How to Influence People with Your Ideas

Harvard Business Review

One of my young clients, let's call her Julie, is on a mission. Julie has an idea, one that has been gestating in her mind for quite some time, but now she realizes that for her idea to have any impact at all she will have to "go public" with it. Julie believes there are countless intelligent, talented but disadvantaged kids who, for a variety of reasons, have been shut out of traditional educational pathways and are therefore at risk of never achieving their full potential. Her idea, which she is passionate about, is to help these forgotten kids realize their potential by offering them practical guidance for achieving their goals and dreams. She has done some public speaking on the topic to educational groups and associations, and her ideas have been featured in various content venues, but now she wants to crank it up a level. She wants to start a movement.

She asked me: What do I have to do to get my idea out there? Should I blog and tweet? Write a book? Conduct a survey? Try for TEDx? Lead a seminar? In what combination? In what order?

In essence, Julie wants to become what I call an "idea entrepreneur" — a person who builds a coordinated effort around a deeply-felt idea with the goal of achieving influence, affecting how people think and behave, and thus making some change in an organization or system.

Aspiring idea entrepreneurs are everywhere: in businesses, classrooms, and communities of all kinds, all over the world. Maybe you know one. Maybe you are one. But you don't have a massive influence-creation machine behind you (few people do) and you wonder how to get your idea heard above all the others competing for attention. How do you proceed?

You have to take your idea public, which means entering the "ideaplex" — that glamorous, treacherous place where videos go viral, TED stardom beckons, a thousand new authors publish each day, and think shops like IDEO make a business of idea generation. Julie's inclinations were right. She would certainly need to do plenty of blogging, tweeting, surveying, speaking — the works. But none of these would be totally effective without answering the following questions, too:

1. What is my purpose? People are driven to go public for all kinds of reasons, from the thirst for fame and fortune to the dream of leading a crusade. Those who gain genuine, long-lasting influence are the ones who want to create positive change for other people. So ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Idea entrepreneur Cesar Millan (he has built quite an empire around his ideas including books, tv shows, DVDs and merchandise) is a dog behavioralist ("the dog whisperer"), but his deeper motive is to reduce maltreatment of animals — and kids — in our society. The more you want to help others, the greater the influence you will have.

2. How does my personal narrative convey the idea? For people to respond to an idea, it must evoke emotion. That's why idea entrepreneurs tell personal stories. Gandhi, who I consider a prototypical idea entrepreneur, spoke of being ejected from a first-class train compartment in South Africa because of his skin color. That incident was the genesis of his concept of non-violent resistance. If you can move people with an idea, they will embrace it on a gut level.

3. How can people put my idea into practice? Ideas take root when we can use them in our everyday lives. Model the methods yourself and also enable people to adapt them to their own situations. Daniel Kahneman offers a complex theory of thinking but also gives practical guidance on how to make better decisions — as a result his latest book has received a great deal of attention. The more people use an idea, the more they will believe in it.

4. Do I have enough supporting material? An idea has to be expressed in different ways for people to understand it as fully as possible, and in their individual way. You need to build out your idea with analysis, stories, facts and data, references, and examples. George Stalk, the strategy expert, has a rule of thumb for accumulation: gather enough material so you can talk about your idea for a full day — and keep your audience interested. The richer the understanding of an idea, the more meaning it will have for people.

5. Who do I really want to reach? Surprisingly, many a would-be idea entrepreneur does not know who they want to speak to. Who will be most affected by your idea? Whose thinking and behavior do you most want to affect? Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, wrote her book with the middle-aged, well-educated woman in mind. But she discovered that young mothers, teenage girls, aspiring women executives — even husbands and gay men — also responded to her ideas. The more diverse audiences you can reach, the broader your influence will be.

6. How does my idea connect with a greater "thinking journey?" No idea is completely original. Most are improvements on an existing body of thought. All the most successful idea entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of giants, and usually say so. In fact, it's important you don't try to own your idea. When you give as much of it away as you can, people will be more — not less — likely to credit you.

When you're considering going public with an idea, it's hard to resist focusing on the tactics — like social media or speaking engagements — first. That's not wrong, because writing blogs and giving talks help you develop and refine the idea. But you have to keep trying to answer these bigger questions, too. The more you do, the greater the chance that people will connect with your idea. Ultimately, to the outside world, you and your idea are one and the same. You can't fake it — at least not for long.

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