Norman Bourlag died on September 12, 2009 at the age of 95. This interview in Reason is a great read, as it reveals how Dr. Bourlag "saved more human lives than anyone in history."
There are many grand things to learn from Dr. Bourlag -- passion, hard work, focus -- but there is also one very specific lesson from his work that can help any of us in the business of influencing others. It's my favorite part of the story of the Green Revolution, and it shows how Dr. Bourlag was so much more than a good scientist -- he was a good scientist who could get his new ideas adopted.
When Dr. Bourlag describes his initial efforts to get Mexican farmers to use a new variety of high-yield wheat seed, he says:
[The farmer] won't do this if its done on an experiment station, because he can't tell how much science and technology went into that and how much witchcraft. But if it's done on his own land, if he particpates in putting in this demonstration, and if you provoke this big increase in yield -- he's very receptive.
The lesson for me: You increase the chances of getting an audience to adopt a new idea when the audience participates in a demonstration of the idea on their home field.
Dr. Bourlag was trained as an agronomist, not a as a marketer or sales person, but he had an innate understanding of the importance of collaborative demonstration. It's messier and dirtier than a canned demo, but it's much less likely to smack of witchcraft.
The next time you're trying to sell an idea, think of a way to demonstrate with the audience, not to the audience.