How to Sell an Idea Effectively

In consulting or any professional service type industry, the "thing" you sell and provide to clients is intangible. Your advice, your guidance, your analysis really comes down to conveying an idea from you to your client.

Unlike a tangible product, you can't touch, taste or even smell an idea. When a client or a boss seeks your guidance, they are really getting two things:

1) How you visually convey your idea (e.g., a chart, exhibit, or email memo); and

2) How you explain your idea with your voice.

Most every consultant I know of focuses on and usually receives training in the former - how to create a PowerPoint deck.

But very few receive any training nor do any work on the latter - your voice.

At McKinsey, I didn't receive any voice training what-so-ever.

While one can probably get away with this as an analyst, the higher you go in consulting (and in industry) and the higher you aspire to take your career, the more your work becomes increasingly dependent on your voice.

As an analyst, your main work products are spreadsheets, slides, and memos. At the partner level, your entire work existence focuses around listening, thinking, and speaking.

The same is true in industry. Once you're past the entry level individual contributor type role into Team Leader, Director, and Vice President roles, it's pretty much all about going from one meeting to another. In these roles, there is much less "doing" and a lot more listening, deciding, and yes, speaking.

There will come a point in your career where it makes sense to focus on improving your voice. This point differs for each person and depends in large part on how well your voice is or isn't serving you currently.

Here's the reality. When you speak or present, not only do your ideas matter, but how you convey your ideas matters too.

Senior level executives (whether they are your client, your boss, or your boss's boss) have two parallel decision making modes:

1) data driven; and
2) meta-data driven

The former is about the facts and analysis, the latter is in part about how you seem to feel about your recommendation.

Now obviously, a senior executive can't really know how you feel about an idea, but they infer this based in part on how you sound when you explain your idea.

If you sound nervous, hesitant, uncertain, or convey any emotion other than absolute certainty and conviction, it causes the other person's meta-data "alarm" to go off.

I've actually been working on improving my public speaking work and one of the things I've been working on is my breathing. It turns out that I've been breathing completely incorrectly my entire career.

I've historically been a chest breather, as opposed to the more optimal diaphragm breather.

Here's a simple test to see what kind of breather you are:

1) Take one hand and put in on your chest at about heart level.

2) Take your other hand and put it on your stomach covering your belly button.

Now breath as you normally do and notice which hand moves up and down.

Now take several deep breaths and see which hand moves.

If you are breathing optimally the hand over your chest should hardly rise or fall with each breath. Instead the hand over your stomach should rise a lot with each breath.

The reason you want to breath through your diaphragm (which is located in your stomach area) is because it allows you to take in a lot more air at once. This in turn allows you to project more sound from your voice for longer periods of time.

Before I learned how to do this, I had a bad habit of speaking too quickly. In addition, I would tend to rush how quickly I would enunciate each word being spoken.

For most of my career, I got complaints, especially from non-native English speakers who had difficulty understanding what I was saying. They couldn't keep up with the rapid speed combined with words that weren't being expressed very clearly.

It turns out the root cause for these bad voice habits which have been following me around my whole career is largely due to incorrect breathing.

Because I would breath through only my chest (which takes in very little air, compared to diaphragm /stomach breathing), I wouldn't get enough air in my lungs to express a long thought or sentence without running out of oxygen.

So in my unconscious desire to avoid oxygen deprivation, I would just speak faster to compensate. It is such a simple solution, I am kicking myself for not having discovered it years ago.

I've been using improved breathing and numerous other voice training techniques I've learned over the last few months to make my voice sound better. My voice coach Roger Love is one of the best, if not the best in the business.

You can see my interview with Roger Love, which includes his tips for improving your voice, at:

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4 comments… add one
  • Emelia May 18, 2015, 7:39 am

    Im an example of a fast talker. And it sucks because i love to do presentations, i love talk, and i just mess it all up by talking to fast, that my audience cant understand me, even if im trying to pass an important message, i end up stammering. I need help!

    • Victor Cheng May 28, 2015, 3:36 am


      Practice while video recording yourself. When you are speaking at the optimal speed, it will seem absurdly slow to you. Also practice taking more breaths and deeper breaths. That too will slow down your rate of speech.

      Good luck and good practice,


  • S Sep 10, 2013, 3:47 pm

    Interesting exercise which quickly reveals a whole new way of breathing. Thanks for sharing this Victor !
    A possible hypothesis – if we breathe naturally through chest, it could be because it suits more to our body. How do we test that changing this way of breathing would actually create no health impacts ? Apologies if it is a question which is too far fetched, but sounded very logical to me.

  • Rupesh Jul 17, 2013, 2:20 am

    Hi Victor,

    Your websites and blogs been indeed a great resource for many like me to understand internal world of consulting firms.

    Thank you so much for all value addition.


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