Life. Then Strategy

How to explain an idea: a mega post

I am writing this with creative agencies in mind, however, the techniques below can be applied anywhere. We’ll cover off:

  • What an idea is
  • What sorts of ideas there are
  • How to explain your idea (first principles and 5 structures you can use)

What’s an idea?

One of the things that continually gets in the way of creativity is words. ‘Idea’ is one of them.

1. We use the word ‘idea’ to describe thoughts and suggestions
“I have an idea: we should eat at Mamak tonight.” Or, if you’re Charlie Sheen: “Is it just me or does it seem like an awesome f^%g idea right now to get drunk and ride a unicorn to Mexico?”

2. We use the word ‘idea’ to describe new concepts
“I have an idea: it’s a website where people can fund and follow creative projects – but they don’t get an ownership stake.” You could argue that Charlie Sheen’s idea is actually a novel concept – unless you’ve seen unicorn tourism before.

3. We use the word ‘idea’ when someone says something stupid
“You have no idea.”

So, if we focus on the first two examples, ‘idea’ is typically used when someone simply has a thought as well as when someone has a novel concept.

An example of ‘idea’ as a thought in an advertising agency
“I have an idea: we could put it on Facebook, we could make an app, we could gamify it.”

Now, this isn’t a wrong use of the word ‘idea’ but in the traditional sense that the word is used in an agency (as a novel concept), it’s typically used in this way to mask the lack of an actual idea – a bit like when someone dumps the word ‘strategic’ in before they say something that’s not strategic. It ups the importance of what comes next. The problem: sometimes this (as a meeting tactic) works but does not lead to good or clear thinking.

An example of ‘idea’ as a novel concept in an advertising agency
“I have an idea: I want to create a tool that runners can use to track how far they’ve run and then compete with each other by sharing their achievements via the Internet. They’ll track it via this technology in their shoe which will talk to their computer.”

Now, if I read the two different ‘I have an idea’ statements above, one makes me yawn and the other gives me tingles and makes me want to get involved in making it.

What complicates all of this is that, as far as ‘ideas as novel concepts’ go, in agency world, there are:

  1. Business ideas
  2. Advertising ideas
  3. Brand ideas
  4. Campaign ideas
  5. Content ideas
  6. New product ideas

Oh, and strategies (which are also ideas – even though the monopoly on the use of the word ‘idea’ in an agency typically belongs to the creative department: must change).

And, before some smartypants runs to the comments to tell me that the origin of the word ‘idea’ actually means ‘image’… I know. I looked it up too.

Perhaps, a different vocabulary needs to be introduced to eliminate confusion and buffering. But we’ll save that for another time.

Why do you need to be able to explain an idea?

I don’t have too much obsessive compulsive behaviour but when a ‘creative’ (not a useful word either – if you don’t work in an agency a ‘creative’ is typically an art director or copy writer) in an agency is talking about a response to a brief and shows me executions (eg a print ad, a TV script) – but doesn’t talk about the guts of the idea, I will always ask what it is.

I do this for four reasons:

1. Longevity
I believe that if someone can’t explain their core idea then they may be using verbal and visual tricks to get an executional approach (eg a certain photographic or art style) through. This can reduce the longevity of a campaign/project because an execution may only carry interest for so long.

2. Support and defensibility
To defend great work that’s strategically based, there needs to be a clear line from the challenge through to the insight, strategy and to the creative. A well explained idea can help the team promote the work to the client. It also helps manage the conversation with the client so that executional concerns do not undermine the idea or the strategy. I have seen occasions where executional issues have led to a strategy change because neither the idea nor strategy were well explained.

3. Anchor
If the thinking is executional (“I want to do 3D typography”) then it becomes harder to ensure every chapter across every channel builds on it without it all merely being matching luggage.

4. Laziness is contagious
It isn’t hard to define an idea – if you have one. Where projects don’t start with clear, concrete strategy and ideas, I believe they are more likely to travel sloppy.

Now, I’m not a fan of the brief handover, the wait, and then the creative response internally anyway. I prefer collaboration, little builds and tweaks. But most planners work in siloed environments so rigour and appreciation for the discipline of idea-explaining is critical. In some agencies, the planner will write the idea based on the executions. It will depend on the creative director’s point of view on the importance of ideas-based thinking and speaking.

Where strategy is distinct from the idea

With my former Creative Director, Vince McSweeney, we came to an agreement that strategy should be about finding insights and then flipping them so that the key output of the strategy is an idea that will get someone to see themselves, the world around them, the product, or the brand differently. It was then the creative job to take this flip and bring it to life in an impactful way.

Obvious and straight forward, right? Yes. But the line between strategy and creative is often not discussed or clearly understood – leaving people unclear about where their roles start and end (if they end at all).

Perhaps you’ve seen the Telstra Bigpond campaign where the father talks about the Great Wall of China being built by Emperor Nasi Goreng to keep the rabbits out.

The insight here taps into parents’ fear of their children being left behind and the strategy aims to shift the broadband discussion in the home from technology and not needing it to education and, it implies, adult success. The ad then brings this to life (although this example is quite executional; the ‘big idea’ is in the strategy).

Some agencies keep the planner in the obvious. Words like ‘easy’, ‘performance’, ‘authenticity’ or ‘confidence’ are common in some briefs. This is not planning – but it happens either because that’s what planning is supposed to do in the agency or because creatives can feel insecure about having part of the problem solved for them (“That’s my job” – it’s been said to me). Everywhere is different though.

So, the strategic process is about understanding the issues, the environment, the customers, the insights and then creating an idea about how to shift perspectives.

The creative process either solves the problem directly (a non-advertising solution first) or dramatises the insight and perspective shift.

Clarifying the types of ideas

Generally speaking, these are the types of ideas a creative agency will come to navigate:

  1. Business idea: what the company does that’s novel
  2. Brand idea: what the company stands for that’s novel
  3. Brand tagline: a short phrase that brings to life what the company stands for
  4. Advertising idea: the central thought in every communication and interaction across all campaigns indefinitely
  5. Campaign idea: if the advertising idea and campaign idea are separate then the campaign idea would typically be a sub-set and shorter-term execution of the advertising idea
  6. Non-advertising idea: a concept that solves a problem but that isn’t advertising-centric – it may, however, get advertised
  7. Execution: the key bits of the execution that matter (style, channels, etc)

Honestly, I read that list and realise that it risks complicating things. Thing is, without a clear and agreed definition of what we’re talking about, it’s hard to focus and build, and you can find yourself in meetings having conversations that go nowhere.

OK, some examples.

Let’s take WWF and their Earth Hour campaign. Now, this is my take on things – done quickly. (Disclosure: I have worked with them and wish them muchos successos).

  1. Business idea: protect the environment from humans
  2. Brand idea: keep the planet alive
  3. Brand tagline: ‘For a living planet’
  4. Advertising idea: I’m not sure there is a macro advertising idea for WWF (the panda isn’t one)
  5. Non-advertising idea: Earth Hour – get the world to turn its lights off for an hour
  6. Campaign idea: Vote Earth – a populist vote about the importance of climate change measured by the numbers of lights switched off (2010)
  7. Execution: Shepard Fairey street posters as a rallying call

Old Spice – again, my interpretation (probably riddled with holes):

  1. Business idea: make men smell classically masculine (not stinky)
  2. Brand idea: the authentic essence of man (I can’t remember the actual phrase but I read it was something like that)
  3. Brand tagline: The man your man could smell like
  4. Advertising idea: Old Spice guy – the man you wish you were. This would only be their advertising idea if it’s repeated across different campaigns.
  5. Non-advertising idea: N/A
  6. Campaign idea: The set-change
  7. Execution: The Old Spice guy walks through sets innocently pulling off incredible feats of manliness, boldly telling you about them as he does them

If Old Spice’s business idea is to make men smell classically masculine (I made it up), then this idea gives them the opportunity to stretch into other areas. It anchors them in a core idea but allows them to explore further adrift.

OK… what you came for: how to explain your idea…

First principles of explaining an idea

1. The idea and how it works are separate; keep it that way
“And then this happens, and you click this and a bird appears on your monitor… and an otter taps at your window. Yes, a real otter… on your window at home. We’ll breed them especially.” Yes, you’ve probably lost them by now if you started here. Be disciplined about keeping the idea and how it is made and how it is interacted with separate.

2. Labels stick; use them
Instead of labelling your idea ‘Idea 1’ or ‘Direction 1’, give it a creative title. This suggestion will usually meet with resistance – but it’s purely emotional. Guess what happens if you don’t label your idea? The client does. And then the brilliant idea becomes known as the ‘midget idea’ when they’re comparing notes in the elevator. The executional element that impacted them the most becomes the idea. Earth Hour – that’s a good label.

3. Use a logline
In 25 words or less, how would you explain the non-executional bits of your idea? Hollywood uses loglines. Expand if you must – but only after digestion. Earth Hour – ‘we’re going to get the world to turn their lights off for an hour’. The best way to get good at this is to pick things you’re familiar with and explain them in a sentence (try movies like Avatar or Inception, try to explain a singer, a company you love).

4. Show, pause, repeat your way through
Do not over-speak. Do not speak quickly. Speak less than you think you need to. Take. Your. Time. Repeat a key word several times through the presentation (they say 7 makes it stick).

If possible, show your idea.  Show people (customers) implying, anticipating or explaining the idea. Get out of the way of your idea. It’s not about you. I know, I know: you think it is. It never is.

5. Let other people finish your sentences
Pausing allows people to grasp the idea and process it through their own mental frameworks. You know you’re onto something when someone you’re presenting to says… “And you could then…” That’s what you want. Let them keep talking. Pauses make it happen. Counsellors do it all the time… apparently.

6. Set it up
If you really want your idea to happen, think about when, where, and for how long you do it. Smells? Sounds? Senses? Start dark? Start bright? In a home? In a shop?

7. Don’t let someone change your presentation just before you present
… unless it’s terribly bad or wrong. This will throw you.

8. Care and be confident
Both are contagious. Avoid being condescending and egotistical.

9. Signposts help you get there and get remembered
When you’re presenting, you need to remember that your audience has not lived with your thinking like you have. Signposts not only help you focus, they help the audience process what you’re saying and give the brain direction as well as a break.

Sometimes, I’ll tell the audience what I’m going to tell them… how I’m going to do it…. and then tell them: “Today I’m going to show you how we can get 15-year old girls to love rugby league. We need to A, B and C. And here’s how…”

Sometimes, I’ll use signposts to end a section of the presentation: “Here’s what I said I was going to tell you, here’s why it’s important, here’s what to do about it.”

I also use a lot of blog-writing techniques when I’m presenting. I’ll use numbers: “3 things you need to know about X” (I recall reading in a book called ‘The History of Ideas’ that the brain likes 3, 5, 7 best so I rely heavily on these digits). These numbers tell the brain, “You need to focus in on these key points now”. They also give importance to the information because they imply you’ve sifted through a lot of thinking to get there.

10. Make it stick
As with blogging, I’ll use either counter-intuitive headlines or I’ll use ‘How to’ and ‘Why’ setups. The counter-intuitive approach is supposed to make people feel curious and start owning your thinking, as well as get your ideas remembered. The ‘How to’ and ‘Why’ approaches cut to the chase by saying “I have the answers for you; you’re in safe hands.”

The format of your presentation is also something that deserves a lot of thinking. Think about your audience and what they will be comfortable with and how far you can push them. Powerpoint is obviously the default format but it doesn’t have to be. I find a combination of screen and off-screen (boards, print-outs) is great as it forces people to shift their attention and it stimulates their senses (see, hear, touch).

If you use Powerpoint, keep in mind that it’s not supposed to be a Word document with images. You are the presentation. Everything else is support.

I’ve been involved with pitches that had no traditional presentation format – rooms dressed up to take the audience into the headspace of their customer, presenters remembered their points and used props to make their points, experts and audience members were physically brought in.

The amount of theatre you put into your presentation needs to be thought through. You can overdo it but as long as you don’t make it corny, you should be right.

11. Rehearse
Rehearse your spiel. Write it, sharpen it, present it to yourself as you’re walking to work. It needs to feel automatic so that when you’re confronted with the anxiety of actually sharing it with a room of people, it works for you.

12. Apply the Blink test
I can’t recall an idea being over-explained and being bought. People either get it and are excited about what you’re talking about or they aren’t. Within seconds. You need to make your impact immediately.

13. Plan it analogue
I never start planning a presentation in front of a computer. It’s a dangerous trap. You have to focus on your story dynamics, not your fade-ins and fade-outs. Grab a pencil and some paper.

i. Map out who you’re talking to and any insights you have about them
ii. Write down the one big thing you want them to understand
iii. Write down what you’re asking them to do
iv. Start macro: write down the 1/3/5 key points that are essential to your argument – then write down the 1 or 3 supporting points for those arguments
v. Cull: draw a line through anything that’s not necessary or compelling
vi. Work out what points need a bit of theatrical magic
vii. If you’re nervous, write it long-hand
viii. If you write it long-hand, after you’ve practised a bit, take it back to the handful of points you want to make
ix. Try not to take notes or cards in to the presentation – they will distract you as you will worry about what you’ve missed and default to them, get stuck (only you know all the details you will say and miss anyway so don’t fret)
x. Decide whether your presentation starts when you’re in front of the audience – or before; and then what happens after

5 ways to structure your idea explanation

I. Go Hollywood on it
It’s really worth grabbing a book on screenwriting and learning how to map out a story Hollywood style. Techniques you can borrow:

i. High concept: a succinct explanation of the premise
ii. Precedent: When Harry met Sally meets Avatar
iii. Characters: introduce characters that represent archetypes, their motivations
iv. Plot points: map out key plot points as you take your audience through your story

Watch a movie you think does a great job of story-telling and map out how they do it. Borrow and steal.

II. Get old school on it… Aristotle-style
OK. So, Hollywood is still using the techniques of Aristotle. I use this approach the most too. When I’m mapping it out, I do it on one piece of paper.

i. The story of your presentation: eg I’m here to introduce you to new technology that can prevent mass-flooding in a matter of minutes (make it more intriguing than that)
ii. Three acts: use the basic three-act structure as a way to focus your argument (yes, explaining an idea is you putting an argument forward). Perhaps, to build on the flood-prevention idea your three-act structure is:

a. Show how devastating floods are (perhaps you choose a 3-minute video with infographics, interviews, a soundtrack; perhaps you take your audience to a flooded area)
b. Show the solution (perhaps you reveal your moment of inventor’s truth where the idea came to you, you show how it works, how it’s unique, that it’s patented)
c. Your ask (what you want from them, what they’ll get for it, when and how)

iii. End: a quick but impactful reminder of what they’ve seen then the real ask (sales people are often trained to ask a question that someone cannot reply to with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, which of your clients could use this technology?)

III. Elevator pitch
You have 15 seconds to explain your idea.

i. The you-know-how? problem: “You know how floods destroy farms?”
ii. The well-I-have-a-solution tease “Well, I have a widget that can zap the water and move it to drought-stricken areas.”
iii. The ask: “Want to find out more?”

IV. The visionary
With this technique, you go for the emotional jugular.

i. Problem-rallying: Imagine if we could solve this (perhaps an emotional video or visit somewhere)
ii. Solution: Well, we can… and here’s how
iii. Action: And here is how you can help

V. Ignite it Pecha Kucha style
This is more a format than a structure suggestion. Ignite and Pecha Kucha (if you’re not familiar with them) are fast-paced presentation events where people are given a short amount of time to tell their story, often with Powerpoint – but the slides have to change every 20 seconds.

Using this approach in the business world is great. The time limit will get people more open to hearing from you (I’m going to show you how to do X in 5 minutes; less risk of time wasting). The time limit also implies risk that makes for a more exciting presentation (what if she forgets or stumbles?). It will energise you and force you to really structure a succinct story.


1. Explain an idea in a sentence and then shorten and sharpen it. Then tell someone your explanation and see if they can guess what you’re talking about.

2. Stick your hand up for an Ignite or Pecha Kucha event

OK. That’s more than enough for now. If you want examples, if you want more homework or more structures, let me know.


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For more on ideas, spend time with How to make social ideas.

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