Great Ideas Don’t Persuade

December 15, 2012 by


Most people think a great idea, a great product coupled with a well-reasoned presentation, will produce the reaction they want. Nothing could be further from the truth.


The world’s most creative and important products, inventions, and solutions were nothing more than ideas until someone persuaded someone else to do something. Great persuaders bring ideas to life. Persuaders make things happen.

The greatest historical achievements ever created are the results of persuasion. The empire builders, the Caesars and Napoleons, won by persuading others to follow. Cities and civilizations were built with persuasion. Columbus persuaded Queen Isabella that he could reach the East, India, by sailing west; then persuaded her to finance his ships.

“If I can persuade, I can move the universe.”

–Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass persuaded Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. JFK persuaded Congress and the American public to support and fund a plan to put an American on the moon. But what happens when people can’t persuade?

Right—nothing!

Lack of persuasive power is a key factor in keeping otherwise outstanding people from achieving the success they deserve. Many great inventions—historical solutions, major medical advances, critical corporate change initiatives—each failed simply because the creator hadn’t acquired easy-to-learn persuasion skills.

Are you smart—maybe flat-out brilliant? Do you have degrees from a top university? Do you have ideas that might change your life… significantly improve your organization’s status… change the world for the better? You’re sure to be a success-right? Well, maybe not. Gifted intelligence, great ideas, and outstanding products by themselves do not persuade. Even the most amazing scientific discoveries didn’t see the light of day until someone persuaded someone else to get the discovery into the marketplace.

A Tiger by the Tail

Chester F. Carlson was a brilliant physicist, lawyer, patent attorney, inventor, and research engineer. He was also a pitiful persuader. His first persuasion job was to sell himself as a newly minted physicist from the prestigious California Institute of Technology, and he failed miserably contacting eighty-one companies without getting a single offer.

Finally, working in Bell Labs’ patent department, Carlson had to manually retype patent descriptions and recreate patent drawings for required copies. He sought a better way to save on the time and boredom. He tinkered on the side, hoping to make his big break. Then, in 1937, in his Jackson Heights, New York-kitchen, using the principles of photoconductivity, Carlson invented and patented the world’s first photocopy process.

Years passed without Carlson persuading interest in his invention. In 1939 he said, “I knew I had a very big tiger by the tail.” But because he wasn’t skilled in persuasion, that tiger remained fast asleep. Comatose! Year after year he tried desperately to persuade companies that he had something of value. He met with IBM, Kodak, GE, and RCA. Twenty companies in all—not a nibble. Then, in 1959, a company known as Haloid introduced the first commercial unit based on Carlson’s design, Copier Model 914.

Two years later, Haloid became the Xerox Corporation and the copier industry was born.

Carlson had created an incredible product—but lacking persuasive skills it took him twenty-two years to get anyone interested! Twenty-two years from patented product to production. Amazing! A brilliant, highly needed, world-changing product—the forerunner of computer printers and fax machines—went absolutely nowhere for more than two decades. Is persuasion important? You bet it is! History is rife with examples of persuaders winning and non-persuaders losing. The secret of success is not merely to have great ideas, products, or solutions; the secret is to learn to persuade others to comply and execute.

The Two-Trillion-Dollar Invention

Jack St. Clair Kilby invented something far more important than Carlson’s copier. While at Texas Instruments Kilby received patent number 3643138 for his invention of the first integrated circuit, the forerunner of today’s computer chip. Impressive, right? No! Kilby couldn’t even persuade his own company to implement the idea. “Don’t you realize,” he was asked by management, “that computers are getting bigger, not smaller?”

Because he was a non-persuader, for years his brilliant invention went undeveloped. In his autobiography, Kilby admits, “I worked hard with Robert Royce at Fairchild Semiconductor to achieve commercial acceptance.” But that didn’t happen. Even his savvy engineering skills could not persuade anyone to put his invention into any commercial application. Instead, Kilby acknowledged wistfully: “The integrated circuit provided much of the ‘entertainment’ at major technical meetings over the next few years.” The most important element in today’s entire electronic field provided merely “technical entertainment”.

A decade after obtaining his patent, Kilby was asked to make a calculator small enough to fit into a pocket. Using his integrated circuit, he invented the digital calculator and the chip had its first commercial application. Others saw the potential and persuaded companies to make new applications. A new electronics era was born. But Kilby’s lack of persuasive ability had kept this major technological breakthrough lying fallow, totally in the dark for more than a decade! Two critical inventions—the copy machine and the integrated circuit chip—went nowhere for many years because their genius creators weren’t persuaders.

Persuasion Naturals

But flip a coin. Try the other side. Let’s look at a situation where a great persuader had no product, only limited experience, and no credibility—not even a college degree. Yet, with persuasion, he would become the world’s richest man.

In 1975 Bill Gates was studying pre-law at Harvard. Meanwhile, his hobby was playing with early computers. Gates and boyhood friend Paul Allen noticed that the Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems Company (MITS) had developed one of the first mini computers—the Altair 8080. Gates contacted MITS and told them he had developed a BASIC program that would make their computer run better. Yes, it was a lie. He had nothing. Yet he persuaded the company to install his program in their computer. Gates had never seen the Altair 8080 and had never written a line of BASIC code. He didn’t even have the computer’s operating chip. Yet—with his persuasive ability—he convinced MITS to purchase a product that didn’t exist. Working around school assignments, for eight weeks Gates wrote code. He then flew to the MITS office and installed the untested program in a computer he had not seen until that day. To even his surprise, it worked perfectly! MITS now owned the newest BASIC program.

What next for Gates? Well, he simply persuaded MITS to sell him its BASIC program! Still a Harvard pre-law student, he realized the software industry was in its birthing stage. He next persuaded his parents to let him drop out of Harvard, and persuaded Paul Allen to join him in a two-man venture. Microsoft was born. And Gates has since been described as the most influential person of the twentieth century and beyond. Persuasion is influence!

By contrast, Carlson and Kilby had everything but persuasive ability. Each had an incredible product, patented and ready to go. Each had impeccable credentials. Yet they were flat-out stymied for years. Gates—with little but an idea, a keen technical mind, and inherent persuasion skills, quickly built the Microsoft empire. He started a company on an idea and persuasion.

The tales of winners are the tales of master persuaders. Jack Welch is designated the most successful business leader of the 20th Century. In his autobiography Jack, Welch states “Nearly everything I’ve done in my life has been accomplished with other people.” With just a single persuasive sentence containing several persuasion triggers, Welch persuaded his staff to turn a stodgy stagnant General Electric into today’s financial juggernaut.

Persuade or Perish

For 2,441 years the art and science of persuasion has attracted the world’s best minds. Leaders ask: How do I motivate others to act? How do I generate change? How do I make things happen with and through others? These questions have challenged the thinkers and doers since antiquity. History’s winners knew intuitively how to persuade and motivate others. They didn’t know it at the time, but they applied scientific principles we now understand.

It matters little how necessary, creative, innovative, outstanding, or even critical your ideas, solutions, visions, or products are. If you can’t convince someone to execute, you won’t succeed. Persuade, motivate, gain compliance, and your ideas might well catapult you into fame, fortune, and self-fulfillment.

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  • Barb Webb

    Interesting article. Excellent points made about the “power” of persuasion.

  • Eddy Buehlmann

    Good examples of lack of persuasion. I do not like Bill Gates shown as a ‘lier’.
    What is the significance of 2441 years? There is no reference to this number!
    Eddy in London

  • Kat M.

    What a great article! This is an interesting topic that I haven’t seen much on, thank you for this very detailed and insightful article.

  • Nick F

    Excellent article. It really drives home the point that nothing happens until an idea is sold to others. I am curious though – 2,441 years ago? – this is roughly when the pyramids at Giza were built. Is that what the article is referring to?

  • Nick F

    oops the Pyramids were built in 2,500 BC not 2,500 hundred years ago. I knew this but had a mental block there for some reason. But I still would like to know what happened 2,441 years ago!

  • Marie

    Nick and Eddy, the significance of 2,441 years (which is now 2,445 years) relates to this quote from the article, The World’s Most Researched Skill. The notable paragraph is:

    “Recognizing its importance, Athenian scholars, including Plato and Aristotle, began to study the powerful process of persuasion. Circa 435 B.C., they defined three elements of the process of persuasion: Logos, the appeal to logic, reason, and facts; Pathos, the appeal to emotions; and Ethos, the appeal of the speaker’s character and credibility.”

    I’m going to change that date reference!

    Thanks,
    Marie