How to Make Hard-to-Explain Ideas Stick

How often have you heard experts say “Good ideas sell themselves?”

I love a good idea as much as anybody – more probably.  But all-too-often, the hardest ideas to market are those that break new ground.  It’s easy to talk to prospects about well-trod topics such as debt restructuring or CRM solutions.  These topics already mean something to people.  They come with a pre-existing history, set of assumptions and influential voices.  All we need to do to be understood and heard is to say something different – or shout a little louder.

Breakthrough ideas are, by definition, much harder to explain than the usual drivel.  How do you describe a product that requires new assumptions or behaviors? How do you grab attention for a service that anticipates needs?  It’s like asking theater-goers to buy advance tickets to an unknown play by an unknown playwright.  It’s hard to build excitement – and even harder to inspire action.

The best-selling book, Blue Ocean Strategy, challenges organizations to create new markets – i.e., “Blue Oceans” – rather than competing in crowded “Red Oceans.”   If marketed correctly, Blue Ocean ideas promise rapid, profitable growth, untainted by competition.  But building market acceptance is no small feat.  Most breakthrough ideas don’t sell themselves.  It takes hard work (and a steady stream of effective public relations) to build a new market.

Here are five approaches that work particularly well:

Tell a story:  Stories are a great way to make new and/or complicated ideas more concrete.   Show how your idea solved an important problem or issue.  Try to name the characters (companies, individuals, locations) in your story.  When you’re dealing with complex ideas, it’s important to make the storyline as straightforward and tangible as possible.

  1. Connect your idea to something familiar.  Some innovative ideas are complicated and/or preachy.  When that’s the case, it’s often smart to tie them to a concept that’s familiar.  For a healthcare delivery provider, that may mean describing a new online system for eligibility-checking and claims-handling as a medical “e-ticket” for insureds.  For nutritionist Jeff Leach, it meant tying his scientific theories on digestion to a more appealing subject – i.e., pizza.  (See “Pizza with a Point,” New York Times).  Leach literally baked his views on additives, preservatives and probiotics into his pizzas – and used his company’s blog (Naked Pizza) to publish his philosophy on nutrition.
  2. Quantify the pain.  Because breakthrough ideas often anticipate needs, it’s important to make your pain-points clear…and visible.  There’s no better way to do this than through numbers.   See if there’s a way to quantify the financial cost to stakeholders – e.g., employers, employees, patients, consumers, society – of the problem your idea is designed to solve.  Promote the findings of your analysis through the media relations, thought leadership (books, reports, webcasts, speeches, blogs) and digital marketing.
  3. Go up a level.  Our brains are wired for summaries and frameworks.  That’s why journal articles are often preceded by abstracts – and why many newspapers run summaries on page one.  When communicating a new idea, try to take your thinking to a summary level.  What problem is your idea designed to solve?  Begin with the high-level problem and back into the solution.
  4. Focus on outcomes.  If you want to make an abstract idea tangible, talk about its potential impact on the world.  Will it change the way businesses bring their products to market?  The way hospitals treat the sick?  The way advisors offer advice?  The way consumers save or spend?  Be as specific as possible.


The business press is full of examples of companies (large and small) that have used one or more these approaches to create new markets.

What companies come to mind when you think of new categories/markets?  What approaches did they use to get their message out?

(photo by Michelle in Ireland)


To reach Meg Wildrick:

Phone: 212.840.0095
Twitter: @megwildrick
LinkedIn: Meg Wildrick