who isn’t looking for a solution and who isn’t dissatisfied with business as usual.
In other words, when you get this objection, look in the mirror. Did you understand what your customer was trying to accomplish and confirm that need with them before you started working on your big idea? If you did do the necessary upfront diagnostic work, ask yourself: Does my big idea address their issue in a way that was better than how they are currently handling it?
Objection #20: “It’s too expensive.”
Money doesn’t grow on trees, and many big ideas don’t get funded because money is tight. But this is an avoidable and surmountable sales objection.
I assume there’s a purpose to your big idea, right? Maybe it builds brand awareness, reduces or avoids costs, increases revenues, improves operational results or advances a specific organizational objective.
This objection is similar to #6 (“I’m not convinced of the ROI”) above. To avoid this objection, find out in advance what the client is willing to spend to overcome the problem that your big idea addresses.
Sometimes you have to put this together from little bits of information. Maybe your decision maker has told you that they need more leads. From there, you need to ask how much a lead is worth. Many people don’t know, so you need to walk them through it. When you eventually arrive at a number, you’re armed with the data you need to decide whether the idea is worth pursuing: is the cost of executing your big idea less than the probably benefits that it will create by attracting new leads?
If you’ve done the math and have a positive ROI calculation in hand, present it as part of your big idea pitch.
Once you’ve done that, nobody can say the project is too expensive without either questioning your assumptions or presenting an alternative use of funds that has a higher ROI. It’s not easy to navigate this discussion (you have to avoid insulting the other party). But you can often come out on top if you’re prepared for this objection.
Objection #21: “I’m not sure this will work.”
Uncertainty is a certainty in life. But it’s often an excuse that decision makers use to reject a big idea. When there’s doubt about whether a big idea will work, here are some responses that might help:
- “I’m with you on that. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. But we won’t know unless we try it, will we? If it works, we’ll be heroes and you will have set a new high mark for the organization. On the flip side, as long as we manage expectations, there’s very little downside.”
- “We’ve seen this work well for many other companies with transformative results. I wouldn’t bring it to you if I didn’t think it was going to work out well for all of us. I willing to put my neck on the line and my reputation on the line for this because I believe it’s going to be incredibly successful.”
- “It’s interesting that you say that. What specifically do you think are the weak links in this idea? Did you disagree with any of the underlying assumptions for this idea. If so, which ones do you think I’ve got wrong.”
Although the dialogue that comes from the above responses might allow you to still get a win on your big idea pitch, it’s best to avoid this objection in the first place (notice a theme here?).
And the best approach is to avoid having it be your idea in the first place.
Work with your decision makers in a way that leads to them thinking your great idea is their great idea. Very few people will shoot down their own ideas in a public setting, so once you’ve given ownership of your idea to your decision makers, you should be good to go.
How do you plant an idea in somebody’s head? Do you need to be a hypnotist to do it? No. It’s an entirely different subject from what I’m talking about here, but Google it. It can be done. (Actually, I’ll provide some good books to read later in this article if you are interested in this topic.)
The human mind is as amazing as it is malleable. I recently read a study that found that just asking someone, “How likely are you to buy a Starbucks coffee today?” will actually increase the likelihood that they will buy a Starbucks coffee! How crazy is that?
If you ask someone, “How likely is it that you will be willing to consider a big marketing idea that is different from anything you’ve ever done before?” you are actually making it more likely that they will be receptive to a big idea. Pretty weird, eh?
Is planting an idea ethical? Yes, if your idea is really good for the people you are working with. If so, it’s benign persuasion. If not, it’s slimy unethical manipulation. You get to make the call.
Objection #22: “Didn’t Archenemy Inc. do this?”
You’ll get this objection in one of two scenarios: 1) a competitor did the same thing, or 2) the competitor did something similar.
In the first scenario, if you knew that a competitor already did the idea and you didn’t mention it, shame on you. If you didn’t even know that the competitor already did the idea, double shame on you.
In the second scenario, in which a competitor did something similar, your rebuttal will have to focus on why this idea is different and why it’s unlikely that anybody will say you copied the competitor — and even if they do, who cares because the ROI will be so high?
Blinding glimpse of the obvious: Either of these scenarios is a bad place to be. Instead, pitch a novel idea that hasn’t already been done by the competition. Duh.
Objection #23: No decision.
You pitch. They say they’ll think about it. You never hear back from them.
Grrrr. How inconsiderate!
First things first — don’t shoot the messenger.
Have you done all of the things I mentioned above? Did you make sure you had permission to pitch a big idea? Did you demonstrate ROI on your big idea? Did you ensure that you were talking to decision-makers? Did you aggressively probe for feedback on your big idea?
More importantly, was your big idea actually a good idea? A good big idea never results in no decision, believe me. A good big idea is worth acting on. So, before you blame the other side for not deciding, be honest with yourself about whether you might have done the same thing if you were in their shoes.
Poppycock, you say. My idea did pass muster, and I did everything you’ve mentioned. OK, nice job, and here’s how to avoid “no decision.”
During your initial pitch meeting, when you sense that you are not going to get a decision, try saying something along these lines near the end:
“We’ve put a lot of time and effort into this, as I’m sure you can tell. We think it’s a great big idea for you, and I have only one request. We’d like closure on your decision within [insert the time period that makes sense]. If I don’t hear from you within [another shorter time period that makes sense], I’ll get into my usual, relentless pestering mode because, as a rule, I don’t expect “no decision” as a result when I pitch a great idea like this one. If you’re not going to do it, I need to know why — and if it’s really not the right big idea for you, then I’d like to find a home for it somewhere else.”
You have to tailor that speech to your own style, and to the context of your relationship with the folks you are pitching, but you get the idea, right? Rather than wait for something you don’t like to happen (e.g., no decision), you bring it up early and tell the other party that it’s not an option. It’s like inoculating yourself against a virus. Life sucks if you get a virus and never had an inoculation against it, so why not mitigate the risk up front?
Objection #24: “Whoa. That idea is too crazy for us!”
Know your audience and their comfort zone.
Imagine this scenario. You’re pitching a prospect that has asked your advice on how to sell to CIOs. They’ve relied on some big companies for 90 percent of their revenues, and now the big companies are going with a DIY approach, killing market share and crushing revenues and profitability. It’s a big problem that needs a big idea — and the ROI has to come quickly.
Your big idea solves the problem, but it’s not something that anybody has done before. You pitch it and you get the, “Whoa. Too crazy for us!” response.
When that happens, it’s time to use a selling technique called “frame control.” Basically, your decision maker is looking through a certain frame, and you need to get them out of that frame and into a frame that allows them to move forward. They might be think through a logistical frame: “How could this big idea actually get implemented?” Or a cost frame: “This is way more than we want to spend.”
But frame-control selling recognizes that some frames trump other frames. Rather than getting mired in the details, you’ll want to escalate the frame to a higher level. Maybe you try something like this:
“It may sound a little crazy, but what’s really crazy would be seeing the legacy of your founder and the legacy of everything you’ve accomplished as an organization go down the toilet — simply because folks here got too risk averse. This company was built based on risk taking. Hell, this whole country was built on risk taking. What’s at risk here is your job, the future of all your co-workers, the ability to pay for your and your colleagues’ kids’ college educations, all of your reputations, everything. If ever there was a time to be bold and try something crazy, I think this is it, wouldn’t you agree?”
OK, that’s a little over the top, but the idea is to not let a small-minded frame kill your big idea. Don’t get mired in the details. Instead, explain at a very emotional and personal level why your idea is not crazy and why it should be pursued.
Objection #25: “Why aren’t we getting more placements?”
You won’t hear this one as a verbatim, but you might get something similar. As it’s worded, this is a possible big idea objection for our agency, Walker Sands, because PR is one of our core offerings (and we’re awesome at it, by the way).
The scenario is that we’re helping a client with PR and we come to them with a brilliant idea that is outside that box. I
Instead of being receptive to our big idea pitch, they drill down on what they’ve hired us to do and typically the inference, if we’re listening, is that we are not getting them enough media placements.
The lesson here is simple: People are only receptive to a big idea when they are happy and when they trust you.
The day after we’ve gotten a client great media placements in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Fortune is the perfect day to say, “I’ve got a great new idea I want to run by you.”
If we’ve had a string of bad luck and the placements have been few and far between, then the client is likely doubting our ability to deliver. Presenting a big idea to them could backfire in a big way, as in “Stop wasting our time with these crazy ideas. Focus on what we hired you to do. Every second you spend on ideas like this that are not related to PR is time you should be spending on getting us better results.”
Yeah, not good. I think I’ve said everything that needs to be said on this one. Timing is everything. Time any discussion of a big idea based on when your client is happy and when they trust you.
But here’s the catch: Although you can control the trust that people have in you, their happiness depends on many things outside of your control. If they’ve just closed a great quarter, they are happy. If they had a fight with their spouse, they might be unhappy. Hungry and tired? Unhappy.
Objection #26: “We tried this before.”
If this one is true, then you haven’t done your homework before pitching a big idea.
It’s critically important that you are intimately familiar with everything the client’s past projects and initiatives. Never pitch something that has already been done. The best case is that it makes you look lazy and unprofessional; the worst case is that it was a total flop and you’re re-pitching them on a losing concept.
To be fair, you’ll sometimes get this big idea objection when you’re proposing an idea that is only similar to something they’ve done before. Simply explain how your big idea is different from what they’ve done before.
Objection #27: “This is too big. Can we test it?”
Here, you’re dealing with someone that likes to take small precautionary steps. If you think that’s not wise, you can try changing the frame, as I’ve discussed above. But testing your big idea might not be a bad thing.
Maybe there’s a way to build an MVP (minimum viable product) version of your big idea or mock it up so it can be shown to others. You could then test the idea out with the target audience and ask for their feedback. In addition to managing risk, this also helps you refine the big idea. It’s a smart approach.
Given that this objection might come up, you should prepare for it. The best answer is:
“I thought you might bring that up and it’s smart thinking. Here’s how we envision this unfolding, and you’ll be happy to know that we’ve built in a few checkpoints that allow us to test the idea. After each checkpoint milestone, you can decide whether to keep going, cancel the project or tweak it based on the feedback we get.”
Objection #28: “I can’t visualize this.”
This one is easy: Never present a big idea without visuals.
Everybody processes information in different ways, but the most common perception types are Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Auditory Digital. Google it.
Research shows that, in developed countries, most of us are Visual learners, and that means your big idea should always be presented with some great visuals. Doing design spec work for a big idea is critical if you want to increase the likelihood of success when pitching a big idea.
Because at the end of the day, a picture really can be worth a thousand words.
Objection #29: “How many leads will this generate?”
How many leads will it generate?
If this question comes up, you need to have an answer, like:
“Our preliminary math on this suggests we can get 500 leads from this. The cost per lead is 1/10th of what you have been getting from other initiatives. We also think these leads will close in half the time, relative to your sales cycles from last year. At your current close rates and your average sale value, the impact on topline revenues is …”
If it’s a dumb question, you need a smart answer to prove that it’s a dumb question, as in:
“All our research and our conversations with you to date suggest that your biggest challenge is building awareness of the pain point you address and raising awareness of the brand. So, in the short term, how many hot leads will we get you? Probably none. But if you don’t get awareness of the issue in front of people ASAP and let them know about your brand, you won’t have any bottom-of-funnel leads in the mid- or long-term.”
Objection #30: “We’re too busy for this.”
We’re all busy. But even though busy is the new normal, it’s an objection that you will hear from time to time. The good news is hiring our agency is the perfect antidote to the “too busy” argument.
A good response might be:
“I thought you might say that, and here’s my workplan to overcome it. Since we are doing the heavy lifting for you, it’s really not burdensome at all. As you can see, based on this plan, we only need a total of 8 hours of your time over 2 months, and we need 12 hours of Mary’s time. That seems pretty reasonable, wouldn’t you agree?”
Or you could say:
“Yes, I know this is your busiest time of year, putting together plans and budgets for next year and closing contracts before the end of the year. But I’ve heard that things really slow down here in January. What if we started working on it now, letting you folks focus on more important things, and we’ll schedule all of your involvement for your two slow months.”
Objection #31: “We’ll think about it”.
This one is pretty similar to the “no decision” objection, but the difference is you’re still in the room (or on the phone or on the GoToMeeting).
My first tip for you on this one is to never let this objection come up when the meeting is ending and everybody is running to their next obligation. Try to time things so that if this is an objection, it comes out at least five minutes before the end of your presentation.
If you time it right, you can probe for more details, by saying something like: “Help me understand how you’ll think about it. What is your decision-making process going to be like from this point on? What are the biggest factors for you? If you can elaborate on that now, I may be able to advise you, in the few minutes we have left, on how to navigate, and think about, some of those issues.”
Of course, allotting just five minutes to this big idea objection at the end of the meeting is not ideal. It’s better to run the meeting so these types of questions come up much earlier, possibly even before your final presentation. In general, avoiding sales objections is always preferable to having to overcome sales objections.
Objection #32: “What else do you have?”
My initial thoughts on this one typically runs along these lines: “Seriously? I pitched you on an amazing big idea. You’re not going to give me feedback on it, and you just want me to move along to another big idea and forget this great idea?” (There are usually a few mental expletives mixed into those thoughts.)
When I hear this pushback, I don’t give any other ideas. Doing so diminishes the brilliance of my first idea. At minimum, if my brilliant big idea isn’t brilliant, I need to know where I missed the mark. Instead, I’d push back and find out what’s wrong with the first idea.
Other people who pitch big ideas like to have a few backup ideas in their hip pocket, just in case the big idea falls flat. There’s also a theory that some folks have a hard time saying yes or no to one idea, but it’s easier for them to pick the best of three big ideas. This is a big idea objection that doesn’t have a single right answer on how to address it, so you’ll have to decide what works best for you, try it a few times and evolve your strategy from there.
10 Key Attributes of a Good Big Idea Pitch
Still with me? Impressive!
As we walked through our 32 common objections to big idea pitches, you probably saw a few useful themes. Based on everything I’ve discussed so far, here are my top 10 attributes of a strong big idea pitch.
- #1 Original and Creative. You can’t walk into the room and pitch something that everybody else is already doing.
- #2 Objectives-Based. The big idea has to solve a big problem. A big idea that addresses whatever is keeping people up at night is probably on track to get a good reception. Your big idea must be delivered with care, meaning that you really have to know and care about the problems you are trying to solve!
- #3 Career-Enhancing. The people who decide on your big idea may work for an organization, but make sure you answer the “What’s in this for me?” question that most people are constantly thinking about, even though they don’t usually say it out loud.
- #4 Visual. If people can visualize your big idea, they are 40 percent more likely to give it the green light. That’s not a real stat, but, in your heart, you know it’s right.
- #5 Financially Sound. Most people won’t spend money on a big idea that is a money loser. Including ROI estimates, even if you have to value intangibles, is a must for anyone who pitches big ideas.
- #6 Delivered by a Salesperson. Sales are closed by people who know how to sell. The person who actually came up with the idea may not be the best person to pitch.
- #7 Pre-Sold and Asked For. Don’t spring a big idea on somebody unannounced. Time it right and make sure they are willing to hear what you have to say.
- #8 Risk-Mitigated. Most of us are not as fearless as we should be. You need to anticipate fears (aka sales objections) and head them off at the pass. It’s a good idea to role play your pitch several times with outsiders to make sure you address every possible risk that might be raised during your presentation.
- #9 Two-Way. Throughout the pitch, ask questions and get feedback. The best-case scenario is that people leave the meeting thinking “we built and refined this idea together,” rather than having it be all about you. Don’t “we, we, we” all over yourself — that’s how I heard somebody describe the sin of one-way sales pitches recently, and it’s a good phrase for big idea sellers to remember.
- #10 Visualizable. Visualizable is different from visual. When your big idea is visualizable, it means your decision makers can see that your big idea is not only doable, but that it’s the right and smart thing to do – because life will be better if they move forward. This happens when folks envision a future state that is better than the current state, and they see that the path to get to the future state is an easy one. Once they see the promised land of your big idea, they’ll want to make the journey with you.
Final Words (You Can Decide If They Are Final Words of Wisdom)
Here are a few final thoughts on pitching big ideas. I’ve shared these thoughts with others in the past, and I was told they were helpful.
Make Sure They’ve Got the Basics Covered
Innovators are often called troublemakers behind their back. If you want to pitch big ideas for a living, you should know that idea people are not beloved by everyone, even me at times.
Maybe you know the story of Frederick the Mouse. It’s summarized as follows by the book publishers: “Winter is coming, and all the mice are gathering food . . . except for Frederick. But when the days grow short and the snow begins to fall [and they start to run out of food], it’s Frederick’s stories that warm the hearts and spirits of his fellow field mice.”
My initial reaction to the book was ” Frederick! If you had just done your share of the work when the other mice were busting their tails, you all probably wouldn’t have run out of food in the first place!”
Relating this back to what we do at our marketing agency, Walker Sands, I believe a company should only pursue big marketing ideas after they have all the basics in place. That includes having great branding, a strong product, good messaging, a high-functioning sales force, a website that generates leads and competent marketing tactical execution (PR, events, SEO, PPC, remarketing, social, collateral, marketing automation, email marketing, etc.).
Sometimes the right answer is: “You want a big idea? I’m going to be honest. You’re not ready for a big idea. If I give you a great idea, you’re not going to be able to capitalize on its full potential because you don’t have the fundamentals of good marketing in place.”
In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s marketing malpractice to pitch somebody on a big idea when you know they can’t get the benefits from your idea because they are weak on the basics. Get their fundamentals in shape first and then pitch them on your big ideas.
Of course, if your big idea has nothing to do with marketing, you’ll have to define your own ground rules. An idea to save your company tons of money, for example, would not be contingent on good marketing infrastructure being in place.
But my advice to you is don’t be a Frederick. When everyone is in survival mode, and there’s tons of work to be done, that might not be the right time to be spouting great big ideas that don’t solve the acute problem at hand. That’s a bit like being in the emergency room, in intense pain and needing surgery, and the doctor says: “Have you considered writing a book about this experience? I have a friend who is a publisher.” You: “No, shut up. I’m in pain. No big ideas! Now is not the time.”
In Trust We Trust
This one is short and sweet. Buy and read David Maister’s The Trusted Advisor. You’ll be glad you did.
Trust is a prerequisite for credibly pitching a big idea. If your audience views you as a smart, trustworthy ally, your chances of success in pitching a big idea will be much higher than if people think the coin of your personal realm is self-interest.
Master the Art of Influence
Great big ideas, in the hands of people who cannot sell, usually go nowhere fast.
If you’re an idea person and you want to bring your ideas to market, you have two options. Either you learn how to sell or you partner with somebody who can sell.
There are so many good books out there on selling and persuasion. Start with Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. After that, read books on selling, cognitive psychology and neuromarketing. To hear more about frame control, which I’ve mentioned above, you can read Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff; he’s probably the most conceited author I’ve ever read and he rubbed me the wrong way on just about every page, but the fundamental concept he covers is worth thinking about.
One that’s on my list to read is The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations by John Kotter. If there are other great books related to big ideas, persuasion and selling, please recommend them in the comments section below.
Presentation Is Everything
How you structure your big idea presentation is also, of course, critical to your success, so you’ll want to read and learn as much as you can about making great presentations.
Tim Riesterer, author of Conversations That Win the Complex Sale
His book is worth reading and will help you create better big idea conversations with your target audiences.
One key takeaway is that you need to cut to the chase right away and you need to be engaging immediately. Don’t start with what they already know. Start with a surprise that the audience doesn’t know about (e.g. threat, opportunity, etc.). Competitors will echo the obvious problems so you need to be different. Avoid a commoditized conversation.
It’s critically important to recognize that the audience doesn’t want to hear about your story and your value proposition. They care about their story. Reisterer recommends that you make your audience the hero for figuring out how to win. He also explains how and when people tend to pay attention (or tune out) presenters, and the tips on that front can really help you make the most of your big idea presentation.
Long story short, if you have great big ideas and nobody is buying them, work on your presentation skills.
You Can Do This
I’ve shared many thoughts on pitching a big idea. Together, you and I walked through 32 objections you may encounter to big ideas and how you can prevent them and/or overcome them. We discussed my take on the 10 attributes of a great big idea pitch. And, finally, I shared several other thoughts about how to pitch a big idea. If you read this from top to bottom, you now know as much about pitching a big idea as anyone in the world.
But reading about something is one thing. Doing it is another thing.
As with all things in life, practice makes perfect. So, go out there and start pitching your big ideas. With time, you’ll find your batting average goes up, and before too long, you’ll be able to look back and reflect on all the great thoughts you’ve transitioned from big idea to big results.
Of course, if your idea relates to marketing, remember that you don’t have to go it alone. For those who need big ideas or for those who need help executing on big ideas, you cannot do better than working with our agency, Walker Sands. Please get in touch if you need help.