"It matters little how innovative or even necessary your ideas, visions, or products are. If you can't get someone to execute, you won't succeed."

Great Ideas Don’t Persuade

A great idea or a great product coupled with a well-reasoned presentation is sure to get your audience engaged and your customers lining up, right? Yeah, not so much.

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?


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. But he wasn’t a persuader. Watch:

The Two-Trillion-Dollar Invention

While at Texas Instruments Jack St. Clair Kilby received patent number 3643138 for his invention of the first integrated circuit, the forerunner of today’s computer chip. Impressive, right? Not so much… 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.

Persuade or Perish

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

  • Barb Webb

    October 1, 2010 at 5:08 pm

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

  • Eddy Buehlmann

    October 3, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    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.

    October 28, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    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

    December 28, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    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?

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