selling a vision

A few years ago, I spent a fascinating week travelling around Europe. I was trying to put together a consortium to bid for funding from an EU industrial research programme. I was selling a vision. It was one of those “if its Wednesday I must be in France” trips, where after a couple of days my brain’s language processor gets so confused it just gives up attempting anything except English. Fortunately (but as usual), my hosts all put me to shame by speaking excellent English to me.

This trip taught me a very important lesson about selling a vision which I have used many times since. No organisation wants to be the first to commit to partnering when all they have is an outline description of the objectives of the partnership. They feel they need to know who else will be a part of it, and what the content of the programme will look like. Without this, they don’t even really want to share their ideas of what they might contribute or what benefits they might receive. On the other hand, until they do share their ideas it is impossible to put together a realistic programme. So where do you begin?

I describe what I did as “Castles in the air”. Think of the project as a fairy-tale castle floating above the ground. You have to be able to describe in some detail what this castle looks like from a distance. Of course, no-one can actually get to it to look inside, so much of the detail does not need to be filled in, but the description has to be convincing enough that everyone believes it is a real castle, not an illusion. In particular, they must never think that there is nothing holding it up!

Selling a vision

Putting that into project terms, there has to be a clear vision of what the project could do, broadly who may be involved and how they will benefit, even though none of it is agreed, and you have to feel and sound confident about it, just in order to get people talking about how they might contribute. Once you can get possible contributors to engage, they will help you fill in the detail, adapt the vision and underpin it with the foundations, until the whole project is solid enough to stand up by itself.

The same principles apply to any situation where you need to influence many different people to  win their support for the same idea. Unless you can describe your “castle in the air” with confidence, as though it were real and solid, it will be very difficult to get a hearing at all. The more people listen and contribute, even if they are not yet fully convinced, the easier it gets to win over others.

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