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Chapter 7: How to Sell Your Ideas


For several years we worked with the CEO of Texaco, during a challenging period of its history. This executive was one of the most effective executives we've worked with. He was speaking on the subject of ideas one day and said: "A good idea isn't worth a damn, unless you can sell it to someone else."

As I heard that statement, I thought to myself, yes, we have to be able to sell our ideas or they die. So is there a better procedure for selling an idea? Here is a suggested format and structure for putting your ideas into motion.

How to Sell an Idea

  1. Problem Cause

  2. Negative Effects

  3. Idea Recommendation

  4. Benefits to the Audience

  5. Evidence

  6. Summary of Recommendation and Benefits (3 and 4)

  7. Calendar Action

The Presentation Story

At Procter & Gamble I was a product manager for Vicks Vaporub in Canada. My job was to increase sales of venerable Vicks Vaporub - a mentholated salve sold as a cold remedy - through advertising. I was supposed to start by identifying obstacles to growth. In other words, identify the problems. Well, one of the problems was that sales of this forty-year-old product were declining and had been for some time. I knew what had to be done, or thought I did - just get those sales up.

Don't Settle for the Obvious

When trying to identify a problem we often grab onto the obvious. If we were to go into a thousand business conference rooms on this day, the day you are reading these words, we would hear some variation of the same statement: "The problem is that our sales are down." In most instances that is not a clear enough statement of the problem to point us toward a solution.

We need to dig down beneath the obvious, to find the cause or causes of lack of growth. It might be because of a big turnover in the salesforce, or that our new people are untrained. It may be because of misdirected advertising, or that our competition has a great "price-off" offering. The trade may be responding to incentives that promote a competitive product, or an out-of-stock condition may exist. There may be delivery problems. There are many, many possibilities.

Identify the Problem, Before the Solution

When I sat down to begin to formulate a solution, I thought about Charles Kettering, one of the great men in industry. His inventive genius is credited by many for having sparked the growth of General Motors early in the twentieth century. Kettering trained himself to never begin by looking for a solution. He would always focus on identifying the problem in terms of its primary cause. He would start by gathering information that would continue to define, and therefore narrow, the problem.

Kettering felt that the apparent problem (declining sales) was often not the real problem. He advised that we dig deeper and find the causes and then frame the problem statement in those terms. He believed that then the problem statement would point us toward the solution. One of his statements is quoted in business schools across the nation.

A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.

So in my responsibility as product manager, I began by following Kettering's advice of gathering information to narrow the problem.

Gather Information

I studied our company's research. A nationwide survey of cold product usage over a two-year period had just been conducted. There were some remarkable bits of information in that study, including this:

There was a lot more information than that (some sixty pages more), but the startling revelations were contained in those three useful facts.

There were two other important facts. One was that all of our advertising was geared toward persuading the mother to buy the product. (But she didn't have to buy it. In 93 percent of the cases, she already had it in her medicine chest!)

The other fact was that sales of Vaporub were slowly declining and had been for the past five years.

Don't Rush to Conclusions

I looked at all that information and thought to myself, "Wow. Our sales have been sliding for five years. Our advertising is way off-base. It's stupid. It shouldn't be focused on getting consumers to buy the product. Our dollars are being wasted. The agency should be fired. The copy message should be to use more when they use it. Or to use it for additional purposes."

I flustered on. "Our goal should be to increase the use-up rate of the product; maybe we should suggest that the customer throw it out after a year; or maybe we should decrease the size of the jar so it doesn't last as long, or change the formula so that it spreads more, or disappears into the skin so that they use more. Maybe we should advertise that the product be used for sore muscles . . ."

Whew! You can see the flights of fancy I became involved in - the tendency to rush to a solution - to come up with an idea. Charles Kettering would have disowned me.

Using the Organizational Format

Let's fill in the organizational format, outlined earlier in this chapter, using the Vicks Vaporub example so that you can get a better feel for how the pieces fit together. Here is how the ideas were narrowed down, researched further, honed and polished, and finally presented at a meeting to Vicks senior management:

1. Problem Cause

The goal here is to look beneath the obvious problem. In our example, Vaporub's sales were dropping. That would seem to be the obvious problem, wouldn't it? But it's too broad. It's not directional. It shoots us off in all directions. We need to dig deeper and find the cause of that obvious problem. What is causing the decline of sales? That's what Charles Kettering meant when he said, "A problem well stated is a problem half-solved."

The initial research provided a real target to work on. The problem cause in this case is a slowing in the use-up rate of the product: it now took fourteen months, instead of ten months, to use up a jar. So the problem cause statement is:

The jar, which is in 93 percent of the homes, takes fourteen months to use up.

Is that a perfect problem statement? Probably not. But it's pretty good. The focus is entirely on use-up rate. Notice that no person or department is attacked. The problem is almost detached from its contributors or its perpetrators. I could sell that statement of the problem inside the corporation because no one would be defensive about it.

The Problem Statement Reveals an Insight

The statement of the problem almost always represents an insight, beyond what is superficially obvious to the onlooker and thereby creates real interest. Obviously you should have additional information that supports the problem. In this case we could share the following:

Half the users (mothers) dip two fingers into the salve and spread the product lightly on the child's upper chest only. They don't spread it on the back or the nose. They are less satisfied with the product than those who use more.

Also, they stated that they had never thought of the possibility of applying Vaporub beyond the upper chest. It had never been suggested.

These facts were followed by the good news:

Forty percent of the users spread Vaporub on the back as well as the chest. They are more satisfied with the product and the results than the first group.

On average they use twice as much as the first group. The most satisfied users are those who are most lavish in the amount of Vaporub they spread on the sick child. This group, on average, uses up a jar in seven versus fourteen months.

Those facts are important. Notice how they amplify the problem. They don't compete with it or muddy it.

Why should we spend so much time on identifying the problem? Because this is the most important step in developing the idea solution. When the problem is presented with great clarity, the listeners understand it better than they ever did before. The listeners can accept the fact that the problem is a worthy one. Ultimately, the solution will fit, hand in glove, into this new understanding.

In effect we will have "sold" two important parts of our idea format to the assembled listeners. The first is a new perspective on the problem. The second is the germ of the idea that will solve it.

2. Negative Effects

Negative effects are the signs that something is wrong.

In our example:

The overriding negative effect is that sales have been declining for the past five years.

Notice the negative effect is what we first misidentified as the problem. You can often list a number of negative effects, but be sure they all are caused by the same problem. Negative effects are often painful. They tend to cause a wringing of hands, a gnashing of teeth. They are the bad news, as well as the setup for the next step in the format.

3. The Idea Recommendation

The idea is your recommended solution to the problem. You should be able to state your idea by completing the sentence, "The idea is . . . " Naturally, you will want to go further and describe the various features of the idea. But make sure your statement of the idea is crystal clear and as simple as you can make it.

In our example:

The idea is to change our advertising emphasis one- hundred-and-eighty degrees - from purchase to usage.

Notice how simple the statement is. It's easy to understand. It's dramatic. Yet it flows directly out of the problem and the negative effects.

Give an Example to Flesh Out Your Idea

It's always important to give an example of an idea. It increases understanding. Don't worry about letting the cat out of the bag. This is no place for coyness. So in our case:

An example of the kind of advertising copy that would flow from the new strategy is this: "Apply Vaporub to the back as well as the chest for two times more soothing warmth, two times more vapor medication."

Include Negative FallOut from the Idea

We should also be clear about the ramifications of the change we are suggesting. We don't want to mislead by omission. By all means, outline some of the negative fallout involved in enacting the idea. By being up front at this early point we demonstrate that we have examined the total picture and are making the recommendation with eyes fully open. We come across much stronger for doing so.

In our example:

But we need to recognize that the enactment of this change in copy is not without some difficulty. It would mean that all existing advertising would have to be mothballed and new advertising created for television commercials, print ads, billboards, and point-of-sale materials. The unbudgeted out-of-pocket cost would be significant. At the same time, the benefits would seem to far outweigh the costs.

4. Benefits to the Audience

When selling anything - especially an idea - it's always good practice to clearly state what the benefits will be to your audience. It doesn't matter if your audience is one person or a roomful of senior managers: Tell them how their life could be better if they sign on to your plan.

In the Vaporub presentation, it went something like this:

The benefits of this change in advertising would be:

The result would be:

The benefits of your idea solution should reverse the negative effects and perhaps provide added or unexpected value. Here, the unexpected value is a real heart-warmer: Little children with sniffly noses will feel better because Mother used more of the product!

5. Evidence

Here is where we demonstrate that our idea will work. As we discussed in Chapter 2, there are five forms of evidence: Personal Experience, Analogy, Judgment of Experts, Examples, and Statistics and Facts. You can remember them all with the simple mnemonic, PAJES.

Selecting from the Five Forms of Evidence

Personal Experience - First-person testimony. An incident out of your life that supports the point you are making. In a business presentation, this narrative can be a report of the research you did on the problem or an anecdote relayed from the folks in field sales.

Analogy - A point of similarity between two unlike things. For example, the tip of the iceberg analogy conveys a warning about seeing only a small portion of something and missing the significance of the whole. The racehorse analogy used in Chapter 2 illustrates how effective even a brief analogy can be.

Judgment of Experts - A statement by a recognized authority that appears to be supportive. For example there are two experts quoted earlier in this chapter who would fall into that category (James Kinnear and Charles Kettering - see how easy that is?)

Example - A specific situation with various key factors similar to those of your premise. Examples are persuasive to the extent audiences see them as paralleling your own case. In this chapter, we'll show how an example is used.

Statistics/Facts - Numerical or other facts arranged for analysis and interpretation. Graphs help your audience appreciate relationships between numbers. Choose pie charts if you want the audience to see percentages, bar charts for comparisons, line charts for trends.

Using Evidence to Support the Idea

Now back to the Vaporub story. The evidence of the example was used to support the idea of increased usage, suggesting to mothers that they use the product on both the front and the back of the child.

Let me show you why we're confident that the idea will work.

During September, October, and November we conducted a pilot test in Sudbury, Ontario. We selected one hundred homes. We picked up their Vaporub jars, and replaced them with full ones. The customers were happy because they ended up with more Vaporub than they had before. We didn't tell them about the test. We did the same thing in one hundred homes in a control market.

The Vaporub "Front and Back" Advertising Test

For three months we ran special "Vaporub, front and back" advertising in Sudbury. Our regular old advertising ran in the control market. Then we picked up all the jars again and replaced them with full ones.

We melted down the contents of the hundred jars from Sudbury and compared it to what we obtained from the melted down jars in the control market.

The Sudbury test market had used 14 percent more Vaporub.

We examined and reexamined the test. It was clean in every way. That's why we are confident that our recommendation is solid and on target: Vaporub "Front and Back" advertising will increase sales.

It's important that your evidence supports the idea recommendation by showing that your solution is likely to bring about the benefits. Do not use evidence that merely proves the reality of the problem. At this point the audience accepts the problem as real; they don't need to see graphs and charts that show declining sales. They should see the graph or chart that shows how the Sudbury experiment raised product usage by 14 percent.

6. Summary (of Recommendation and Benefits)

The summary should be brief. In our example, the first sentence summarizes the idea recommendation:

In summary, we recommend that the company change Vaporub's advertising strategy from what it is currently, which is product purchase, to product usage.

The second sentence reprises the benefits to the audience:

By doing so, we anticipate a sales increase of 10 to 15 percent.

The key point here is to restate the idea in one sentence. Restate the key benefit only.

7. Calendar Action

Finish your idea presentation by stating one action that will get the ball rolling. When should it happen? Put it on the calendar:

The recommended next step would be to schedule a meeting with the advertising agency, share this presentation with them, and begin the change process. With your approval, I'd like to schedule that meeting for Tuesday of next week.

As you can see, the format enables you to present your thinking in a persuasive and logical manner. The presentation should be short in time (ten minutes is usually enough) but long on persuasive content. The Calendar Action step assures that your work will not be in vain; your listeners will have to make a decision - and you have an advantage.

Key Learnings for Putting Together and Delivering a Talk to Sell Ideas



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