Effective Persuasion: How to Sell an Idea at Work

“Persuasion is often more effectual than force.” –- Aesop, ancient Greek storyteller.

Effective Persuasion: How to Sell an Idea at Work by Laura Stack #productivityEvery innovation—from the fishhook to the miniskirt to the Space Shuttle—started with a simple, intangible idea. In business, new ideas help us improve everything from mechanical and work processes to our product lines. In a very real sense, businesses depend upon ideas to survive.

This does not mean, however, that those who operate those businesses are invariably open to new ideas. They may prefer sticking with what they know, rather than taking a chance on something unproven. You can yank up your ideas like weeds before they have time to mature. This may be a good thing, but may also prove bad if you can’t—or won’t—distinguish between the true weeds and the flower seedlings.

There may come a time when one of your carefully nurtured ideas—or one of your team members’—has matured into something truly useful. Given a little TLC, it might prove fruitful to your organization. Now you just have to get it past the defenses of the people whose failure to support it may result in its death. They consider dozens of ideas a month. What makes yours different from the rest?

Cautionary Tales

You don’t hear much about the ideas that upper management successfully shoots down; nor should you. When no one cares enough for an idea to fight for it successfully, then it could be flawed or ahead of its time. Back in the 1840s, Charles Babbage designed a “difference engine,” a mechanical computer that some modern engineers claim would have worked, if Babbage had possessed a sufficiently potent power source to run it. But he didn’t, so the computer revolution would have to wait another century to begin.

However, we see dozens of examples of ideas whose time had come, but that stalled (at least temporarily) due to erroneous decisions or perceptions on the part of the company’s leadership. For example: Western Union’s decision not to buy the patent for the telephone in 1876, citing it as an “electric toy.” Then there was the brush-off Google founders Brin and Page received when they went to Yahoo looking for an infusion of cash in the 1990s. These represent just a few ideas that went on to make their inventors a fortune.

To keep your big idea from getting the brush off, try these tips when it’s time to present it to others:

1. Outline the implementation process ahead of time. When I was on the board of directors for the National Speakers Association, board members had this strange habit of asking about the implementation plan before approving a proposal. They wanted to know its originators had thought through the next steps and were ready to spring into action. They weren’t impressed with half-baked ideas and hazy answers—they wanted to know the proposer knew what he/she was doing.

2. Pitch to a critical colleague first. Before you take your idea up the ladder, pitch it to one of your fellow managers—someone known for their critical approach. If he or she tears holes in the idea, how can you fix them or make improvements to address the concerns? Can you fix them? If not, it may be time to retire the idea. If on the other hand, you get an enthusiastic response, you may have a winner on your hands.

3. Reveal the “win” right away. Don’t bury your conclusions in a mountain of data or glib assurances. Start with your most important point: why and how this idea can profit the organization. Board proposals always state up front what the requestor is specifically asking the board to approve. Once you have their attention, then you can carefully outline the details, build your argument about why your idea works, and explain how you plan to implement it. Similarly, emails should provide an executive summary right up front, rather than expecting the reader to wade through two screens of text before coming to your point.

4. Do your homework. Know every aspect of your idea inside and out, so you can answer any question a skeptical manager or board member may ask. Call your peers in advance of the meeting to answer any questions and make sure you root out resistance prior to arriving. More importantly, know every aspect of how the idea will impact the organization, especially how it will increase profits or save the business money. The bottom line is literally the bottom line with upper management, no matter how altruistic the idea.

5. Address the objections. Any good salesperson will tell you that in order to really sell something, you must be able to address all the objections the buyer might have. Well, you’re trying to sell your idea, so that makes you a salesperson of a sort. Therefore, make a list of every objection you might expect someone to make, write out detailed rebuttals, write them up, and memorize them. When the objections come up, you’ve either sent them in advance in a FAQ sheet, or you’ll be able to answer them to everyone’s satisfaction.

6. List the benefits. Once you’ve dealt with the objections, show everyone why the idea profits them in particular and the organization in general. List the benefits in descending order of importance, vividly illustrate their value, and show they’re obtainable with a modicum of effort.

World Changers

One idea can change the world: planes, trains, and automobiles are all good examples. At the very least, your idea can change your organization. But it won’t go anywhere unless you know how to present it to those in power—and fight for it through the worst of their criticism. It may not make it, but who knows? You may end up the world’s next Sergey Brin or Steve Jobs. Don’t give up on an idea until it’s well and truly done.