You may not be a lawyer, politician, or inventor, but, at some point in your career, you’ve probably had to advocate – that is, convince others to buy into an idea. Communications consultant John A. Daly teaches the strategies successful advocates employ: the basics of presenting an idea, the importance of cultivating a broad network, and the empowerment that arises from conducting successful meetings. He provides charts and detailed lists to guide you through each step of the process. The book is lightly repetitious and refers often to common knowledge in the field, but it is smart and highly useful. We recommend it to anyone who needs to sell an idea – in whatever line of work – and become a successful closer.
- No matter how wonderful your idea is, you must learn to sell it to others.
- To pitch effectively to an audience, you must know its members well.
- Your message should demonstrate that you share their “schema,” their understanding of the issue your concept addresses.
- Tell the people in your audience why the time to act is now and what benefits your proposal will bring them.
- A successful advocate develops a brand for integrity and guards it well.
- Good advocates use compelling, applicable stories to illustrate their points.
- A strong network of like-minded colleagues can help you sell your idea.
- Back up your arguments with data, facts, and stories that are germane and true.
- Use fear to motivate your audience but deploy it judiciously.
- Press your case before meetings and conduct those meetings well.
Regardless of your field, at some point, you will have to convince others to adopt your idea. Your concept will not sell itself; you must pitch it to your bosses, colleagues, and even customers. Failing to do so effectively can mean that your idea, no matter how wonderful, will never see the light of day. You must learn to advocate.
“Too often, brilliant ideas flounder because of the inability or unwillingness of their creators to sell them to others.”
Advocacy is the ability to convince others to become invested in and to offer support for something important to you. Advocacy can take place in a variety of settings, and anyone can learn it.
People who are good at advocating share some characteristics:
- They make themselves understood with clarity and concision.
- They craft reputations for believability and reliability.
- They create environments in which people feel comfortably creative.
- They build support for their proposals before presenting them formally.
- They use stories, appear sure of themselves, and run meetings well.
Begin at the Beginning
When pitching an idea, use “auditory, visual and kinesthetic” methods. Pictures are effective, but, kinesthetically, you also can offer prototypes or working models of your concept. Give your audience at least two examples when you present your idea; if you introduce just one example, your audience may confuse your proposal for the example. Impart new information in groupings of three elements to make it more memorable. Streamline, structure, and organize your presentation. Add “signposts” like headlines, subheads, and brief synopses. Avoid corporate lingo. If possible, discuss your position with decision-makers in person rather than online or by phone. To ensure that your listeners have grasped your message, ask questions after your presentation.
To reach your audience members, make sure you share their schema – their description of a challenge and their plan to overcome it. Do your homework on the backgrounds of the authorities you’re trying to persuade. What are their attitudes, histories, and interests? Aligning schemas and identifying common challenges will help you reach an agreement faster and make you appear more powerful. Re-identifying problems – or “framing” – can be as important as defining them in the first place. Both steps help you present solutions and motivate people to think more creatively. Frame a challenge as an opportunity or a threat, depending on which characterization is more likely to motivate your audience.
Advocate, Brand Thyself
Brands help consumers identify and believe in what’s behind a label. They imply quality and value. As an advocate, you have a brand. If people think of you as an effective campaigner, your name on a proposal conveys quality and value. If you are unsure whether you have a brand or what it is, ask your co-workers their opinions of you. Consider what jobs your supervisors assign you and whether they’re important. Sign up for a task that suits you well and observe the result. Effective advocates do not sponsor ideas or projects that are incompatible with their brands.
“Advocacy means persuading people who matter to care about your issue.”
Your brand forms a basis for your reputation – whether your colleagues see you as “competent, trustworthy, and passionate.” Carefully tend your brand and your reputation. Demonstrate your capability – which is pivotal to succeeding as an advocate – by taking these steps:
- Thoroughly prepare: Absorb and memorize everything you can about your issue; come to your presentation “knowing more than anyone else.”
- Establish a history of achievement: But don’t brag; your record speaks for itself.
- See the big picture: Research the environment in which your firm functions and how your idea fits within that environment.
- Be a good politician: Even when advocating an idea within your firm, work for the organization wisely. “Understand the political environment.”
- Find allies: Form a group of equally able co-workers to pitch your plan.
- Be expert in more than one field: “Multiple competencies” provide you with greater flexibility.
- Work hard, visibly: The more exertion you show, the more positive responses you will obtain.
“Persuasion is often a function of how an issue is framed.”
Decision-makers will be more likely to invest in you and your projects if you demonstrate honesty, respect for colleagues’ accomplishments, an unselfish willingness to help, and the ability to admit when you’ve erred, and fervor for your idea or cause.
Bond with Others and Tell a Story
Build a team of influential fellow endorsers to imbue your cause with authority. “Sponsors” and “opinion leaders” can publicly endorse your idea’s merit. Enlist them to work behind the scenes. Colleagues at your level can serve as “gatekeepers” – support staff who control access to your sponsor. Seek their backing. Clients can make or break your campaign. Cultivate them.
“Like the water that slowly wears away stones, determination and resolve distinguish successful proponents from the rest.”
To create your network of supporters, you must understand people’s basic needs for “inclusion, control, efficacy” and “affection.” To practice inclusion, inform others about your campaign from the beginning. Don’t risk alienating them later in the process when they realize they’ve been omitted. Allow your co-workers to make suggestions and become invested in your cause by providing them with a sense of control. Giving people opportunities to be part of something significant answers they need for efficacy. To inspire their involvement and support, be thoughtful, personable, committed to their values, and generous with opportunities to “save face.”
“Champions and sponsors are senior people in the organization who believe in the idea and informally rally support for it.”
To sell your concept, tell a story. Narratives illuminate the value of your idea because they are engrossing, illustrate your point clearly, and blend ideas into a “coherent whole.” A tale can evoke memories and make it difficult for anyone to argue against you. Your stories should be short, original, and simple. They must be pertinent. Your stories ought to be believable and belong to you, and they should be true; never invent an anecdote, and don’t copy others’ work.
“We are hardwired to think narratively. Throughout history, people have depended upon storytellers to remember ideas, events and people.”
Make use of “factoids” – obscure tidbits of information that add color to your argument. For example, you could include examples from nature as a metaphor to illustrate the state of your firm or the character of your current challenge. If you use factoids, ensure that they are true, memorable, and applicable to your audience.
Know Your Audience
You must know to whom you are pitching. Research your audience. Determine which decision-makers are most likely to support you. Identify your probable opponents. Do any of these people have preconceptions about your cause? If the firm implements your concept, who would feel the impact? Once you answer those questions, consider the five categories of decision-makers:
- “Cynics”: These people will oppose new ideas no matter what they are. Disregard or bypass them.
- “Naive followers”: These people feel favorably toward your cause but don’t comprehend it. They require explanation rather than persuasion.
- “Cheerleaders”: These allies appreciate your idea and can help advocate for it.
- “Adversaries”: These people understand your cause but disagree with it. Convince them to change their minds.
- “Skeptics”: These individuals grasp what you want, but they aren’t certain it’s worth the trouble.
“Most important for advocacy is social capital…Things get done and ideas get adopted when people connect with one another.”
Each group requires different advocacy. Comprehend your audience’s “core concerns.” Before your presentation, write down possible grounds for opposition. Would your idea threaten any of the group members’ standing in the firm? Would it entail risks? Is it customer-friendly? Is the company well-positioned to execute it? Thinking these issues allows you to counter the opposition.
Effective advocates develop and maintain wide networks of people and create social capital for themselves. You may not realize that your network exists. You probably know more people than you think. Augment your network with a variety of methods:
- Be present: Participate in company sports leagues or chat with colleagues in the break room to land yourself “in the place of most potential.”
- Maintain contact: Send emails, make calls, and offer to share information.
- Keep adding new members: Ask your connections to introduce you to new people.
- Be a “network broker”: Introduce your network members to third parties.
- Be inclusive: Don’t pursue only top executives. Remember the gatekeepers.
- Focus on your “weak ties”: Acquaintances can provide you more opportunities than best friends, with whom you share “strong ties.”
- Do good deeds: People remember your generous actions. This works in reverse as well: The more individuals do favors for you, the more they will feel invested in you.
When you pitch your idea, respond to your audience’s key question: “Why now?” To answer persuasively, address the important concept of urgency. Your audience will be more receptive to a concept that assuages their concerns. Several arguments make your idea urgent: Your clients want it; the firm will suffer without it; time is running short; independent developments make it necessary, or somebody important favors it. Demonstrate that your concept is viable – that your firm can accomplish it safely, without controversy and within identified resources. Show that your concept rides the wave of a movement already in progress or that “the implementation of the idea is near completion.”
“Decision makers are more likely to approve ideas offered by advocates who are perceived to share their values, appreciate what they appreciate and hold the same goals.”
Present convincing evidence that is fresh, easy to understand, legitimate, and germane to your audience. Use proofs that summarize your argument. Instill fear in decision-makers, if you can do so appropriately. The threat you describe must be something surmountable that they can relate to easily. “Create some pain” in your audience’s minds and then provide the solution to their worries. These methods show decision-makers “what’s in it for them” (WIIFT). Identify the correct WIIFT for each member of your audience.
“Compelling evidence is essential to advocacy. Facts matter.”
Employ details such as numbers (the typical office desk harbors “20,961 germs per square inch”) and “anchor arguments” – statements that provide a context, such as a higher price, that will help steer the audience. Affix “unforgettable labels”: Thomas Edison called electricity “modern” and referred to gas lamps as “old-time lighting.” Your labels, images, and metaphors should be concise, comprehensible, relevant, and based in reality.
“People are persuaded by vivid examples, even if they are unrepresentative.”
Comport yourself with self-assurance. Decision-makers accept ideas from poised, confident advocates. Buttress your aura of confidence by using “simple, inclusive, vigorous” and “action-oriented” terms. Point out that adopting your idea helps the organization accomplish its goals. Your body language should be assured. Meet people’s gaze; make inclusive, decisive movements.
“Crucial to successful advocacy is the belief, on the part of the decision makers, that the advocates are competent. For advocates, the corollary is that they must appear confident.”
If your presentation takes place in a meeting, lay the groundwork. Brief people to get them on board with your concept before the session. Determine what you want to accomplish and identify your attendees’ goals. Do not make your agenda available in advance. Well ahead of time, find out which people in the meeting will be the real decision-makers. Act as if you are the “official host” even if you are not. Greet attendees and invite them in. Seat people strategically.
“Meetings are today’s coliseum for the gladiators of corporate politics. Adroit advocates have an amazing capacity to get meetings to go their way without irritating others.”
After your pitch, listen closely to the subsequent discussion. If opposition develops, remain silent if the counterargument seems faulty. If it’s strong, concede part of your argument. Judicious handling of a meeting, including a willingness to find a middle ground, earns you credibility. When you win support for your idea, follow-through; draft a summary, and distribute it to your attendees, take quick action on related tasks, and broadcast the supportive decisions. “The more public the approval, the more difficult it is for people to later oppose your plan.”
About the Authors
Communications consultant John A. Daly teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.