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The surprising thing that can help you sell a tough idea

September 21, 2015, 2:50 PM UTC
©Adam B. Auel

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you get buy in for a new idea? is written by Robin Koval, president and CEO of Truth Initiative.

Coming up with a great, new idea is challenging. Getting others on board can be even tougher. It’s something I’ve faced throughout my career, most recently as a relatively new CEO tasked with re-branding the organization behind the famous and highly decorated truth youth tobacco prevention campaign. While many are familiar with this award-winning and life-saving program, few knew the organization behind it. Born from the late 90’s Master Settlement Agreement between the states and Big Tobacco, and named the American Legacy Foundation, this billion-dollar entity was primarily known within small public health communities. My job: assess the opportunity for a new brand, develop a name, and perhaps most importantly, convince our board, staff and a long list of stakeholders in the public and non-profit sector of this new direction. Piece of cake, right? Not exactly. But after 12 months of rigorous researching and brainstorming, we finally launched our new parent brand — Truth Initiative.

In this process and through many other past experiences gaining buy-in for new ideas, I have found that there are six key elements that help communicate and ultimately, sell a new idea — whether to a board of directors, employees, external stakeholders or the general public.

New ideas can seem complex if we don’t quite understand how they will fit into our lives. Take the iPod, for instance. Would it have been as successful if introduced as “a solid state, auxiliary interface device developed for digital audio high speed transfer” rather than “1,000 songs in your pocket?” The more simple and straightforward an idea, the better. In my former life as the CEO of a major advertising agency, my company helped market Swiffer back when it was still an unknown product. We knew that people were wary of this new-fangled cleaning device, but we also knew that their familiar, old fashioned tools weren’t getting the job done. We cracked the code when we helped consumers see that Swiffer wasn’t just different, it was actually better. It was the excuse they had been looking for to “break up” with the traditional, poorly functioning mops and brooms they disliked, but for which they hadn’t had an alternative.

Make it practical
To elevate an idea from “good in theory” to “good in practice,” it’s crucial to clearly demonstrate how the concept will transform an existing “pain point” in people’s everyday life. Take for example, a recommendation to automate expense reporting with an online system. The first response might be: “but our current system is working,” or “not my priority.” But if you include the promise of getting employees reimbursed in 24 hours, you’ve found a way to speak to people’s pocketbooks in a real, meaningful way.

Reduce the risk
Fear of the new and unknown often stems from a deep-seated, genetically programmed, human need to minimize risk. Back in prehistoric times this natural risk aversion helped us survive the dangers of the “eat or be eaten” world. We’re all programmed this way, so today even small efforts to reduce perception of risk have outsize rewards. Calling something a “pilot program” or showing evaluation of several alternatives at low cost gives your idea a much higher chance of survival. When we were selecting our new name, even though we all naturally gravitated to “Truth Initiative,” we tested multiple alternatives to provide a “cushion” of risk minimization.

See also: So your boss hates your new idea. Here’s what to do next

A spoonful of sugar
Science proves that kindness and humor (think: chocolate, compliments, telling a joke) release “feel good” chemicals in the brain that predispose us to be more positive. So, before you present your next big idea, offer your audience a piece of candy, compliment someone’s excellent choice in neckwear, or share the latest internet meme that’s making the rounds (in good taste, of course). I always keep a bowl of chocolates in my office. These small treats have helped sell many difficult recommendations. (Although some particularly thorny issues require a full box of Godiva’s!)

Put a timer on it
The biggest idea killer is too much time. To prevent the nit-picking and ankle biting that can wear away the most brilliant parts of a novel concept, set a timer. We do our best thinking and decision making when faced with the adrenaline inducing jolt of an imminent deadline. (Remember all those term papers that magically got done the night before the due date?) Let everyone on the team have their say and listen carefully, but then make sure there is someone empowered to make the final decision.

Share the credit
President Harry Truman was known for his plain-spoken, Midwestern sensibility. One of his particularly sage pieces of advice was: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Truman understood that when a great idea is on the table, it’s much less important to get credit than to get it done. As we all know, when a brilliant idea comes to fruition, there’s enough success for everyone to get a slice of the pie.


Read all responses to the MPW Insider question: How do you get buy in for a new idea?

This CEOs best tip for raising venture capital by Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Market Mentor.

The one fear even the best business leaders have by Mary Godwin, VP of operations at Qumulo.

How to make sure your new business idea isn’t a total dud by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

How to avoid complete failure when pitching a new business idea by Laura Cox Kaplan, regulatory affairs and public policy leader at PwC.

Proof even the best business ideas get ripped apart by Jodi Cerretani, senior director of marketing at MobileDay.

Here’s how to make sure your next ideas meeting isn’t a total fail by Kristin Kaufman, founder and president of Alignment, Inc.

Why managers need to stop sugar-coating the truth by Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners.

How this CEO keeps her employees coming back after maternity leave by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

The number one way to motivate employees by Karen Quintos, CMO of Dell.