Off-Topic: On Selling Ideas in 1776

Fellow blogger Tom Pick, over at the The WebMarketCentral Blog tagged me to write something off topic, interesting, seasonal and non-work related this week. I liked Tom’s off topic post (great pictures) chronicling his kid’s deluxe tree house that began “innocently as a tree deck.” I love learning history so I’ll see if I can meet at least a few of the above conditions in my off-topic post.

In the past, I’ve written about giving away ideas. But lately I’ve been wondering about selling ideas. So yesterday – somewhere between family, food and fireworks – I had a chance to think a bit about the Fourth of July and how it came to be. I believe history provides us a valuable lesson on how to sell an idea.

While historians may debate about the controversies and motives behind the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they all agree that it represented two fundamental ideas; freedom and liberty.

But before the declaration letter was drafted and signed those two revolutionary ideas had to be sold. Here’s a story you may not know… I’ll give you a hint: before there was “voice of the customer” there was “voice of the people.” 

Before he was president, Thomas Jefferson was the chief writer of the Declaration of Independence letter. But despite being brilliant thinker and writer, historians say he was extremely afraid of public speaking. At times, he would even avoid speaking in public by faking illness!

Despite his fear, Jefferson was getting ready to sell a new and remarkable idea inspired by Thomas Paine’s work “Common Sense” that asserted America’s Independence from England. But little did he know that his fear of speaking would help him develop a powerful new approach to selling an idea.

I came across an interesting article by Greg Oriancant that explains how some historians believe Jefferson developed his “voice of the people” writing style. Jefferson’s writing style evoked a sentiment that identified with the desires of a people who were unhappy with English rule. It is believed that this style enabled him to sell the idea of independence at the continental congress.

In his article, “How the Declaration of Independence Could Have Been Declared Out Loud”, Oriancant notes the following about Jefferson’s writing, “…he [Jefferson] put careful consideration into eliminating any indication of individual opinion in fear that the people would ultimately balk at going independent from England. Instead, he made powerful, persuasive arguments that would be irrefutable by the people–plus making the people part of the process.”

In the book, Declaring Independence: Jefferson And The Art Of Public Speaking author Jay Fliegelman writes, “Jefferson was saying there are certain universal truths about the public good and political rights that are re-articulated over the length of history, from the classical period onward. To him, the point is to recover these truths rather than to invent something new.”

Fliegelman also asserts that Jefferson drew his inspiration on how to write persuasively from the writings of Homer (the thinker not The Simpson’s guy), and even emerging ideas of music theory. Jefferson was a violin player and he read an influential music theory essay by Mozart’s father. That eassy taught how to bring an group of musicians with different styles together (soon to be people and ideas) to make an audience believe in what you were playing.

As I look back on how these powerful ideas were sold, I realize how little has changed about the collaborative process of selling ideas. The variety tactics we use now different but the overall process of selling ideas is virtually the same.

Here’s some “on-topic” resources for selling your ideas in the workplace:

How to Sell an Idea is a concise and well written guide on selling ideas.

Selling your ideas: A critical executive skill is another good resource on selling ideas.

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