How To Sell Your Ideas

I am in Cesme, Turkey, near the Aegean sea, for summer vacation. Last night my family and I went to dinner in the village. As we walked down the main street, store owners called out to us in different languages, English, French, German, Italian, Russian, to invite us to look at their goods.

The crazy versatility of the languages they used, their enthusiasm to find the one you spoke, their empathy for your foreignness and tacit understanding that a shared language would put you at ease and make you feel welcome as a buyer, all this reminded me of what it takes to sell ideas.

Your idea, so familiar to you, is a foreign country to the people who are buying it.

When you're developing an idea, you're creating a landscape, a new kind of intellectual space. When you're selling your idea, you're inviting other people--decision makers--into this space. For them it's foreign. You need to make them feel understood and welcomed. Make it easy for them to understand you. Establish trust so that they too can wander into the space and feel like they belong there. Ingratiate them so that they too start to feel a proud ownership. It is only then that you've "sold" them on your idea.

All this is achieved by finding and conversing in a shared language...just like the village store owners. So if you want to sell your ideas, here is how you can cultivate that communication:

Figure out your buyer's language.

If you're selling me an idea, speak my language. I am more inclined to buy something from someone I can understand and someone who understands me. A financial thinker needs to see numbers and the ROI; experiential thinker, needs to live the experience, and so on.

"A lot of us artists and creators, we like to think, 'Well, why don't you get it? Can't you see it's awesome. We're very emotional, but the business side is very rational."--Disney Creative Director Will Gay, in the article "How to Sell Your Ideas."

Practice expressing your idea in various "languages."

Remember that you will have multiple buyers, each speaking his or her own language. Like the store owners saying the same thing in different languages, you need to express your idea in a variety of ways. Each discipline has its own language. Create a redundancy of languages--visual, written, moving, mathematical--to make sure you're building an emotional and intellectual trust with not just one person but the whole team.

Remember that "experience" is a universal language.

Experience is visceral knowledge that you gain from living something. This is why a full-scale foamcore model of a new store (see how Chick-fil-A did one for its NYC store), the wire frame of a new app (here are 35 examples to inspire you), or a 1-2 minute film (like IKEA's Cook This Page) are so powerful. Human experience is universal. It is indispensable to being understood. Make it your language of choice.

Make sure your team is "multilingual."

A pitfall in selling an idea is to believe that you can only communicate using the language you know well and are comfortable in. Instead, be open to having people on your team who can bring in new, complementary forms of expression.

Think of the languages you're good at. Then pinpoint languages you're missing. Find a person who's good at those other languages and include them in your team.

Get a writer on your design and development team (this is standard practice for our client Herman Miller). Their design stories will serve as your pitch, publicity, and marketing material to sell your idea to the company first, and externally next.

Inversely, if you're very fluent in writing but lacking in visual expression, add a visual thinker--a designer, an information architect or a filmmaker to your mix. They will be a boon to how you successfully sell your idea.

What are the languages you use to sell your ideas? I would love to hear from you.

This article first appeared on on August 12, 2017