How can you be creative when facing deadlines? We speak with media consultant Phil Cooke about gaining clarity on expectations, saying “no,” and stumbling blocks to creativity.
Listen on Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | Spotify
Watch on YouTube
- Transcript — Click or Tap to Read
Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.
Leading Ideas Talks is also brought you by Leading the Church in a Post-Pandemic Culture, a new Doctor of Ministry in Church Leadership focus from Wesley Theological Seminary and the Lewis Center for Church leadership. With this track, clergy will receive the enhanced knowledge skills and motivation to increase congregational and denominational service, vitality, and growth in the post-pandemic world. Learn more and apply by February 15th for May 2023 at churchleadership.com/dmin.
How can you be creative when facing deadlines? In this episode we speak with media consultant Phil Cooke about gaining clarity on expectations, saying “no,” and stumbling blocks to creativity.
Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, Director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Phil Cooke, media producer, writer, speaker, coach, the author of many books. His latest book is Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking. Our focus for this podcast is creativity. Phil, I’m so happy to have you and I’m excited because the last time we talked it was just a fabulous conversation.
Phil Cooke: Well, right, Doug, I’m thrilled to be here. This is so much fun. You’re a great interviewer, by the way, so I’m always challenged when I come on. You put me in the hot seat.
Doug Powe: Well, you’re a kind person to say I’m a great Interviewer. But I think that you probably think quicker on your feet than most people I have met, so I’m not sure I put you in the hot seat.
Phil Cooke: When you spend your life on a film set with the clock ticking and money going down the tubes, you learn to think fast, so that does help, I’ll admit.
Doug Powe: That is good. Let me begin with talking about your new book, and I really enjoyed the book. The thing I like about it is that I think it really speaks to multiple audiences, including a church audience that needs to think about many of the things that you are suggesting. Phil, for me the first question is, what sets your book and thinking apart on the subject of creativity?
Phil Cooke: That’s a great question actually, Doug. You know, it’s interesting that there’s a ton of books on creativity. There’s a lot of experts on creativity, a lot of blogs and social media feeds on creativity. But as I was looking over them a couple years ago, I realized there’s a lot of creativity; there’s not a lot on being creative under pressure, particularly when you’re operating at a really high level, and the truth is, you’re exactly right, it’s not just for creative professionals. Everybody — you may be a real estate agent, you may be an executive, you may be a pastor, a leader of some other kind, but we all have due dates. We all have projects that have to be done by next Tuesday or next Friday.
And the truth is, we live under this myth that we think that, you know, we’re … Okay, I’ve got this report I have to do on Tuesday. I’d like another week. If I could have another week, it’d be amazing. But you know I’ll come up with something. It won’t be as great but, you know, I’ll come up with something.
That’s a total myth. I mean you can have the breakthrough ideas you need when you need them the most. There are just some interesting techniques. All my life I’ve lived under deadlines. I’ve worked in broadcast television. I’ve worked in advertising. And I’ve produced a couple Super Bowl commercials, and I learned early on that they’re not going to delay the Super Bowl because I can’t come up with a good idea for a TV commercial.
Pressure has been a part of my whole career, so I did two things. I used a lot of techniques I’ve used in the past in the book. I’ve also talked about a lot of research. There’s some very interesting research out there. And then I also talked to an enormous number of highly high-level, creative people, both here in Hollywood and in Madison Avenue in New York. And so, I think a real key to the book is that it’s not just being creative, it’s how to be creative when the clock is ticking, when you know the end of the runway is coming up fast. How to handle those moments when deadlines are looming — that’s really the key.
Doug Powe: I appreciate that, Phil, and I think that you’re right because I think the struggle for most people is being creative or trying to be as creative as they can when deadlines are looming. That’s what sort of gets people in a bind.
Phil Cooke: Yeah.
Doug Powe: What I want to build upon in what you said is, you talk about how it’s important to know expectations to help you get there. I found this interesting because I think it’s true that no matter where we are in life there are certain expectations that are put on us by our boss, by a client. You were talking about the Super Bowl. When I teach, I have expectations of my students. All of the places where we engage, we have expectations. So how is it that we can get clarity on the expectations to help us to be more creative?
Phil Cooke: That’s brilliant. It’s really true, you know. I consulted with a church one time who had an incredibly creative media team. I mean they were brilliant — the video shooters, the editors, just really creative guys. However, they weren’t interested in expectations at all. They weren’t thinking about the congregation. They weren’t thinking about the online audience. They weren’t thinking about the people that would actually be viewing their stuff. All they thought about was “How can I be more creative?” And I kept trying to talk to them about expectations and strategy and what we need to be thinking about. Why are we doing this? And who are we doing it for? They just refused to listen and, as a result, they failed. They completely failed. They missed the target 100 percent.
It was an early lesson for me that if we don’t listen to expectations … You know, early in my career I delivered some brilliantly creative solutions for problems that didn’t exist because I wasn’t paying attention to what the client really needed or what they were expecting. And I’ve learned over the years that, until we get real clarity on what the client is looking for, what our boss is looking for, what our congregation’s looking for — you know your comment a minute ago about this being appropriate for church leaders is absolutely true.
One of the things I’ve discovered is, Sundays come with relentless regularity. Those pastors and church leaders have got to be ready week after week after week. Knowing the expectations of those people sitting in those pews or the people watching over a livestream are absolutely critical, if we’re going to make an impact in the culture today. So, yeah, you’re exactly right. I don’t start any project until I really am clear on the expectations because I’ve spent too much time over the years missing the target because I wasn’t clear. I didn’t have that clarity and I just tried something I thought was great, which very often turned out to be great. But if it’s not meeting the expectations of your boss or your client, or your congregation, you’re going to fail.
Doug Powe: I think that’s absolutely true. And the reality is that we often don’t get clear in expectations. And if we did, as you said, that would actually bring the tension down, in some cases, for what it is that we’re trying to accomplish.
Phil Cooke: And here’s something interesting, Doug. Let me throw this in. Expectations are remarkably easy to do. You don’t have to do focus groups. You know we just consulted with a big Christian television station on the East Coast because they wanted to kind of update their programming and try to meet the needs of the community more effectively. And we did a massive number of focus groups. We did phone calls to people.
You don’t have to go to that kind of trouble. You can just do some emails. You could do some phone calls, even man on the street interviews. I just think it’s really important to constantly be talking to people about “Hey, are we hitting the target here? Is this what you’re thinking about? Are we coming close?” I had a phone call this morning with a client about a voice-over narrator for a commercial series we’re doing for a big ministry in the Midwest. And you know he started the conversation with “Well, I just don’t like… I don’t like that voice,” and I said, “Well, that doesn’t help. It’s okay that you don’t like it. But tell me what you’re thinking about. What are you wanting? More emotional? Are you wanting male/female.” And once we started that conversation and I started getting his expectations in mind, it really made a difference, so that our second round really did hit the target. So, it’s not always something complicated, but we ought to automatically be thinking, how can I figure out what the client, the boss, the congregation, the audience — what do they need? What are they looking for? That’s so important.
Doug Powe: Let me shift a little bit, but it’s still related. I want to talk about the aha moment. I think we all sort of dream about these great aha moments that we can have that help us to culminate our creativity or help in the creative process. But you talk about how this typically just doesn’t magically appear, and I found that interesting because I think we think that, you know, I can sit on my deck or I can sit in my favorite chair, I can just sort of drink my coffee, and that aha moment will just sort of grasp me. But you come at it differently, and I appreciate that. I think it’s helpful.
Phil Cooke: Yeah, that’s so true. Experience and research both indicate that aha moments just don’t happen out of the blue. They’re most often the culmination of a long process of working through things. Now here’s the key to having more aha moments in your life, and that is that it’s kind of your subconscious taking over. Very often we think so hard — and this is my favorite part of the book. I enjoyed writing this the most. If we sit at our desk, pounding our head against the wall, trying to come up with that great idea, very often we just get nothing. I mean we just … It’s a nightmare. And very often I discovered you need to get in a mode where you can kind of think about it, process it, do your reading, do your research, visit the location, whatever it takes to do, you know, to solve the problem you’re trying to solve. But then, get to a state where you kind of let your subconscious take over — and this is a big part of some of the solutions I outline in the book — like taking a walk.
It’s interesting throughout history the number of people that walk. Søren Kierkegaard, the great theologian, said I’ve walked into the best ideas in my whole life. Beethoven was known for walking through the streets with a music sheet in his hand and a pencil in his hand, just walking randomly, and he’d get an idea and jot it down real quickly. And probably the most famous, to my mind, was Charles Dickens. He would walk literally up to 20 or 30 miles. People thought he had a mental problem because he loved walking so much, but that’s what would trigger great ideas. And so, in fact, it’s interesting that I was in London. I talk about this in the book. I was in London a few years ago, and I picked up a little book called Night Walks written by Charles Dickens, and it was during a period of insomnia. He would get up in the middle of the night, couldn’t sleep, and he would go out for walks. He would go out walking through downtown London, and many literary experts today say that some of the brilliant characters that he has in his novels came out of people he saw and encountered during those walks in the middle of the night.
What happens is, when we’re walking, we’re not concentrating on something. We’re not trying to solve the problem. We’re just letting our mind kind of wander and for you it may be walking, it may be driving a car, it may be taking a shower. That’s a really popular one. Something like 74 percent of creative people out there have had ideas in the shower. I’m one of them. Whatever it is, when we relax and just let our subconscious kind of take over, things start. Our brain starts connecting things that we normally wouldn’t have connected in our normal conscious mind. It’s not a weird New Agey thing. It’s just allowing your brain to start making connections that we wouldn’t normally make. And that is very often, I’ve discovered, when the best ideas happen.
Doug Powe: Yeah, I think that’s true, and it seems I’ve heard it before. But hearing you describe those individuals really brings back to memory that, when we get not so focused on what we’re doing and you’re walking and you sort of allow yourself the freedom to, you know, get out and experience light, then it allows the creative juices to flow in a different way than when you’re just trying to sit there and focus on, what do I say, what do I write?
Phil Cooke: Willie Nelson, the great country singer, said he’s written his best songs driving in his truck, so, you know, whatever it is for you. It’s funny, I used to go out in the driveway when I’d get stuck here at home. I would go out in the driveway and shoot baskets. Well, I started focusing on my shot and that didn’t work. Then I set up a heavy bag in the garage and I’d go out and punch the bag. That would make me feel better sometimes, but I’d start thinking about my boxing technique. But when you’re walking, you’re not really thinking about walking, you’re just letting your mind go. And driving is very often the same way, so any activity that lets your subconscious go.
I mentioned the shower a minute ago. I was talking to my team one time and so frustrated that, when that water hits me, I’m telling you, the ideas flow. But by the time I get out, dry off, find a pen and paper to write it down, I usually forget the idea. And I was complaining about it one day in the office and a member of our team googled it and found a company called Aqua Notes that makes waterproof legal pads. So now my productivity is shooting through the roof. I can just write whatever comes to my mind while I’m standing in the shower, so it’s fantastic. Letting your mind wander is really the key.
Apply now for Leading the Church in a Post Pandemic Culture, a new Doctor of Ministry in Church Leadership focus from Wesley Theological Seminary and the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. With this track, clergy will receive the enhanced knowledge, skills, and motivation to increase congregational and denominational service, vitality, and growth in the post pandemic world. Learn more and apply by February 15 for May 2023 at churchleadership.com/dmin.
Doug Powe: I was going to talk about your idea of writing it down later, but let’s go ahead and talk about that now. You talk about a period in your life when you didn’t write things down. And you also share — and this is in chapter 14 — a great story about the importance of writing things down. If you don’t mind, share that story and why it’s so critical that even when you think you have had that aha moment, you go ahead and write it down so you don’t lose it.
Phil Cooke: Yeah. Ideas, I’ve discovered, are the most fragile thing in the world, and if we don’t write them down, we’ll forget them. Our brain is just not geared for having and holding ideas. It’s interesting. I was at a Christmas party here in Los Angeles where I live, a number of years ago, and I met a businessman from South Africa. He was very wealthy, and I have the spiritual gift of asking whatever everybody else in the room is thinking, so I finally blurted out, “Well, how did you make your money?” And he said, “Well, Phil, it’s interesting you ask.” And he said, “Years before, back in the days of flip phones …” (Remember the flip mobile phones?) He said, “My wife asked me to go shopping.” He said, “I hate shopping.” He said, “I had a normal job. I was a regular guy. I hated to go to the mall, but I love my wife. So, I went with her, and I went shopping.” And he said, “after a couple hours of shopping I got tired, so I sat down on a bench in the mall while she went to one last women’s store to go check out a dress.” And he said, “I’m sitting there, and I started watching teenagers use their cell phone,” and he said, “This idea hit me out of the blue.” He said, “this thought kind of hit me, what if these teenagers could download their favorite songs and use those as ring tones on their phone?” Nobody had done that in that part of the world yet, and so he said, “I got a pen out of my pocket. I didn’t have a paper, so I found a brochure just sitting on the bench, wrote it down, put it in my pocket at the very moment my wife called me into the store to look at a dress.” He said, “So, I went in and completely forgot about the idea.” He said, “Six months went by, and I went to the closet, put on that same jacket, put my hand in my pocket, and I found that note.” And he said, “You know what? I reread it. I remembered that night at the mall.” He thought, “I need to make this happen.” So, he started out by making a deal for 5 songs, made a deal with a local cell phone company, and he told me that two years later he sold that company for $70 million. And he looked at me he said, “But here’s the thing, Phil. Had I not written that idea down, I would have completely forgotten about it.”
And I’ll tell you, Doug, that got my attention, and you will never catch me without notepads in my pocket. I’ve got two or three apps on my phone that allow me to jot down notes. I just never want to be at the place where and you don’t know where God could drop that idea on you that could completely change your life. It could be in a classroom, in a church service, walking through the park, driving in a car. Anywhere that idea could happen, and when that aha! moment does happen, I want to be ready.
So, I just think writing things down, getting in that habit, finding the tools, whether you keep a notebook, or I use little index cards, I just think it’s a great, great technique to get into because it can really save you. You know, I find many of the ideas that I had early in my career. I’ve got notebook after notebook after notebook and early in my career I might not have had the budget or the crew or the team or the expertise to do some of those ideas. Now I go back to those notebooks and I think, okay, this could work now. This could work now. And I’ll pull those and try those with different projects we’re doing today. So, I tell you, writing it down is a habit that can really transform your life.
Doug Powe: Again, it’s something I’ve heard previously, but you really brought it home with that story, and I appreciate you sharing it. So, I’m going to try to be more mindful of making sure that I have a pen and a pad, or that you say something on my phone where I can make sure I keep good notes.
Phil Cooke: You never know, you never know.
Doug Powe: You do not know. The one that, I shouldn’t say “the one” because they all hit home, but one that I think can be challenging for people who are extremely busy and trying to do a lot of things — and this is interesting — is they have a hard time saying no.
Phil Cooke: Yes.
Doug Powe: You know you’re always thinking, “I can fit that in, get that done along with everything else that is going on.” But you point out that we have to say no, actually, if we want to actually be more creative, and I found that really intriguing. But I think it’s really good advice. Can you share a little bit more how saying no helps us to be more creative?
Phil Cooke: Well, the truth is, Doug, that if you or if anyone listening or watching feels like God’s called you to do something significant with your life, you’re going to have to say no to a lot of other things. And some of those things may be really good things. In the book, I talk about one of my favorite quotes. It’s from investor Warren Buffett, who said the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no most of the time. And so, what’s funny is, for most of us, if you’re in the ministry or you’re creative like me, it’s hard to say no. We are nice people. You know we want to help people. We want to serve and that’s what we do. It’s part of our nature.
However, we need to figure out a way to protect our time and not take every single request that comes in. And so, in the book I list about five or six alternative ways to say no to people that are nice. You never want to be a jerk about it. You know, I find very often in my career I’ve worked with people that could be such a jerk about saying no and very arrogant and condescending. But you don’t have to be that way at all. I mean just sharing with people that you’re booked or have other things scheduled or you’re working on a project right now, you can do it in a gracious way. But we have to learn to do it because, ultimately, if our no means nothing, then our yes will mean nothing.
We have to have boundaries in our professional lives. I came across one study that indicated when we’re focused, when we’re really in that creative zone working on a project and someone comes in your office and interrupts you, that when they leave it will take you 20 to 40 minutes to get back into that same level of focus, which means how many of those interruptions can you take in a day before your entire day is blown? So, one of the things we’ve learned in this digital age we live in is that deep work, deep time, focused deep time, is critically important. You know that there’s not a single study that indicates multitasking does anything positive.
I mean it helps you do a lot of things badly — it’s basically the bottom line. In fact, one study indicates that when we multitask, we lower our IQ by about 10 points. So, we if we’re going to be successful and productive and creative, we need to really learn to focus and have that deep time. But to do that, we need to shut the door. We need to have those private moments when we can really focus. So, learning to say no I think is the foundational skill of delivering great ideas on a deadline, because I’ll tell you as that deadline approaches you need to zero in and really get serious about what you’re doing.
Doug Powe: Again, I’m talking with Phil Cooke and talking about his latest book Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative. And Phil just completely hit me hard by talking about how multitasking doesn’t help you. I appreciate you saying that Phil.
Phil Cooke: It’s true.
Doug Powe: Just hitting hard, you know, on me, but I think, I think you’re right. And I again appreciate that if we don’t create spaces where we block out all the noise and everything else, then it’s not going to be possible for us to actually do our best work.
Phil Cooke: It’s really true. Those kinds of spaces are absolutely critical, and we need to be in those spaces regularly. We need to be there. We need to show up on a regular basis, in those really private times, if we’re going to really create the ideas worth having. I can’t overemphasize that enough.
Doug Powe: The other thing, and again I shouldn’t use this because they all struck me, but as I get more gray hair, let me put it that way, as I get more gray hair, I am encouraged to read that you say that you know it’s not that older people are less creative — because there is this notion by some that as you get older you become less creative. But you do say that there has to be a willingness to continue to try new things. So, my question to you is, do you think it’s harder for older people or as we get older to continue to try new things, that what we lose is not necessarily, as you indicate, the ability to be creative, but what we’re losing is our willingness to continue to try different things?
Phil Cooke: Yes, you know it’s funny. Before we did this interview this morning on this podcast, I put my daughter and her husband and our two grandkids on a plane. They live in Nashville, and so they came to visit for a week. And I can tell you this. When you spend time with your grandkids, you learn why we have children in our twenties, not as we get older. And they wear me out. So, there are physical restraints. There are physical things that just cause us to want to slow down a little bit as we get older. We just naturally want to. You know, we are not willing so often to take the risks that we were in our twenties or thirties.
But the truth is, we need to stay engaged if we’re going to stay creative. And like you say, the research I talk about in the book indicates that there’s not a shred of research that says we get less creative as we get older. In fact, I showcase in the book a number of people that are brilliantly creative in their seventies and eighties and even nineties.
And, by the way, while I’m on this subject, there’s also no research that indicates some people are born creative and some aren’t. You know, whenever I speak on this topic, I always get somebody that comes up afterwards and says “You know, Phil, that’s great but I was you know I’m just not creative. I’m not. I wasn’t born creative.” That’s a myth, total myth. There’s no indication, no research whatsoever that some are born creative, and some aren’t. But it’s like a muscle. We have to use it and, like you say, we have to be engaged, we have to be reading, looking at the culture, looking at that world that you live in.
I have a friend who’s in the logistics. She works in the logistics world. She’s been an executive for a big delivery company all her career, and she’s quite brilliant. She’s now on the board of a couple major Fortune 500 companies. Even though she’s retired, she’s still plugged in. She’s still talking about logistics all the time. She’s reading about it. She’s studying it. She’s talking to people about it. As long as she does that, she’s going to be creative as long as she wants.
So, I just think that, as we get older, we naturally might want to physically slow down a little bit and think that we’re getting less creative, but it’s not the case. I will say this when it comes to churches in particular. Very often, I’ll consult with churches, and I’ll be working with a creative team, and I’ll very often see that a pastor or an executive pastor or other leader will kind of defer to the younger voices in the room. And I’m glad that we have younger people in the room. I’m thrilled that younger people want to get plugged into leadership roles at church. However, I would say don’t stop listening to those older creative voices on your team. And, if you’re one of those older members of the team, don’t automatically step back for a younger person, because your ideas are still valid. The experience that you bring to the table is so important. So, I really kind of get passionate about that because I just see so often how older professionals, older creatives, older ministry leaders start to feel marginalized. They start to feel they’re not being listened to, but nothing could be more damaging to a church or ministry. We need those voices, and we need to hear.
Now one thing that I have learned in writing the book is that we don’t get less creative as we get older, but we do change our perspective on creativity, which is even a better reason to keep the older voices on the team, because they look at creativity from a different angle and a different perspective. And it’s always great to have that kind of diversity on a team when you’re being creative.
So, yeah, you’re exactly right. I just don’t think that there’s any research that indicates we get less creative as we get older as long as we’re still exercising that muscle: staying engaged, learning, growing. I have a quote on my desk, a little metal brass quote on my desk from Michelangelo that at the peak of his powers he said, “I’m still learning.” And I just want to be that way until the end, so I think that’s critically important.
Doug Powe: We’ve talked a lot about some of the things related to creativity, but I think one of the most helpful things in the book — and a reason that individuals certainly should pick this up — is you talk about what to do when you hit stumbling blocks. I mean, if you’re in any profession, you’re going to hit stumbling blocks, and this is particularly true of pastors. It might be with a sermon or other church leaders with ministry ideas. You know, how do we try to do something different to make this ministry be more fruitful? Could you share — I know you don’t want to share them all because we want to get the book — but can you share a couple of things that can help us to think about, when we hit those stumbling blocks, what do we do to sort of get the creative juices flowing again?
Phil Cooke: Absolutely. And it’s interesting that the first thing I do is get out of there. You know, like I said earlier, if I’m stuck on an idea and I’m sitting at my desk and banging my head against the wall and nothing is working, I get out of there. And very often I will I’ll take a walk, I’ll take a drive, but there are a lot of other things.
One of the things I’ve discovered personally is I hold back as long as I possibly can. For instance, if I’m writing a book, if I’m working on a book — I just literally started working on a new book yesterday — what I often do is I don’t start writing right away. I research, I read, I study, and I actually hold off writing as long as I can. I’m also working on an advertising campaign for a ministry in the Midwest, and I’ve got to write some television commercials, but I’m holding off as long as I can. And what happens is, while I’m holding off, those ideas are bouncing around in my head. I’m thinking about them. I’m cogitating on them. I’m doing the research. When I finally sit down to write, it’s like the dam breaking open. It’s like I can’t help it. I can’t hold it back anymore, and I sit down and those ideas flow. Very often, they’ll flow so fast I have trouble keeping up at my laptop.
So, first of all, don’t start too soon. I think that many people hit that creative wall because they simply started too soon. What we call writer’s block happens, I think, because you’re just not fully ready to sit down and write, so hold it as long as you can. Certainly, it’ll make you nervous because you’ll see the deadline coming up. Pilots tell me, when they see the end of that runway approaching on a takeoff, their blood starts pumping, and their adrenaline starts flowing. Things start happening. It’s the same way with creativity. As long as you can hold off, that’s a great thing.
Another idea is to go to the source. I tell pastors especially, you know, stop meeting in conference rooms. I’m so sick of meeting in conference rooms. If the problem is in the parking lot, have the meeting in the parking lot. If the problem is in the educational building, have the meeting in the educational building. I’ll tell you, it’ll change your perspective, and change the quality of your ideas if you start having the meeting where the problem lies.
In the book, I talk about how, when we moved to California, we stopped in Las Vegas for a few months. My wife’s family lived in Vegas. We were living in Oklahoma, and we were moving to LA, and we stopped in Vegas for a couple months, stayed with my in-laws, so we could look for a house here in Los Angeles. And while I was there, a friend introduced me to the marketing director at a couple big hotels in Las Vegas. She ran Circus Circus Hotel. She ran the Excalibur. She ran SAHARA. She did all the marketing for them, and she hired me to be a copywriter for them. So, I was writing advertising, and I was naming menu items, and I was coming up with TV commercials and all kind of stuff. And it was a job to help me bridge over to when I came to LA.
But one of the interesting things was this was the time when Vegas was trying to be family-friendly, and Circus Circus Hotel opened what was the largest dome-covered amusement park in the world, and it was designed for little bitty kids. And so, they came to me and said, “Hey, we’ve got to name the rides. Come up with names for all the rides in the amusement park.” So, I tried for a week. I was just beating my brains against the wall, and nothing was coming, and nothing was working. So, I decided to hold a second. These rides are for kids my daughter’s age, so I called Kelsey’s teacher, a second grade teacher. I said, “Look, can I come in for an hour and talk to the kids about this?” And she said, “Sure, come on in.” So, I sat down with the kids —second graders. And I said, “Okay, we’ve got a roller coaster that goes through the desert.” Some kid yelled out “Canyon Blaster.” Okay, check. I did another one. Okay, this flips you upside down and all around, and another kid yelled down “Road Runner.” Check.
So, I went down the list, and these kids, second graders, named all the rides, and I took them the next day — literally didn’t change hardly anything — took them the next day and presented them to the Circus Circus leadership team. They didn’t change a single name, and we went back 30 years later, a couple of years ago, we went back 30 years later and took our grandkids to the amusement park, and the rides are still there, and they’re still called by those names.
So, I learned go to the source. Go to the people that can help you the most. I mentioned focus groups and phone calls and man on the street interviews earlier. That’s a great tool. Don’t feel like you have to come up with everything on your own. Very often, you can break through that block by going out and talking to people who will be affected by it or who have more insight than you do, and you’ll be amazed how often that will trigger great ideas.
Doug Powe: Phil, once again, it’s has been fantastic having this conversation with you. As we get ready to end, I want to end on what I think is something that is just really critical for all of us, and it’s how to make our dream somebody else’s dream. You name it differently, of course. You say how to make your dream their dream. But what are some things to keep in mind when you’re pitching ideas to others? I mean you just named a couple as you were talking about going to the source. But when you’re trying to get people to connect with what it is you’re doing and to really make our dream their dream, what are some of the things we need to keep in mind?
Phil Cooke: You know, it’s funny working in Hollywood, working in advertising the way I do. I’m pitching ideas constantly. I’m always pitching them to a studio or a producer or a client, a pastor, maybe. And the truth is all of us pitch ideas constantly. I mean if my wife wants me to take her out to dinner tonight, she’s going to pitch me on the idea. You know, if I want to get romantic with my wife, I’ve got to pitch her on the idea. You want a raise at your work? You’ve got to pitch your boss on the idea. So, I think all of us need to think seriously about our skill and our ability to pitch ideas to other people. It’s so very, very important if we want to get them accepted. And some of the ways to do it I think are very critical.
Number one: be brief. Get to the point right away. So often people will pitch me an idea, and they talk and they talk and they talk. Literally a guy called me last week, and he had an idea he wanted to pitch me. You know, I blocked 45 minutes to an hour to talk to him on the phone. He started off. He said, “You know, this kind of started 30 years ago.” And he started going through his whole life. He never paused. He just kept going, and literally … I could not get his attention to stop him from talking. Fortunately, it was a phone call and not a Zoom call. So, while he was talking, I just put him on the speaker phone and set up the lighting and the camera for a podcast I had to do that afternoon. Then I answered about 20 emails, then I started a blog post about why you shouldn’t drone on and on and on when you’re pitching an idea and got it almost completely written. In 55 minutes, he finally paused and said, “What do you think?” and I said, “I don’t know. We booked an hour for this. I don’t really have time to respond. I’ve got to go to another meeting.” And we moved on. So, I think for number one, be brief. Get to the point. you know the people you’re pitching to are usually busy. So be brief. Get to the point.
And come with two or three ideas. You don’t have to pitch them all. But very often, if they don’t like your first idea, they’re going to say, “Okay, what else you got?” And if you don’t have anything, you’re done. So, you know don’t just come with one idea. Try to have two or three.
Another good idea is the slickest presentation rarely wins. It’s really not about how slick your presentation is. It’s how good the idea is. Really hone that idea, make it work.
Another idea is don’t bug people. Very often someone will come into my office, pitch me an idea for a television program or some other idea, and on their way home in the car they’ll call me to say “What do you think? You going to do it?” You know, give me a little time to think about this. Give me time to talk to my team about it. So don’t bug people over the idea. I think that’s important.
And the last thing I would say is, and I throw this in because I think it is important, very often you’ll schedule an appointment to go pitch your idea to somebody. It could be the pastor. It could be your boss. It could be a client. Who knows? An investor, potential investor, a donor. And you’ll walk in. You made the appointment with Mr. or Mrs. Big. And you walk in, and Mr. Big has somebody else in the room, and you don’t know who they are, and you didn’t make an appointment with that guy, and you don’t know why he or she is there. It could be the boss’s business partner or wife or girlfriend — you have no idea — a golfing buddy. You don’t have any idea. Very often we think, okay, I’m just going to ignore that guy and pitch to the guy I came to see. By ignoring that guy, you’re making a huge mistake. Because as soon as you walk out of the room, Mr. Big will turn to this friend and say, “Hey, so what did you think?” If you ignored him, he’s going to say “Well, frankly, I just didn’t like that guy very much, and I didn’t like his idea.”
So, whoever’s in the room, embrace them. You may not know who they are, they may not be introduced to you, but whoever you go into pitch with, or whoever you’ve gone to pitch for, if there’s somebody else there, embrace that person, make them part of the conversation. They’re more likely, when you walk out of the room, to turn to their friend and say, “Wow! That guy’s really sharp. I like that idea.” So those little ideas, you know, we should constantly be honing our ability to present ideas because, if you’re a leader, sooner or later you’re going to be presenting to your team; you’re going to be presenting to a donor or a series of donors or your congregation. It doesn’t matter. There’s going to be people out there to pitch to, and the art of making your dream become their dream is going to be really critical for you to go to the next level in your life and your career.
Doug Powe: Phil, thank you so much. This has been fantastic. Again, I want to say, his latest book is Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative. It has been wonderful to get a chance to talk with you again, and you did not disappoint. You think quickly on your feet.
Phil Cooke: I rambled a little bit because I get so excited about this topic. I got pumped, so sorry about that. But it was really, really fun.
Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our free weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, to be notified when new episodes are published. Visit churchleadership.com/leadingideas.
- Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking (Inspire, 2022) by Phil Cooke. Available at philcooke.com and Amazon.
- 10 Ways to Cultivate a Creative Culture by Phil Cooke
- The 4 “C’s” of Impactful Leadership by Doug Powe
- Christian Social Innovation Starts with Who, Not Why or How by Kenda Creasy Dean