Brilliant Ideas Still Need to Be Sold

How to shape opinion, inspire action, and achieve results.

By Erin Geisler

History is replete with examples of brilliant ideas that weren’t implemented because they weren’t sold correctly. Even worse, the world is full of bad ideas that successfully got the green light when they shouldn’t have.

Leadership expert John Daly, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Communication and at the McCombs School of Business, authored the book Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Others, which schools readers on how to shape opinion, inspire action, and achieve results.

“One of the challenges for people with good ideas, whether they are scientists or engineers or business people, is that they too often believe that a good idea sells itself.”
— John Daly

When writing the book, Daly drew on his knowledge of great moments in the history of advocacy. He describes Benjamin Franklin’s role as a negotiator in colonial America and Admiral Hyman Rickover’s push to develop the navy’s nuclear submarine program as cases in which daring new ideas were sold effectively.

Daly has consulted for companies including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Texas Instruments, IBM, Shell, and Exxon, helping executives develop communications strategies. His experiences in the corporate world informed his vision for Advocacy.

“There’s a politics to ideas in every company,” he says. “You’ve got to learn to network well. You’ve got to time your idea well. You’ve got to be persuasive. You got to make sure people understand what you’re talking about. You got to make sure people want to listen to you.”

Illustrations by Kim Brown

Daly shares some tips from his book:

1. Make sure people understand what you are proposing

When trying to sell a concept, give people at least two distinct examples of what you’re talking about. For example, the biggest mistake Six Sigma advocates make when promoting this process measurement tool is talking about moving or making “widgets.” As a result, much of the public thinks Six Sigma is limited to manufacturing logistics.

“Had I been advising Six Sigma advocates 20 years ago,” Daly says, “I would have told them that for every manufacturing example they gave, they needed to provide a human resources or a sales example to illustrate the generality of what they were trying to propose.”

2. Answer the “WIIFT” question

When selling your ideas to others, answer the “What’s In It For Them” question. Two mistakes most of us make are presuming that what excites us about our idea will excite others and — even more importantly — not appreciating that everyone has their own unique WIIFT. For instance, the communications director is proud of the great layout, photography, and writing in the new annual report, but the CEO just wants the numbers; she doesn’t care about the aesthetics.

Successful people learn to tap into others’ needs, whether for status, money, or headcount. Successful advocates also negotiate one-on-one rather than en masse. Instead of pitching an idea in a meeting where it’s easy to lose control of the idea, a savvy engineer or product manager will approach constituents within their organization to address their WIIFTs individually. As Daly explains, “The more important a decision is in a large organization, the more likely that decision is to be made before any formal meeting takes place.”

3. Explain the “why now” for your idea

If you want to be persuasive, answer the “why now” question. Why should we adopt this innovation now instead of in 18 months? Why didn’t we adopt it last year?

According to Daly’s research, successful advocates tend to follow a four-step sequence when persuading people to act now:

  • Create a pain: No one changes when things are good; change is only made when things are bad.
  • Don’t make your pitch before explaining the “why now.” Too often people pitch their idea and get pushback in the form of “Where’s the budget for this?” “Where’s the headcount?”
  • Communicate the short-term benefits (WIIFT) of “why now.”
  • Realize that the fear of regret is greater than the fear of change. A good advocate talks about the cost of not doing something. Venture capitalists will tell you that missing out hurts a lot more than getting in.

4. Offer compelling evidence and data

Offer compelling evidence to support your case. There is one catch: the only good evidence is new evidence — old evidence is no evidence.

Once an audience has been exposed to a message more than a handful of times, that message has little-to-no effect. Warning labels were originally added to cigarette packages in 1970, but after some time, research indicated that most smokers had memorized the warning label and no longer paid attention to it. The evidence was valid but no longer compelling, so in 2012, cigarette packages began carrying one of four different health warnings and one of nine different graphic photographs to discourage smoking.

5. Know who makes the decisions

Knowing who decides — not just who can say “yes” but who can say “no” — is everything.

“I’ll let you in on a secret: In most large organizations, the CEO makes very few decisions,” Daly explains. “By the time an idea reaches the CEO, it’s been vetted and massaged by multiple layers of managers, so chances are good the idea will get the green light from the CEO.”

6. Focus on the “so what?”

Bring the point home by focusing on the “so what.”

Too many people focus on the features of an idea instead of the benefits, Daly says. The best way to sell a soft drink is to communicate how it quenches your thirst, gives you a boost of energy or puts you in a good mood. Coca-Cola doesn’t focus on features, such as a lightweight, clear bottle, 20 ounces of product or a twist-off cap — so what?

7. Have a great story to accompany your idea

Great leaders and advocates are great storytellers. As human beings, we are our stories.

“When I travel for business, I always eat at the mom-and-pop establishments, never the chain restaurants, which sometimes annoys my colleagues,” says Daly. “So I’ll tell them a story about a family that forgoes vacations and nice things for 10 or 15 years to save up for their dream of opening their own business. They put everything they have into their business only to have it — and their hopes — shattered by bankruptcy. I eat at mom-and-pop restaurants because I want to support hope and entrepreneurship.

“I could tell you I support entrepreneurship, but now you understand it on a deeper level because of my story,” he says.

If you can’t craft a good story around your idea, an interesting and relevant factoid is the next-best thing.

8. Be credible — trust is everything

Gain a reputation for finishing what you start and by learning to master your very small commitments.

“In business, you’re expected to keep your big commitments — otherwise you wouldn’t have a job,” says Daly. “But people notice when you keep the very smallest of your commitments because they never expect you to keep them in the first place.”

9. Sound confident

If you sound confident, you will be judged to be competent.

There are dozens of ways to sound confident. Some of Daly’s favorites include being intense when talking about your idea and using details to show people you’re comfortable with what you’re talking about.

Nonverbal confidence cues include pausing when speaking and “punching” words. Bill Clinton was considered the master of the pause in his speeches. Distinctive speakers such as James Earl Jones, Charlton Heston, and Barbara Jordan knew how to punch, italicize, and boldface their words when speaking.

10. Be interpersonally savvy

Figure out why someone is right rather than telling them they’re wrong. In other words, figure out the real reason behind a comment. What is the motivation? How can you meet their needs and yours?

Every great advocate has an almost unrealistic level of optimism, and they convey this by rephrasing things. Take David and Goliath, for example. David’s troops run away in fear, saying, “Goliath’s too big!” David rephrases the situation and says, “But he’s so big I can’t miss!”

Additional reporting by Rob Heidrick.