‘The Art of Woo’: Selling Your Ideas to the Entire Organization, One Person at a Time

‘The Art of Woo’: Selling Your Ideas to the Entire Organization, One Person at a Time

Published: October 17, 2007 in Knowledge@Wharton

Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca once noted, "You can have brilliant
ideas; but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you
anywhere." In their new book, The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas, Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor G. Richard Shell
and management consultant Mario Moussa provide a systematic approach to
idea selling that addresses the problem Iacocca identified. As an
example of effective persuasion, they tell the story of rock star
Bono’s visit to then-Senator Jesse Helms’ Capitol Hill office to enlist
his help in the global war against AIDS.

Bono had all the facts and figures at his fingertips, and launched
into a detailed appeal based on this data. He was, in essence, speaking
to Helms the same way he had recently spoken to executives and
technical experts at the many foundations and corporations he had
approached about this issue. But within a few minutes, Bono sensed that
he was losing Helms’ attention, and he instinctively changed his pitch.
Knowing that Helms was a deeply religious man (and drawing on his own
born-again Christian values), Bono began speaking of Jesus Christ’s
concern for the sick and poor. He argued that AIDS should be considered
the 21st century equivalent of leprosy, an affliction cited
in many Bible stories of the New Testament. Helms immediately sat up
and began listening, and before the meeting was over had promised to be
the Senate champion for Bono’s cause.

Examples such as this one illustrate what Shell and Moussa mean by
"woo": It’s the ability to "win others over" to your ideas without
coercion, using relationship-based, emotionally intelligent persuasion.
"The rock star Bono is superb at the art of woo because he understands
what it takes to be a super-salesman, in the best sense of that term,"
says Shell. "Here you have a rock star with tinted glasses and an
elderly, conservative Southern senator. But when Bono had the good
sense to switch from public policy talk about debt relief — what we
call in our book the ‘rationality’ channel — to religious talk about
poverty and disease — what we call the ‘vision’ channel — he touched
Helms’ heart. He sold his idea and, in the process, created trust."

The word "woo," the authors note, has many meanings, but all of them
relate to focusing on the person you are trying to persuade more than
on your own needs and fears. "There is the obvious meaning related to
courtship and romance," says Shell, "but there is also the more general
idea of wooing people to seek their support. In addition, Marcus
Buckingham and Donald Clifton have recently used the word ‘woo’ in
their books to describe the ability to easily establish rapport with
many different people." However "woo" may be defined, the authors argue
that effectively selling ideas — using persuasion rather than force —
is one of the most important skills that everyone from CEOs and
entrepreneurs to team leaders and mid-level managers need to learn if
they want to be effective in their organizations.

The Spirit of St. Louis

The Art of Woo presents a simple, four-step approach to the
idea-selling process. First, persuaders need to polish their ideas and
survey the social networks that will lead them to decision makers. To
illustrate this step, Shell and Moussa recount how an unknown mail
pilot named Charles Lindbergh turned his dream of being the first
person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic into a reality. His idea was
radical: He would make the crossing in a single-engine plane flying
without a co-pilot or even a life raft. The idea was followed by his
campaign to overcome people’s disbelief that such a venture could ever
work and to win over supporters in his hometown of St. Louis. Lindbergh
started with contacts at the local airport who could see why his plan
made sense and eventually worked his way up to the most influential
businessmen in the city, using each person along the way to leverage an
interview with the next.

The second stage of the Woo process is confronting what Shell and
Moussa call "the five barriers" — the five most common obstacles that
can sink ideas before they get started. These include unreceptive
beliefs, conflicting interests, negative relationships, a lack of
credibility and failing to adjust one’s communication mode to suit a
particular audience or situation. Great persuaders throughout history
have shared with Bono an instinct for overcoming this last barrier. For
example, when Napoleon was a young officer at the siege of Toulon, he
set up an artillery battery in such a dangerous location that his
superiors thought he would never get troops to man it. They would have
been right had Napoleon relied on the conventional "authority channel"
and issued threats and orders to get his way. Instead, he demonstrated
his social intelligence by switching to the visionary channel and
creating a large placard that was placed next to the cannons. It read:
"The Battery of the Men without Fear." The position was manned night
and day.

Similarly, when Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on the notorious
Robben Island in South Africa, he managed to obtain blankets and other
necessities for his fellow prisoners by foregoing the expected
high-minded appeals to politics and human rights. He worked instead on
the relationship persuasion channel. By learning the guards’ Afrikaans
language and reading their literature, Mandela earned their respect and
won them over to his idea of fair treatment — even as he continued to
face hostility from the officials who ran the prison.

The third stage is to pitch your idea in a compelling way. Shell and
Moussa note that at Google, employees selling ideas to upper management
are given a challenge: to distill their business concepts into short,
punchy presentations that get right to the essence of what they are
proposing. This discipline forces them to figure out exactly what
problem their idea addresses, how their idea will solve it and why
their idea is better than both the status quo and available
alternatives. The authors offer a template for pitching ideas in this
format and give examples of distinct ways one can personalize an idea
to make it memorable and distinctive.

The final stage of Woo is to secure both individual and
organizational commitments. "One of the most common mistakes people
make in selling ideas," says Shell, "is to think that their job is
finished once they succeed in getting someone to say ‘yes’ to their
proposal. That’s only the beginning. Research shows that in most
organizations, a minimum of eight people will need to sign off on even
simple ideas. The number goes up from there. So after you move the
individual, you also have to move the organization."

Shell and Moussa use a number of cases from business history to
illustrate this point. For example, they tell the story of Charles F.
Kettering, a brilliant inventor and engineer from the 1930s whom many
consider an equal of Thomas Edison. Kettering invented such things as
the automatic transmission and safety plate glass, but one of his best
ideas — the air-cooled automobile engine — sat on the shelf for
decades until the Volkswagen Beetle incorporated it. Kettering
convinced Alfred Sloan, GM’s top executive, that producing the
air-cooled engine was a good idea, and the company’s executive
committee gave the go-ahead to make a limited number of cars with the
prototype. But instead of following the idea through, Kettering went
back to his lab to concentrate on the technical aspects of the project.
The committee handed the production assignment to the Chevrolet
division, whose top managers had never been brought into the persuasion
process. They let the idea languish and it was eventually abandoned.
"Kettering made a fundamental mistake: He didn’t follow up and keep the
pressure on," Shell notes. "He didn’t do the political
coalition-building needed to implement his idea."

Andy Grove’s ‘Constructive Confrontation’

Individual personality plays a key role in how you influence others,
Shell adds. The book therefore includes two personalized "diagnostic"
tests that readers can take to discover their persuasion strengths and
weaknesses. One of the diagnostics is the "Six Channels Survey," which
is designed to help people learn which of the key channels of influence
they feel compelled to use most often at work and which they would
prefer to use if given a choice. These channels include Authority,
Rationality, Vision, Relationships, Interests and Politics. The idea is
to help readers understand both how these six channels work and when
they should adjust their pitch — as Bono did with Senator Helms and
Mandela did on Robben Island — to appeal to different kinds of

A second self-administered test, the Persuasion Styles Assessment,
helps readers determine the degrees of assertiveness and natural social
intelligence they bring to the idea-selling process. The authors point
out that there is no one "correct" style of persuasion; rather, the key
is being self-aware so you know how you perform and how others will
perceive you.

For example, Shell and Moussa illustrate the "Driver" style (a
highly assertive type who gives only limited attention to the social
environment) by examining how Intel CEO Andy Grove managed the
persuasion process at Intel during his years as that company’s leader.
Labeled the "screamer," Grove could be intimidating to people who
didn’t know him well. But he was also willing to listen if people stood
up to him and matched his passion. To facilitate communication, Grove
instituted what he called a culture of "constructive confrontation"
that freed everyone to be as blunt and assertive as he was. The result
was a high-stress environment, but one in which everyone could speak
their minds.

The Art of Woo goes on to describe four other distinctive
styles with examples drawn from business history. Banker J. P. Morgan
is given as the model for the Commander (a Grove-like person who has a
quieter demeanor), John D. Rockefeller exemplifies the Chess Player (a
quieter person who attends strategically to the social environment),
Andrew Carnegie’s life provides the example for the Promoter style (a
gregarious type who uses high levels of social intelligence), and Sam
Walton is the model for the style that strikes the balance among all
the others — the Advocate.

Three Typical Mistakes

Both Shell and Moussa have wide experience in the area of
negotiations. Shell is director of Wharton Executive Education’s
Negotiation Workshop and author of Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People.
Moussa teaches executive education courses on negotiation and
organizational change and is head of the Negotiation Practice Group at
management consulting firm CFAR (the Center for Applied Research). This
year, Shell and Moussa launched a new Wharton Executive Education
program called the Strategic Persuasion Workshop.

The idea for the book arose from the comments of executive education
participants who frequently spoke about internal negotiation problems
they were facing in their companies. These conversations gave the
authors the idea to "talk about persuasion inside organizations, with a
focus on selling ideas," says Shell. "We had a laser beam into the
crisis moment when you’re sitting at the table and you’ve got an idea
or an initiative or a program, and you’re trying to get buy-in from a
decision maker. From there, we built out the strategic process that can
prepare you for that moment in the best possible way. By doing that, we
were able to identify the key personality traits that great persuaders
share and develop the diagnostic surveys to help people gain insights
into their own styles and approaches."

Asked what the top three mistakes are that people make in selling
ideas, Shell notes that the number one-error is "egocentric bias," or
"focusing on yourself instead of your audience. People assume that the
person they are trying to sell on their idea is just like them, that he
or she has the same primary goals and frame of reference, and that what
they are talking about is important to the other side. But other people
may not care at all about what is important to you…. It’s a killer

A second mistake is the belief that there are no systematic ways to
persuade people to accept an idea. "A lot of people just wing it,
thinking they can count on their own experience and instinctive powers
of persuasion to carry the day," says Shell. "But in fact, you do need
a strategy. That is what this book is about."

The third most common error is to forget about organizational
politics, as Charles Kettering did at General Motors. "Whenever a new
idea might affect resources, power, control or turf," Shell says,
"politics will be part of the problem at the implementation stage. You
need to prepare an idea-selling campaign, not just a presentation."

The authors suggest that people working in any group — from the
largest Fortune 500 company to an entrepreneurial startup — can
benefit from improving their skills at the art of persuasion. As Shell
notes: "Influencing others in an organization to accept and act on your
ideas is a challenge that never goes away."

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