How to explain an idea: a mega post

What's an idea? What sorts of ideas are there? And how to explain them once you have them?


Ideas are your oxygen

If you studied accounting, you’d leave your first week knowing what the concepts “debit” and “credit” are. And, if you entered the career of accounting, you could only do so with intimate knowledge of these two concepts.

People can enter advertising careers without ever knowing what an idea is. Or how to define what the word “idea” means. Or how to have ideas. Or how to explain an idea once they have one in hand. Some people can sustain long careers through their personalities alone. And by playing a game of, “Well, if we all don’t know then who’s to know?”

If you do creative work or have a creative soul, then ideas are your oxygen. This article wants you to breathe. In it, I cover:

This article pares with How to do account planning - a simple approach and How to make a presentation make a point. If you do creative work, these two articles will catch you up to speed with concepts that took years for many of us to comprehend.

The book "Strategy Is Your Words" is now available everywhere from Sweathead

What’s an idea?

Words often get in the way of creativity so it’s no surprise that the word “idea” often gets in the way of ideas.

1. We use the word “idea” to describe thoughts and suggestions. “I know this is heteronormative of me but I have an idea: let’s eat kimchi soondubu at Food Gallery 32 in Koreatown for lunch.”

2. We use the word “idea” to describe new concepts. “I have an idea  —  it’s a business where we turn memes into bath products  -  Dank Tank.”

3. We use the word “idea” when someone says something stupid. “You have no idea.” That’s a mean use of the word. Don’t be mean. The world doesn’t need it.

If we focus on the first two examples, the word “idea” telegraphs that something new is coming. And if you can pause on your Internet memes about whether anything is ever new (I’ll raise you post-modernism and ask if anything is ever real), what we now want to do is distinguish between the way we use “idea” as industry jargon and the way we use “idea” where we’re in casual mode.

Ideas are thoughts but not all thoughts are “ideas.” Here’s an example of the use of the word “idea” in an agency setting: “I have an idea — let’s do something with augmented reality or Blockchain or make a special lens.” This isn’t wrong; it’s sloppy.

In the traditional industry sense, “idea” means a novel concept. But when it’s used as in this example, it masks the lack of an actual idea  —  like when someone dumps in the word “strategic” before they say something that’s not strategic. It ups the importance of what comes next. The problem: sometimes this works as a meeting tactic but does not lead to good or clear thinking.

Compare this thought with the use of the word “idea” as a novel concept: “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.”

Ideas and thoughts feel different When I’m training people in lateral thinking, I point out how adding mischief feels different in the brain. But see how the two “I have an idea” statements above feel different? One is a yawn, the other a kick in the pants.

Yes, it’s complicated because humans complicate things. And what complicates all of this is that, as far as “ideas as novel concepts” go, in agency world, there are:

And strategies (which are also ideas  —  even though the monopoly on the use of the word “idea” in an agency belongs to the creative department).

Oh, and concepts. “Concept” suggests a higher-level of thinking. To call something “high concept” means it’s asking a big philosophical or existential question. For example, what would life feel like if we started old and got younger every day? People use the word “concept” in agencies in as slippery a way as they use the word “idea” so it’s important to discuss the words you hear.

It’s can seem fussy but it’s useful to create a glossary if you’re working with a team for any period of time. The point isn’t to be a fascist about words. The point is to reduce confusion and help people work better.

Why do you need the ability to explain an idea?

Here’s a secret: many people in our industry aren’t idea-literate.

You could work with a creative team that focuses on taglines, hashtags, and manifestos. You might need to play the mind game of helping them articulate their idea without them knowing. You could work with other agencies who throw the word around like confetti only to catch yourself a few weeks into a project wondering, “What are we even talking about?” When you know how to explain your ideas, your working life will improve.

And it’s important to pry apart the executional stuff, the tactics from the idea for five reasons:

1. Longevity

If someone can’t explain their idea then they may be using verbal and visual tricks to get through an executional approach (eg a certain art style or piece of technology). This can reduce the longevity of a campaign/project because an execution may not carry interest for long.

2. Support and defensibility

To defend great work that’s based in strategy, 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. It’s more efficient  —  money money money

If you can’t put stakes in the ground from problem to insight to strategy to idea and something executional gets rejected then DOMINOES! Re-work. More time, more money, more frustration. It will cost you.

4. Brain tether

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 being matching luggage.

5. Laziness is contagious

It isn’t hard to define an idea — if you have one. When projects don’t start with clear, concrete strategy and ideas, they will slop from one meeting to the next.

Where strategy is distinct from the idea

With my former Creative Director, Vince McSweeney who’s now CCO at McCann Birmingham, 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. You can read How to do account planning for more on this.

First, the context of this agreement was advertising but it relates to non-advertising work. Second, you know what’s most important about that agreement? That we discussed each other’s point of view, what we wanted to accomplish, and that we agreed. Most agencies  —  especially with a younger workforce  —  avoid this discussion. People don’t want noses out of whack. Creative teams can find a planner who brings a “flip” to them intimidating because they wonder what their role is but their role is to flip it even further. What a great role.

An old example  —  Australia’s largest telco and the Great Wall of China

You may have seen the old Telstra Bigpond campaign where the father says Emperor Nasi Goreng built the Great Wall of China to keep the rabbits out. If you have, you realize this is from a bygone era. But what is the idea?

This commercial works in three ways. It appeals to parents’ fears of the future leaving behind their children. It makes light of parents’ own lack of knowledge and shows a parent who is left behind. As with much comedy, this gives the viewer a sense of superiority but most viewers will see themselves in this situation and feel sympathy. Finally, the commercial tries to shift the broadband discussion in the home from technology and to education and adult success. It suggests that broadband will prevent adult failure.

The commercial is a simple vignette. The “big idea” is in the strategy, whether or not a planner touched it.

Some agencies keep the planner in the obvious. Words like “easy”, “performance”, “authenticity” or “confidence” are common in some briefs. This is not planning. It happens because that’s what planning is supposed to do in the agency or because creatives feel insecure about having part of the problem solved for them. “That’s my job,” a senior copywriter once said to me.

So, the strategic process tries to understand the issues, the environment, the competition, the customers, and the insights. Then it creates an idea about how to shift perspectives. The creative process either solves the problem with a non-advertising solution first or it dramatizes the insight and perspective shift.

And… TALK TO EACH OTHER. Define these words and how you work together. Same team, yeah?

What types of ideas are there?

These are the common types of ideas bouncing around a creative agency:

This list… it’s too much. It scratches the surface and the surface isn’t wearing protection. Without a clear and agreed definition of what we’re talking about and without knowing how to explain any of it when you have, it’s hard to work, and you can find yourself in meetings having conversations that go nowhere. Mind you, this is an excellent business model so what do I know?

Examples - applying idea types to real-world companies

Let’s take WWF and their Earth Hour campaign. Now, this is my take on things.

Old Spice -  again, my interpretation:

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.

First principles of how to explain 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 screen… an otter taps at your window. Yes, a real otter… on your window at home. We’ll breed them for it.” Yes, you’ve lost them -   the audience, not the otters -  by now if you started here. Keep apart the idea, how you’ll make the idea, and how people will interact with the idea.

2. Labels stick; use them

Instead of labeling your idea “Idea 1” or “Direction 1”, give it a creative title. This suggestion might meet with resistance but guess what happens if you don’t label your idea? Your client does. And then the brilliant idea becomes known as the “gorilla idea” Earth Hour  - that’s a good name.

3. Use a logline

In 25 words or less, how would you explain the non-executional bits of your idea? Hollywood uses loglines. Earth Hour  -  “We’re going to get the world to turn off their lights 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 or apps, try to explain a singer, or a company you love.

4. Show, pause, repeat your way through

Do not over-speak. Do not rush. Speak less than you think you need to. Take. Your. Time. Repeat a keyword through the presentation. They say 7 times makes it stick. Show your idea. Show people implying, anticipating, or explaining the idea. Get out of the way of your idea. It’s not about you. You think it is. It never is.

5. Let other people finish your sentences

A pause 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 then you could…” That’s what you want. Let them keep talking. Pauses make it happen. Counselors do it all the time…

6. Set it up

If you 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 moments before you present

Unless it’s bad or wrong. This will throw you. If you did this to me when I was young, guess what? I still remember.

8. Care and be confident

Both are contagious. Avoid condescension and too much ego. Increasingly, we need to educate people on how to buy our ideas and to help them feel safe while doing so. Some bravado is sexy but keep your feet on the ground.

9. Signposts help you get there and get remembered

When you present, remember that your audience has not lived with your thinking. Signposts help you focus and they help the audience process your words. They provide direction and respite.

You can tell the audience:

Like this: “Today I’m going to show you how we can get 15-year olds to love retirement homes. We need to A, B and C. And here’s how…” And then at the end, repeat these words but using the past tense.

You can 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.”

You can also use article-writing techniques in a presentation. You can use numbers: “3 things you need to know about X.” Numbers tell the brain, “You need to focus on these points now.” They also give importance to the information because they imply you’ve sifted through a lot of thinking to get there. You can use lists - if you dislike lists, relax: everything is list-able. You can use snappy Internet headlines. Whatever works.

10. Make it stick

Play with counter-intuitive headlines as well as “How to” and “Why” setups. Counter-intuitive headlines make people curious. They open a hole through which your ideas can burst. 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 thoughts. Think about your audience, what they will be comfortable with, and how far you can push them. Powerpoint is one default format but it doesn’t have to be. A combination of screen and analog entices people to shift their attention and it stimulates their senses (see, hear, touch).

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

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 sharing it with a room of people, it flows.

12. Apply the Blink test

I can’t recall a client buying an over-explained idea. People either get it and want it or or they aren’t and they don’t. Within seconds. Make a fast impact.

13. Plan it analog

Don’t start planning a presentation in front of a computer. It’s a trap. Focus on your story dynamics, not your fade-ins and fade-outs. Grab a pencil and some paper and think about how to explain it before you design it.

i. Map your audience and what you know about them. ii. Write the one thing you want them to understand. iii. Write what you’re asking them to do. iv. Then outline. Write the 1, 3, or 5 key points that are essential to your argument . Then write 1-3 supporting points for those arguments. v. Cull. Draw a line through anything that’s not compelling. vi. Decide which points need drama. vii. If you’re nervous, write it longhand. viii. If you write it longhand and after you’ve practiced a bit, take it back to the handful of points you want to make. ix. Try not to take notes or cards into the presentation . Cards will distract you and make you worry about what you’ve missed. People won’t know you’ve missed something unless you’re incoherent or reaching for cards. x. Decide whether your presentation starts when you’re in front of the audience  or before. And then what happens after you present.

Five ways to structure your idea explanation

Read How to make a presentation make a point for details about making presentations.

1. Go Hollywood on it

It’s worth grabbing a book on screenwriting and learning how to map 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 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 how they do it. Borrow and steal.

2. Get old school on it… Aristotle-style

I use this approach most. I map 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.” 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. To build on the flood-prevention idea your three-act structure is: a. Show how devastating floods are. You choose a 3-minute video with infographics, interviews, a soundtrack; or you take your audience to a flooded area. b. Show the solution. You reveal your moment of inventor’s truth where the idea came to you, you show how it works, how it’s unique, and that it’s patented. c. Your ask. Tell them what you want from them, what they’ll get for it, when and how. iii. End: a quick reminder of what they’ve seen and what you need.

3. 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?”

4. The visionary

With this technique, you go for the emotional jugular. i. Problem-rallying: “Imagine if we could solve this.” You show an emotional video. ii. Solution: “Well, we can… and here’s how.” iii. Action: “And here is how you can help.”

5. Ignite it Pecha Kucha style

This is more a format than a structure suggestion. Ignite and Pecha Kucha are fast-paced presentation events where people have a few minutes to a story.

In the business world, this approach will add drama. The time limit will open people to hearing from you. See: “I’m going to show you how to do X in 5 minutes.” The time limit also implies a risk that makes for a more exciting presentation - “What if she forgets or stumbles?” It will energize you and force you to structure a succinct story.

What oxygen and ideas have in common

These techniques are yoga poses. They are available to you when you need them. Develop your own style. Read about writing and presenting. Post-rationalize talks and stories you love. But, most of all, practice them. And practice your breathing. There’s all this science-y stuff about breath and oxygen.


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