Executive Careers Blog

Career Advice: How to Sell Your Ideas

Photo: Chris Ryan | Getty Images

The other day, I was leading a workshop on executive communication. Someone asked a simple question: “Should we do A or B?”

I was neutral. But instead of saying that, I said, “I’m agnostic.”

Later, after the workshop was over, one of the participants approached to ask what I’d meant.

Apparently, he didn’t know the word, or didn’t get my usage. Or else he wanted to convert me to a religion where they speak plain English.

Do you ever over-complicate things?

Sometimes, I’ll read an article where the author—as if suddenly possessed—starts inserting German words like "uber," "doppelganger," or "schadenfreude."

These words should all be verboten. Whoops, I meant forbidden. Let's stick to simple German words like "hamburger."

The basic rule with foreign words: if you can't eat it, don't say it.

All of that helps explain GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 tax plan.

No one seems to like this plan one bit. I’m not even sure Herman Cain likes it. Yet he has managed to break through the clutter.


Well, for one thing, Herman Cain is likable. And his idea addresses a real problem with a specific solution. It’s not just a complaint (the tax code stinks), or a vague promise (let’s fix it).

9-9-9 sounds like someone did some serious thinking. Even if they didn’t.

But mostly, the idea is simple—one number, 9, solves everything.

You have to wonder how Mr. Cain came up with that number.

It couldn’t have been mathematical. What are the odds that the ideal personal tax, the ideal corporate tax, and the ideal sales tax would all be the same number?


But 9-9-9 is easy to say, easy to remember. And Herman Cain keeps repeating it.

He knows his message.

Tip: Herman Cain has something to teach about form. He is, amongst other things, a motivational speaker.

So are you.

The next time you need to sell an idea or inspire others, keep it simple. Then repeat it—at least 999 times.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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