Got a Good Idea? Learn How to Sell It

Sept. 29, 2008
When Selling an Idea, Know the Culture Your Audience Is Coming From

Having a good idea is just the beginning.

After that flash of inspiration, ideas need development, nurturing, testing—but, most of all, they need advocates and supporters. So, though many innovators may think their work stops after inspiration, most ideas will die without someone to sell them. And that person must also sell them intelligently, both to technical and management colleagues by taking into account their different perspectives

This was the eye-opening message delivered by Dr. John Daly, professor at the University of Texas, in his management presentation, “Building Advocacy and Presenting to Executive Management” on the opening day of Emerson Process Management’s 2008 Global Users Exchange held this week in Washington, D.C.

“Be able to communicate quickly and succinctly why it must be implemented now.” John Daly of the University of Texas explained why the laws of physics and logic don’t always govern what ideas companies choose to pursue.
“I teach advocates how to sell ideas within organizations because many people are surprised to learn that logic and the laws of physics don’t apply to how well ideas are accepted and adopted,” said Daly. “This is why it’s so crucial to sell them.”

Daly reports that most companies have dominant models for how they’ve traditionally made money, and if an innovation conflicts with that model, then it will be hard to make people in that organization understand it and its potential value. For example, Xerox’s engineers invented Ethernet and the computer mouse, but the firm never commercialized them because they didn’t fit their traditional goals. Likewise, an Eastman Kodak engineer invented the digital camera, but his company didn’t pursue it immediately because Kodak was too preoccupied with selling film.

To overcome this tradition and inertia, Daly explained that innovators and advocates must know why their idea is so important and be able to communicate quickly and succinctly why it must be implemented now. “Advocates must create the need and identify pain that their idea solves, have a specific plan, show benefits of following it and be able to show what will happen if their plan isn’t adopted,” said Daly. “People are much more urgent about losing a possible opportunity than they are about taking on one that’s simply available.”

In addition, Daly reports that advocates must be prepared to deal with the four types of decision makers, who have varying levels of knowledge and feeling about the idea. These include naïve followers in need of education, skeptics that require questions to be answered, adversaries that need compelling data and, finally, cheerleaders that need bolstering and inoculation against cynics. Likewise, ideas and their supporters usually face four types of organizations. These consist of prospectors that love new ideas and want to be on the cutting edge; analyzers that want others to demonstrate an idea’s success before they follow it too; defenders that occupy a good niche and only innovate in response to crucial demand; and reactors that only respond when forced by their market.

“Consequently, when you go to sell and idea, you must know the culture your audience is coming from and then how to approach them,” added Daly. “Advocates must help listeners answer the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Over-preparation is important because supporters must be able to tell a good story about their idea and answer any question about it. More important, they have to be able to answer any follow-up questions or objections, and even turn those objections into positives.”