6 Mind-Changing Tools to Communicate Complex Ideas

What it takes to be a thought leader sales professional 

“Every business leader is, in a sense, a teacher” says Prof Mitchell Petersen, Kellogg Business School faculty and Glen Vasel Professor of Finance. Writing for Kellogg Insights Petersen spotlights how the job of today’s business leaders involves communicating ideas and convincing others that this is the right way to think about a problem. 

Isn’t that what current day sales professional is also required to do? If you want to be a thought leader sales person in your domain, getting complicated ideas across with purchase committees and stakeholder groups is part of your job description. Prof Peterson offers 6 tools to make this happen.


6 Tools to Communicate Complex Ideas and Change Minds 

Here is the list of those 6 tools. We also look at possible ways they could be used in sales situations. These are lessons we draw from Prof Peterson’s list 

  • Data 

Data according to Prof Peterson provides “a detailed and dispassionate characterization of what has occurred previously” Data is descriptive and it tells us what happened in the past. But raw data may not tell you how the variables are related. It is up to us to sift out the underlying structure. People don’t argue with numbers. So, data can be used to simplify a complex idea 

Possible application in a sales situation – If you are trying to propose to a purchase committee in a large company how your new product or product extension will make them future ready, the task is made much easier with data from the company’s past numbers to establish that the buyer company would benefit from exploring the new product or product extension 

  • Logic 

Says Prof Peterson “Quite often you have an idea of how two variables are related. That’s logic” According ancient philosopher Aristotle the aim of logic is the “elaboration of a coherent system that allows us to investigate, classify, and evaluate good and bad forms of reasoning” (Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The use of logic is invaluable in simplifying complex ideas  

Possible application in a sales situation – When non-linear trends are at work, logic is an excellent tool to convince the Customers. Switching from an existing buying arrangement may be extremely uncomfortable for the Customer. Yet, for instance, the logic of a ‘falling slowly and then sharply’ trend can be a clincher. You could point historical examples of cameras and pagers where switch to newer alternatives was initially slow but became an exodus quite fast 

  • Equations 

An equation captures relationship between variables mathematically. Prof Peterson puts it this way - “Equations are always a simplification of reality, so they never fit in perfectly. The question is: Is the fit sort of close, or is it way off?” Equations are useful in reducing the core of a complex phenomenon to a set of easily understood variables  

Possible application in a sales situation – Cespedes, Shapiro and Ross offer an insightful equation to impress upon B2B Customers the concept total value. (HBS Case Study on ‘Pricing, Profits and Customer Value’)

Often buyers overlook the pre and post purchase costs that are not visible in a proposal. So, the following equation can help buyers appreciate them:

Total Customer cost = Acquisition costs + Possession costs + Usage costs 

These costs could typically include things like: 

  • Acquisition costs –> Shipping time, pre purchase evaluation costs 
  • Possession costs –> Quality assurance, Speed of obsolescence 
  • Usage costs –> Training costs, Replacement costs 
  • Pictures 

The entire science of data visualisation is built around pictures. The now famous One Minute on Internet infographic is a nice example of using pictures to showcase the idea that something is always happening on the Internet. Prof Peterson calls this ‘an invaluable way to remember the relationship between variables’

Possible application in a sales situation – A simple pie chart showing share of products purchased is easier for the audience to consume than data tables. If you are working hard to convince the Customer why they should buy more of ‘X’ and less of ‘Y’, a pie diagram can do the hard work for you 

  • Stories 

“Stories are fundamentally part of what it means to be human” Peterson reminds us. “Stories are the most tangible shorthand for even very abstract concepts”

Possible application in a sales situation – Sales professionals are privileged to meet a wide variety of Customers. This makes them a virtual storehouse of stories. Telling a story about how another Customer handled a challenge or tapped an opportunity is more influential than a dull list of bullet points on the screen 

  • Participation 

Peterson suggests that you actively encourage your audience to

  • push back, 
  • disagree, or 
  • ask for clarification

The more senior your audience is, says Petersen, the more important it is to actively create pauses or other spaces where misunderstandings can be voiced

Nothing works like participation to promote ownership of even complex ideas 

Possible application in a sales situation – Participation acts as an unfailing dipstick to make out whether the ideas in a sales presentation have been understood correctly. This opens up opportunities for course correction, elaboration and clarification  

The full-length Kellogg’s Insight is here 

Author Information

Kellogg’s Insight is based on inputs from Mitchell A. Petersen is Glen Vasel Professor of Finance, Kellogg’s Business School and Director of the Heizer Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital 

It has been written by Gretchen Kalwinski, a freelance writer based in Chicago.               

In Essence annotates published articles of value to the Sales Community. It is an effort to bring insights within reach of Sales Leaders in ways that enable quick assimilation and action. Mercuri International acknowledges the authors and the publications for the insights

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