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The Art of Selling a Great Idea


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    Reprint: R0309J

    Coming up with creative ideas is easy; selling them to strangers is hard. Entrepreneurs, sales executives, and marketing managers often go to great lengths to demonstrate how their new concepts are practical and profitable—only to be rejected by corporate decision makers who don’t seem to understand the value of the ideas. Why does this happen?

    Having studied Hollywood executives who assess screenplay pitches, the author says the person on the receiving end—the “catcher”—tends to gauge the pitcher’s creativity as well as the proposal itself. An impression of the pitcher’s ability to come up with workable ideas can quickly and permanently overshadow the catcher’s feelings about an idea’s worth. To determine whether these observations apply to business settings beyond Hollywood, the author attended product design, marketing, and venture-capital pitch sessions and conducted interviews with executives responsible for judging new ideas. The results in those environments were similar to her observations in Hollywood, she says.

    Catchers subconsciously categorize successful pitchers as showrunners (smooth and professional), artists (quirky and unpolished), or neophytes (inexperienced and naive). The research also reveals that catchers tend to respond well when they believe they are participating in an idea’s development. As Oscar-winning writer, director, and producer Oliver Stone puts it, screenwriters pitching an idea should “pull back and project what he needs onto your idea in order to make the story whole for him.”

    To become a successful pitcher, portray yourself as one of the three creative types and engage your catchers in the creative process. By finding ways to give your catchers a chance to shine, you sell yourself as a likable collaborator.

    Coming up with creative ideas is easy; selling them to strangers is hard. All too often, entrepreneurs, sales executives, and marketing managers go to great lengths to show how their new business plans or creative concepts are practical and high margin—only to be rejected by corporate decision makers who don’t seem to understand the real value of the ideas. Why does this happen?

    A version of this article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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