5 ways to be more effective selling your ideas
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I have held a lot of different responsibilities over the past several years. I have run product management, strategy, massive change initiatives, marketing, and operations. But if you asked me what role I really played most often, I would answer that I was primarily an internal salesperson. Basically, I was capable of getting funding for new projects. Compared to my peers, I had a very high success rate in getting projects through the system. And while some of that was the merits of the initiatives themselves, there are skills that I either honed or acquired that made me more successful than most.
Your idea is a product
The very first thing to know about being effective internally (whether that’s driving a huge project or advocating a smaller point of view) is that your job is selling. So many people believe that ideas succeed or fail based on the merits of the idea alone. That is not the case. There is always a larger context, and you need to realize that you have to operate within that larger context to be effective.
If your idea is the product, then the company you work for is the customer. Just like you would with a real customer setting, you need to map out who your buyers are. Which people have an explicit yes/no vote for whatever you are doing? Who owns the budget (or resources) required to execute? Who are they influenced by? Which ones are detractors? Who is your champion? Have you cleared all the hurdles high in the organization? Do you know who your competition is (the other projects competing for time and money)?
When you map everything out, you should be able to determine who you have to meet with, who you can safely ignore, and where most of your work will need to be focused.
Avoid the 2-hour readout
Most people believe that getting a big meeting with a bunch of the right people in the room is the way to go. These two-hour readout meetings are a great way to get the organization aligned, right?
Except that they don’t work that way. The psychology behind how people consume information is very telling. People are rarely moved by a single, massive touch. They are compelled, rather, by a series of smaller touches. Frequency is more important than magnitude when it comes to winning hearts and minds. The two-hour readout might be a necessary level-set meeting, but you will rarely come out of those meetings with your idea sold – even if everyone is nodding their head and extolling your praises.
Consider instead a drip method of communication. Touch people far more frequently (more than once a week) but with much tinier engagements. It might be a 15-second comment about the state of funding, or maybe a hallway exchange about progress on some aspect, or even a lunch discussion about the scope of the work. You need to spend a lot less time with people than you think, but that time needs to include an order of magnitude more touches than you probably realize.
Head nodding is not support
How often have you walked out of a meeting you were leading and thought “I crushed that one!” because everyone was nodding their heads? A nodding head does not mean the idea is accepted; it means that the words were understood. And the more technical the idea, the more you should be afraid of a nodding head.
People want to feel like they understand what is going on. They like to participate in the conversation, even if only in their heads. When you lose them or they tune out for whatever reason, they will start to nod their heads every time they hear a word that they know. This doesn’t show understanding. It’s just a common way for people to try to stay engaged in the conversation when they have lost their desire to do so.
When you see all these nodding heads, you likely think they get it. So when you ask if there are any questions, you are not surprised by the silence. But the silence is more likely because they have no idea what you are saying or what they would ask. Be afraid when you see nodding heads.
When you combine the nodding head phenomenon and the drip method, you get a powerful means of communicating an idea. People like to be able to follow along with a conversation. With children, they actually like hearing the same story over and over because familiarity breeds happiness. In a training setting, when instructors ask questions, whether you raise your hand or not, you want to know the answer. It is the same way in corporate settings. If you drop the same basic information, people feel better about being able to come along for the ride. It makes them feel complicit in the outcome rather than a pure consumer of a story.
Let people draw their own conclusions
When most of us try to land a point, we start with a hypothesis and then walk through a bunch of supporting detail. We try to logically navigate the situation to help the listener arrive at our conclusion. But there is another more powerful way to make traction.
If you set up the situation and allow people to draw their own conclusions, they are even more drawn in. They develop emotional ties to their conclusions in a way that you can can never force from the outside. So rather than explaining every point in excruciating detail, consider using an overarching comparison or analogy that illustrates the hypothesis and allows the listener to make some of her own leaps to conclusions.
For detailed pitches (like with an architectural decision), I don’t want to suggest you avoid the meat, but try to give just enough meat to make the point obvious, and then add no more. The more you add, the worse you do. You will not do well beating people into submission. You need them to come along of their own accord, and that is most likely when the decision is theirs rather than yours.
Do not ignore the emotional side
In tech especially, we are trained that success hinges on fact. That is probably true, but convincing people to move (even technical people) is as much about emotion as it is about fact. Make sure you understand your audience. What are they sensitive to? Does this undo something they did in the past? Does this make it seem like they were wrong in the past? Does this threaten their standing or their job? Does it validate an opinion they have voiced for years? Does it give them the opportunity to be a visionary?
Think through the emotional impacts, and then play those deliberately. Someone who fancies herself a visionary will resonate with ideas that align with things she has said or done in the past. Someone who was responsible for the way things are now might respond defensively because you are saying they are wrong. If you understand this, you can more carefully craft the discussion.
There are countless tips and tricks. I cannot possibly cover them all. But you should understand that success is not just a reflection of the idea; it reflects your ability to lead an organization to that idea.