Five Tips to Help You Get High-fives for Your Ideas

I frequently speak about creativity in the business world, and when presenting workshops to in-house design teams, I sometimes detect what I call the tyranny of low expectations—creatives who have gradually lost their incentive to generate fresh ideas because they don’t expect their bosses or internal clients to approve them.

That mind-set is the death of creativity, and that’s why it’s important for in-house designers to continually tweak their selling techniques and presentation skills. The more polished your pitch, the more go-aheads you’ll receive—and the more motivated you’ll be to stay creative. Here are five tips to help raise your expectations of approval.

1. Pretend you’ve never met your decision maker.

One advantage in-house designers have over outside agencies is accessibility to decision makers. But this familiarity becomes a liability if it results in lazy, overly casual presentations.

Before preparing pitches, step back and take an objective look at your decision makers. Study their decision-making processes. Get a firm grip on their wants and needs, likes and dislikes, interests and passions. See them with fresh eyes.

And when pitching your idea, rise to the occasion. Don’t present in the same way you might chat with those same people in the hallway or lunchroom. Definitely be yourself, but dial it up a degree. Help them view you as the expert. Percolate professionalism. Display enthusiasm. Stay focused. Introduce compelling conversation, not rambling babble.

2. Parlay your inside knowledge.

 “The real value of an in-house department is its specialty knowledge of the company’s products and services,” says design management consultant David Butler, quoted in HOW magazine.

Use this exclusive knowledge to fuel pitches. Explain how your idea builds on the company’s brand, enhances its successful products or disrupts stagnant ones. Capitalize on your proximity to the firm’s executives, customers, vendors and other stakeholders. Gather their insights and stories to help convince decision makers of your idea’s value.

And keep your finger on the pulse of the company’s cycles and activities. Avoid presenting on days when decision makers are immersed in heavyweight budget sessions, product launches or planning meetings. Check in with their assistants and schedule times when the coast is clear and calendars are relatively light.

3. Go, team.

Your in-house department is part of the larger corporate team, so include teamwork into your presentations—less “let us do this” and more “let’s do this together.”

That’s the approach often used by Trish Berrong, creative director at Hallmark Cards. “Going into a presentation with the spark of something—and letting the group contribute to the energy of the idea and make it their own—is almost always more successful for us,” she says. “At my best, I remember I’m not building the wall—I’m bringing a brick.”

4. Do a little insider trading.

Nope, I’m not advocating the illegal buying and selling of stock. I’m talking about the personal give-and-take that happens all day, every day in all organizations—including yours. Rather than dismissing these swaps as office politics and riding off on a high horse, get in on the action. Smart trades will work in your favor.

After one of director Robert Rodriquez’s films became a big hit, studio executives asked him how much bigger of a budget he wanted for a sequel. Rodriquez shocked the executives by saying he wanted less money, not more. “Asking for less money means they will give you more freedom,” he told the New York Times.  “And freedom is worth more than money any day.”

Decide what’s really important to you and your idea—the tipping points—and be willing to concede or trade other components. Trade a photo shoot at an exotic location for a nearby studio session and get a thumbs-up on your concept. Relinquish a small design decision here and there to keep your arms around the overall project. Turn win-lose situations into win-win solutions.

“With a win-win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan,” says Steven Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “Win-win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive, arena.”

5. Know when it’s OK to say no.

I’ve worked in both agency and in-house environments, and, from my experiences, in-house creatives often have a more difficult time saying no— especially during idea presentations. And this can lead to disasters.

Say no when you don’t know. If asked to give cost figures you don’t have or implementation details you haven’t thought through, say no rather than guessing. Instead, promise to deliver specific answers in a reasonable time.

And say no when you simply can’t deliver what’s being asked of you. Go to no when a deadline is impossible. Say no if you can’t meet outlandish requests. Calmly explain why and suggest workable options.

“It’s OK to sometimes say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know,’” says Jeff Long, creative director at Digital Kitchen. “Creative people get into the most trouble by promising what they can’t deliver or trying to give an answer when they don’t have one.”