How I Get My Ideas Across
John H. Patterson


This article appeared in the June 1918 issue of System magazine



“I have been trying all my life, first to see for myself, and then to get other people to see with me.”




     Never, it is probable, has an article like this been published before in any magazine.  In it the head of a highly successful business tells, in simple terms, precisely what methods he uses in handling one of the most intimate problems of management: namely, getting men to think as you do, and act accordingly.  It’s a task all of us face, every day, in the smallest business affairs as well as in the largest.  For many executives believe business success depends largely on a man’s ability to “sell” himself and his ideas to his associates, his employees, and his customers.  Mr. Patterson, as president and general manager of the National Cash Register Company, has had marked success in doing this.  And here he tells how he does it—in terms of methods which, you’ll agree after reading the article, are not bounded in their application by the size of any single concern or the peculiarities of any one line of business.


     One day years ago, in the Dayton high school, the school board paid us a visit.  It was an occasion when we were all expected to make our best showing.  The teacher told me to explain a rather involved calculation.  I asked if I might use the blackboard—my first teacher had taught me from the blackboard.  Instead of merely putting down the figures, I drew a diagram and from it explained how the results came.  In effect I dramatized the problem.  It was all very simple and I adopted the graphic method only because I had found that I could understand things better and talk about them more clearly if I had something concrete before me.  My demonstration was the hit of the day.

     Later I taught school in the White Mountains.  I found that the pupils understood even the most difficult problems if I drew both the right and the wrong way side by side on the blackboard and then told why the one was correct and the other was not.  They did not forget the two contrasting pictures.

     Those incidents are at the base of my whole system of business teaching, they are the foundation of its main principles:

1.       Teach through the eye

2.       Contrast the right with the wrong way.

     Business is only a form of teaching.  You teach workmen how to make the right product; that is manufacturing.  You teach others to cooperate with you; that is organization.  To succeed in business, it is necessary to make the other man see things as you see them. I say  “as you see them”—which means that you yourself must first see and believe before you can tell another.  I have been trying all of my life, first to see for myself, and then to get other people to see with me.  The measure in which I have succeeded is the measure of the progress of my company.  The methods which I shall set down here are those which have proved best with me—and I have tried many ways.

     One of the many advantages of teaching through the eye is its exactness.  Accuracy comes to me as a heritage from my parents and grandparents; one of them was a surveyor and all were brought up in the school of Scotch precision.  I like to be definite.  I have often heard a speaker ask, “Do you see my point?”  He wants to know if the hearer actually has the point in eye as well as mind, that he understands it well enough to make a mental picture.  Well then, why not draw the picture?  Instead of asking if the point is seen, why not draw the point so that it cannot help being seen?

     An argument is good according to the amount of the dramatic which it contains.  Of course the particular situation limits the dramatization, but I have found that words, whether written or spoken, without some kind of drawing on which to center attention, are not effective.

     The very first advertising that we put out after starting the N. C. R. taught me this lesson.  I had some five thousand circulars printed describing the new machine and what it would do.  I told what it had done for me and how it could prevent business leaks.  It was a good circular, but it did not contain a picture of the cash register.  Having put the envelop into the mails, we hurriedly hired two extra men to answer inquiries.  We waited and we might be waiting still, for we did not get a single inquiry!  Nobody knew what we were talking about!

     Then I started to canvass for the machine with one of our agents.  We had a little model made with three keys—the regular machine then was a very big affair—and this model we carried about with us into cafes and grocery stores.  We met opposition everywhere.  The idea got around that we were selling thief catchers, and the clerks—the proprietors also, in many instances—resented the very idea of dishonesty.  But I knew that the actual receipts in any unchecked business were usually more than what remained in the till.  However, no argument, no selling talk, could prove that point.  Only a use of the machine could convince.  We put registers in on trial.  Even then we had to circulate about to make sure that the clerks pressed the keys.  No one who did not live through those days can imagine what opposition we had.  They would not see that it was fair neither to the clerk nor to the owner to be without a check on the cash—that it protected the first from unjust accusation and the second against mistakes; that the register was a business adjunct.

     That register merely punched holes in strips of paper and the proprietor at the end of the day had to count the holes, multiply by the 5 cents, 10 cents, or whatever amounts each hole represented, and thus gain the total for the day.  We could not present the many points of today, for our machine was but in its infancy; we had to sell on the straight talk that it checked the cash.  We sold exclusively on money saved by its use and we did not sell until the machine had shown in practice that it saved money for the prospective purchaser—for what we now call the “P. P.”  From the registers in operation we gathered facts for future sales talks.

     The first agent that we hired outside of our immediate family was a man named Crawford.  He would not carry a miniature machine; he said that not only would carrying a machine take him out of the high-class salesman list, but that also he would not be able to see the proprietor; the clerks would spot him by the machine that he carried.  I had a life-size picture of the register drawn and asked him to take that with him.  Again he objected; he said that it would stuff out his pocket if rolled and if folded the creases would spoil the effect.  I told him to roll it on a stick.  He replied that he could not carry a stick.  Then I suggested rolling it around his umbrella, but that would not do, because then the cover would not fit on the umbrella.

     “Well,” I said, “why don’t you get a new umbrella cover?”

     “No, that was too expensive.”

     I drew for him a pair of scales; on one side I put “No Sales—Loss $25 a Day,” on the other side I put “new Umbrella and Cover $5--Make $25 a Day.”

     “Now,” I asked, “which do you want to do?”

     He bought the new umbrella and cover and founded a large income.  I have learned—and I have used it thousands of times—that drawing a beam scale and listing on one side the advantages and on the other the objections to any certain plan will quickly show the objections in their true proportions just as it showed Crawford when he was hesitating about spending  $5 to make $25 a day.  He had gotten that extra $5 out of its true setting.  The scales brought it back.  We had not been talking about the same thing.  I was talking about making more money and he was talking about not spending $5.

     It should be self-evident that you cannot convince a man if he does not know what point you are trying to make--if he is thinking of something different from what you want him to think about.  And it is right here that the spoken word fails: for not only is it not enough in itself to hold attention, but there is no certainty that your hearer takes the same meaning from the words that you intend to convey.  Very few people understand words.  The uneducated man, for instance, may have only a local and limited meaning for a work which brings up dozens of ideas to the more educated man.  Take a very simple instance.   Food to a baby  means milk or, at the most, two or three articles; food to a laboring man has a somewhat broader meaning because he is accustomed to a wider variety than an infant; but “food” to a chef calls up thousands of delicacies prepared in many different ways and as something primarily to prepare rather than something for himself to eat.




     In order to continue the subject, to make sure of what is under discussion and to nail down the points as made, I evolved the pyramid form of diagram.  Here is how it works.  First I draw a triangle and label its apex with the point I intend to make.  I start with the conclusion so that there can be no mistake as to what I am about.  The conclusion is the result of certain other secondary conclusions or facts.  I find that most ideas divide themselves into five parts, which is a particularly convenient number, because in speaking of the parts it is possible also to use the five fingers of the hand to check off the points as made.  Therefore I divide the base of the triangle or pyramid into five divisions and at the head of each division write its name.  The sum of the divisions is the main conclusion which is to be proved.  Naturally each of the five sectional conclusions is composed of certain facts or leading-up arguments.  I list them in columns under the subheads.  The result is a structure of five pillars of elemental facts each supporting its capital fact.  On the capitals rest the pyramid, at the apex of which is the conclusion.  It is all a simple process of analysis

     How does this pyramid help a talk?  Take a concrete case.  Suppose you want to have your employees take better advantage of their opportunities.  I make a pyramid headed, “Ways I Can Improve Myself,” “I Am a Member of the Double–UP Club or give it some other title that states the object which is to be attained. The end is to be reached through the man bettering himself simultaneously in a number of ways.  These ways are the natural divisions of life and are five: Physical, Mental, Moral, Financial, and Social.  Under each of these five columns I list the things to be done; that is, if a man improves on all of the points listed he is greatly helped in striving to attain the object set out at the head of the table.  I simply put down in black and white in a logical diagram the various things to do for self-improvement and to attain the very desirable end which heads the diagram as an object.  I take out all speculation as to right or wrong and show the man what he may gain by absorbing the principles.  The conclusion also answers the eternal question: “Where do I come in?”

     You can convince yourself by these methods and you can convince others so thoroughly that they will go out and convince the public.

     It also has many other uses.  For instance, you can diagram the functions of a department or an individual.  Any subject is the better for being set out in this kind of half geometry and every element of doubt removed.  In each department we have cabinets containing charts showing the scope and the duties of the department, the head, and his assistants.  Every report is thus pyramided and, if it is of a permanent nature it is printed on cardboard and swung into the cabinet.  The entire information concerning the activities of any department hangs in its meeting room and one has but to swing out the proper panel to know in a moment what has been done and what is under way.  We reduce everything to its important facts and put it up on the wall.



     One of the first articles of furniture that I bought was a blackboard on which to make these demonstrations; eight or nine years ago we substituted great pads of paper mounted on artist’s easels and now every discussion on every subject goes forward pictorially as well as orally.  When we decide on anything we post it up as settled and go on to something else.

     The pyramid is only one of the various ways of putting over the idea or of holding attention.  Another is the caricature.  Little grotesque drawings are wonderfully effective.  I have mentioned the scales; that was one of the first.  Now I have a whole system of cartooning or “chart talks.”  A circle with a dollar mark means a piece of money, a bag marked with a dollar is a lot of money.  Many good effects can be had with moon faces.  Draw a circle, put in a few dashes for the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears.  Twisting these lines give the expressions; the out-of-date man has the corners of his mouth down; the chipper, up-to-date fellow has the curves up.  The drawings are homely, but the most effective cartoonists are not the men who make the prettiest pictures; the thing is to express the idea and the contrast.

     The big bag and the little bag of money, side by side, are the natural heads for the right way as opposed to the wrong way; the one brings much money, the other little money.  If you sketch these rapidly as you talk, there is no danger of people letting their minds wander; they are bound to look at what you are doing and thus to go with you through the successive stages to the point you want to make.  And again the funny figures put people in good humor.

     I hold that one cannot rely on speech alone to make himself understood or to gain and hold attention.  A dramatic supplement is needed.  It is better to supplement whenever possible with pictures which show the right and wrong way; diagrams are more convincing than mere words and pictures a re more convincing than diagrams.  The ideal presentation of a subject is one in which every subdivision  is pictured and the words are used only to connect them.  I early found that in dealing with men, a picture was worth more than anything I could say.  I used to employ an artist to hang around in the shops with me and quietly make sketches of things that were not being done right.  Then the sketches were made into drawings and I called the men together and showed them exactly what they were doing.  When I heard of the stereopticon I immediately bought one and projected the drawings on the screen, which of course made them even more effective than on paper.  Then came the moving picture.  I think that I had on e of the first machines ever made and now we have a big department and many motion picture films and more than 60,000 colored stereopticon slides.

     I have spoken of dramatic effects.  They are not the result of chance but of study and must be either lifelike or caricatures.  There is no betwixt and between, for that will not hold attention.  I have often acted through the parts in a regular drama—a real play composed to bring out some point—with the other executive officers of the company taking leading parts.  When I want to teach a group of salesmen the proper approach and the demonstration, I have a grocery store or some other kind of store fitted out in detail.  The grocery has real goods on its shelves, the shoe store contains real shoes.  A grocer gets a better idea of what you are doing if he finds that the can of tomatoes on the shelf is one such as might be found in his store and not a mere dummy.  A playlet given two years ago in which I took part as a salesman gave the approach, demonstration, sale, and installation of our then latest model cash register.  I played it because I had discovered that the agents were getting away from the fundamentals of salesmanship.  It started with the evolution of a store, the call of the assistant to the sales agent, the visit of the sales agent, the demonstration, the call of the merchant and his wife with the agent on the banker and then on the indorser of the note with which he proposed to borrow the money to pay for the register, of  their visit to the landlord for improvements and so on through every event which would be apt to happen in the sale and installation of a register.  That was so effective that we had it made into a film for teaching purposes.

     Let me go outside of my own affairs for some illustrations.  Not long since I heard a noted Russian lecture on his country and its hopes.  I presume that he sought to teach people to help Russia.  But whatever his object was he did not achieve it because he did not know how to convince.  He first told us of Russia, its size, divisions, and population; but he did not have a map, nor did he give anything with which we could print the facts on our minds.  Suppose he had shown a large map and then put the United States inside of Russia; the audience would have had an idea of its area.  A million square miles does not bring up a mental picture.  He spoke of the great population; the figures meant nothing.   If he had given a diagram with the population of Russia as eight times bigger than that of the United States we should have understood him  The trouble was that he put himself ahead of his subject.  He was not content merely to act as a presenter.  Therefore, if he did have anything to say, we did not get it.  He had not planned, he had not set his stage, and thus had not made the most of the dramatic.  Therefore he failed.

     The dramatic points do not come by accident.  If every man trying to put over an idea to one man or to 10,000 would study his setting, he could achieve the interest-holding moments.

     Once when I found an audience of agents getting away from me, I held up a $10 bill before them, tore it to bits and threw it on the floor.  The people sat up and then I said:

     “Did you think that I was going to waste that bill?  I was only trying show you what you were wasting by not giving attention.”  Turning to an assistant, I continued: “Just pick up the pieces of that bill and paste them together.”



     I had the attention of that crowd for as long as I wanted it. A long while ago the question was up in one organization of making interchangeable parts on the registers.  I had all the foremen and superintendents in a meeting.  I told them that all of the parts had to be interchangeable and standardized; the plan seems simple enough now, but at that time standardization was practically unknown—our mechanics were not used to close work and the machinery was not as accurate as it is today.  The “practical men” opposed me.

     I asked for opinions until finally nearly everyone in the room had spoken.  I waited—I always like to have the other fellow bring up all the objections first.  When they had done, I said:

     “Those who feel that we cannot make to a standard step to this side of the room.”

     All but three of the men took their places in the opposition.  Then I spoke to the three:

     “You have made one machine that works right, then go ahead and make another.  If you made one, you can make more.  Anything that can be made by hand can be made by machinery.  As for you fellows,” speaking now to the insurgents, “you find out how to do it or look for other jobs.”

     That was 25 years ago; without interchangeable parts the cash register business would have broken down. 

     Since the war began, it became necessary to raise the prices of the machines.  The agents and sales managers protested; they said that our business would go, that prices had to be kept where they were.  I called them all in to Dayton and we had a meeting.  I staged the affair.  Back of me on the platform I had a great sheet of paper and a sign painter.

     I asked the people to state their objections to the increasing of prices.  The objections came ripping out from the audience like shots from a machine gun.  As fast as they came, I had the sign man post them on the big sheet.  We spent all of the first day, gathering objections.  I did nothing but exhort.  When the meeting closed we had a list of at least a hundred different reasons why the prices should not be raised.  Every possible reason was up there before the men and it seemed conclusively settled in the minds of the audience that no change should be made.  Then the meeting adjourned. 

     On the next morning, I took up the objections one by one and explained by diagrams and words exactly why each was unsound.  The people were convinced.  Why?  Everything that could be said contra was up in black and white and the discussion centered.  No loose ends were left.  We settled everything on the spot.

     But in a case such as this one it would not have been enough, in my mind, merely to have settled the point in dispute.  A meeting of agents should break up with all of the audience filled with a new lot of enthusiasm; perhaps the points of the register itself might have been a little blurred in the discussion.  That would never do.  We had to have a dramatic climax.  I had arranged for that and just before the close of the conference, I had a hundred men march, one by one across the stage; each bore a banner and on that banner was a picture of a part of the latest model register and just what it did.  Then when the last man had passed across, they all came back into a kind of grand finale—the complete machine.  The meeting ended with the agents on their feet and cheering wildly.

     After a meeting I always try to have the audience write what they got out of the talks and demonstrations.  This lets one know the points they gained and whether they got the points it was intended they should get.  It is always a good scheme to discover in some way what impression you have made—to test your methods.  Thus you find your weak spots and can strengthen them.

     These are the methods by which we taught our agents how to sell our machines and which they also used to the public with the product.  And the cash register was not easily sold to the public; it was hard to educate them, for, essentially the machine acted as a monitor and no one likes to be told about the mistakes he has made.  We have found all of these devices serve to get the points over in quicker and better fashion than by mere words.  Our whole force uses them not only with the public but in all company discussions of policies.  They have been used with the workmen and they have been used in public affairs.



     After the Dayton flood, when the people wanted to abandon the town to its ruins, we staged a meeting—we like to do things in meetings.  We had a great red heart on the platform with contrasts of what Dayton had been, what it was then, and what it might be.

     We showed stereopticon views of the pioneers who had made Dayton and of the big, individual things that those stalwart men had done.  We did that because in the audience were many descendants of those very men and if the descendants were won over, there would be enough leaven through the whole audience to raise it.

     And we did raise that audience! At the beginning of the meeting, not one-tenth of the people wanted to bother further with Dayton.  Then they began to be interested—they warmed up, bit by bit, until finally you could not have kept their money in their pockets.  When the meeting closed, we had $2,000,000 subscribed.  The last dollars were rung up on an enormous cash register standing on the steps of the court house, amid the wildest enthusiasm I have ever known.  The same methods brought the city manager form of government to the city.  I think they pay.

     If I should reduce my principles of idea conveying to a creed, it would run something in this fashion:

1.       The nerves from the eyes to the brain are many times larger than those from the ears to the brain.  Therefore, when possible to use a picture instead of words, use one and make the words mere connectives for the pictures.

2.       Confine the attention to the exact subject by drawing outlines and putting in the divisions; then we make certain that we are all talking about the same thing.

3.       Aim for dramatic effects either in speaking or writing—study them out before hand.  This holds the attention.

4.       Red is the best color to attract and hold attention, therefore use plenty of it.

5.       Few words—short sentences—small words—big ideas.

6.       Tell why as well as how.

7.       Do not be afraid of big type and do not put too much on a page.

8.       Do not crowd ideas in speaking or writing.  No advertisement is big enough for two ideas.

9.       Before you try to convince anyone else, make sure that you are convinced, and if you cannot convince yourself, drop the subject.  Do not try to “put over anything.”

10.    Tell the truth.