The Best Ideas Don’t Win, the Best Advocates Do: An Interview with John Daly, Author of “Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Results” (Part 2)

John Daly, one of the world’s leading communication experts, is the Liddell Centennial Professor of Communication, TCB Professor of Management and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

In Part 1 of the interview, we discussed why there’s a need for a book on becoming a better advocate for one’s ideas. In Part 2, below, we discuss the skills necessary for effective advocacy.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

What are the skills necessary to become a successful advocate? Is there some easy formula someone can follow?

John Daly:

There is no easy formula; I wish there were. I have a formula, but it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

By “formula,” you mean a set of skills?

John Daly:

Five basic skills, capabilities, or actions that people have to master to be successful advocates.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

And they are?

 John Daly:

First, be able to explain their ideas well, so people can understand and remember them. Second, they’ve got to build a reputation so that people trust them and respect them. Third, they’ve got to get other people to work with them on the idea – partnering, if that makes sense. The day of the scientist working all by herself in the dusty garret is gone. Fourth, they have to presell the idea, and to my mind, that may be the most under-rated of all of the things needed for successful advocacy.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

Why is preselling, in particular, so important?

John Daly:

We’ve all seen people come to a meeting with a deck of slides, and say, “Here’s my proposal.” And they often get shot down.  Other people’s ideas just seem to happen.  This is because those people are so good at preselling.  The reality is that in most organizations, the bigger the decision is, the more it has been sold before any formal meeting actually happens. So to advocate successfully, you have to prepare people to hear your idea before the meeting, one person at a time if necessary. If you don’t, it’s really easy to lose control of it during the meeting.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

You said five skills were necessary for successful advocacy. What’s the fifth?

John Daly:

The fifth one is being influential.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

Influential? If you’re already have a good reputation and have built strong relationships and partnered on your proposal, why wouldn’t you already have influence?

John Daly:

Most of us know, and the research supports the fact, that likeability counts, that if people like you, they’re more likely to buy your ideas than if they don’t.  The same with reputation: if you have a great track record, you’re more likely to get your ideas sold. So, both who you are and with whom you’ve worked certainly open up the possibility of influence.

But they don’t guarantee that you’ll close the sale—get decision-makers to approve your idea and fund it. It is not uncommon for very likeable people with great track records to fall flat on their faces when it comes to getting their ideas approved and funded.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

Because they lack influence skills?

John Daly:

First, because most of them don’t know they even need influence skills. They think it is enough to walk into a meeting, and say, “Here’s the data. Look at the data. It says we should do x rather than y.”  Then they’re shocked when the company goes y rather than x, because someone else was able to successfully influence people, independent of the “facts.”

Second, even if knew they needed to exert influence, they don’t know how. They may be deeply liked by their peers, and deeply respected by their bosses. But when they go into the key decision-making meeting, they may stay quiet, not know where to sit, not know how to show themselves to advantage, and guess what, they don’t get their programs approved.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

You keep referencing meetings as important moments for advocacy both in our discussion and in your book.  Why?

John Daly:

Meetings are where ideas compete for limited resources and where the winners walk away with the resources and the loser’s ideas are left to die.  They’ve become the modern equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, where modern gladiators fight it out.

That’s why, if you’re going to propose an idea at a meeting, the ability to walk into it and make it your own is an absolutely vital skill. And that’s why I devoted a whole chapter to how take over a meeting when your ideas are on the line.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

Make a meeting “your own?”

John Daly:

Come across confidently. All the research tells us that if you sound confident, you’re generally perceived to be competent. That turns out to be an issue for a lot of technically excellent people, scientists, for example, who have been raised to be really tentative about things.  And if you’re among a group of scientists, being tentative is really important.

But if you go out in public asking for support, you can’t be tentative. You can’t say everything’s an empirical question. You’ve got to make a very declarative statement: “This will work. You’ve got to invest in this idea.”

It’s a tough lesson to learn that being liked and respected is not a substitute for having the skills to come across confidently, and to therefore be seen as competent, and worth investing in.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

How do you learn it? When I look at the skills you’ve mentioned – partnering, influencing, preselling – those certainly aren’t the titles of college courses….

John Daly:

No, but they should be.  My dream would be that somebody teaches this stuff to every young mathematician, every young scientist, every young engineer, everyone deeply versed in technical skills, before they get to work, or when they get to work.

Technical excellence may get you the job, but since everyone else on the job is also technically excellent, your technical skills won’t get your ideas implemented, your projects approved, or your needed resources made available.

Strategic Leadership Communication:

And so, the problem that prompted the book in the first place: young, technically competent, very smart people finding their ideas being ignored, dismissed, unable to get traction?

John Daly:

The problem is that there’s a whole young generation that wants to have influence right away.  They’re not willing to wait fifteen years and bide their time to get it, maybe, someday. But too many of them don’t have the skills to advocate effectively, and, unable to get heard, they wind up thinking, “It’s useless being here. I’m looking for something else instead. I don’t like my job anymore.”

This is a lose-lose situation: for companies that want to keep their employees engaged, for employees that want satisfaction from their jobs, and for the rest of us who are losing out on great ideas that never reach us because those who had them failed as advocates.

The problem, then, is this: the ability to influence is probably more important now than it’s ever been, but the skills to do so seem to be getting harder and harder to find.  Therefore, this book.

That ends part two of the interview with John Daly, author of (Advocacy). In part three, Daly highlights some counter-intuitive behaviors practiced by successful advocates.

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About barrymike

Barry Mike is managing partner of Leadership Communication Strategies, LLC, a firm he founded after four years as a managing director for CRA, Inc., a management consultancy specializing in solving business problems whose cause or solution is communications. He has worked extensively as a trusted advisor and leadership communication coach with partners at McKinsey & Co., the world’s leading strategic consulting firm. He has also consulted with senior and emerging leaders in organizations like Kaiser Permanente, Carlson Companies, McDonald’s, Merrill Lynch and Watson Wyatt, crafting a deliberate and outcome-based approach to communicating to key constituents and stakeholders, building leadership communication capability, advancing strategic alignment and communicating corporate change. Barry started consulting after extensive corporate communication experience working with senior executives on strategic leadership communication at T. Rowe Price, Pizza Hut, Verizon, and HP. He has recently published articles on organizational accountability, communicating compliance, and changing corporate culture in the journals Strategy and Leadership, Organizational Dynamics, and Strategic Communication Management.
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One Response to The Best Ideas Don’t Win, the Best Advocates Do: An Interview with John Daly, Author of “Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Results” (Part 2)

  1. This book is so important covering areas that people do not know they are lacking: how to push your ideas toward acceptance in big groups (company, church, NGO, conferences, forums).

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