How to Pitch an Idea: Expert Tips From Oren Klaff

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Pitch Anything" by Oren Klaff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What makes a good pitch? How can you increase the chances of your proposition being considered?

When you are trying to pitch an idea, don’t try to capture your target’s interest by appealing to logic and reason. Instead, appeal to their primitive brain by using “hot cognitions.”

Here are some tips on how to pitch an idea effectively to compel your target to consider your proposition.

Hot Cognitions and Your Pitch

To an overwhelming degree, people make decisions, even critically important ones, based on hot cognitions—emotions—rather than cold cognitions—rational analyses. We use facts and data to justify our decisions after we’ve made them, but we make the actual decisions based on what “feels” right. 

If you want to learn how to pitch an idea effectively, you must first understand that the path to your target’s interest in your proposition lies not in their coldly-calculating neocortex, but in their hot-cognition-based croc brain.

To pitch effectively, you must leave your target steeped in hot cognitions, with her croc brain enthusiastically transmitting desire to her neocortex. You can do this by “stacking frames.”

Frame stacking is not just another sales technique. Old-fashioned sales tactics function by appealing to the neocortex, focusing on features, benefits, and rational explanations: cold cognitions. In contrast, frame stacking creates hot cognitions, which work with, not against, our natural inclinations. 

  • Hot cognitions are instinctive and immune to analysis. 
  • They are unavoidable: you cannot help having an emotional reaction. 
  • They are instant and enduring. You tend to immediately know whether or not you like a movie, a house, or a dish, and you rarely change your mind after making that assessment. 

You can use these frames during your pitch as a response to various oppositional frames from your target. At this point in your pitch, you will proactively use these frames in order to drive the presentation, by adopting them one after the other in quick succession. The idea is to deliver a “hookpoint”: the point in your presentation where your target goes beyond mere interest and becomes actively engaged, and finally, committed.

The four frames are: 

  • Frame 1: Intrigue
  • Frame 2: Prize
  • Frame 3: Time 
  • Frame 4: Moral Authority

Frame 1: Intrigue

Earlier, we discussed intrigue frames as a way to snap your target back to attention if she’s running cold or if your pitch is entering analytical territory. Here, you’ll kick off the final phase of your pitch with an intrigue frame to spark renewed interest. 

Again, an intrigue piques your target’s curiosity, snapping her out of her analytical neocortex and throwing her back into her croc brain, where her emotions live. At this point in your pitch, either toss out a fun story that illustrates your skills, as discussed in Chapter 2, or offer up something irresistible in relation to your pitch.

For example, maybe you have another partner you’ll bring into the deal once it’s finalized. Make this person sound exciting. “If you love this deal, you’re going to love my partner Rachel. She’s an interesting character—terrific person—but a little eccentric.”

Then tell a brief story about Rachel and how she saved a recent deal you had, or something similar. For example: “Last year, I had this deal of about $10 million. At the last minute, the bank backed out. No reason, no explanation, and I had no recourse. The deal was dead. I knew I had to find Rachel. I tracked her down and started filling her in on the details, but she cut me off. ‘Is it a good deal?’ she asked. And that was all she wanted to know. Later that day, I found out she had wired the money to the investors. She hadn’t asked me for guarantees or paperwork. She just trusted me and saved the deal.”

Frame 2: Prize

As discussed in Chapter 2, the prize frame positions you as the true reward in your deal, instead of the other party. As you wrap up your pitch, hit this theme again, to leave them with a lasting impression of you as the prize.

Paint yourself as a hot commodity, in demand in the market. “I’ve got three other firms begging me for this deal, but if you work hard and play your cards right, you can earn your way in.”

Make it clear you’re choosy about who you work with.

  • Hint that you want to work with her, but need to know more before making a decision.
  • Ask her for some materials to prove herself.
  • Ask her about previous business partners, and what they’ve said about her. 
  • Ask her about a previous deal that didn’t work out and how she handled it.

Let her know your partners are choosy, too. “I’m so glad I was able to find some time to come by today. Now, I have to wrap this up and get to another meeting, and I’m going to level with you—I like you but I do have to be choosy about which investors I let in and which I turn away. I also have to sell you to my partner, Rachel, who’s going to want to know why we’re a good fit. So, help me with that—how do I convince Rachel we’d work well together?”

Frame 3: Time 

Previously, we discussed how to respond to time constraints from your target by imposing your own. Here, you’ll proactively impose your own time constraint, increasing tension and adding stakes to your pitch. 

Your target’s croc brain has a built-in scarcity bias and a fear of missing out on opportunities. Research shows adding time pressure to a decision-making event almost always reduces the quality of the decision made. This is not, in and of itself, a reason to add a time crunch. You don’t want your deal to feel associated with a cheap sales trick, and you don’t want your target to leave your meeting feeling like she was pressured into something.

However, letting your target know when you need a response is expected and professional. “Folks, I’d love to give you a month to think about it, but a deal like this, with strong fundamentals, it’s like a train, and when it’s time to leave the station, it’s time. If you don’t want the deal, you shouldn’t do it, we all know that. There’s no pressure. But we’re going to need to know by the 15th if you’re in or out.”

You don’t have to justify your deadline any further, or be any more aggressive. Everyone understands a deadline.

Frame 4: Moral Authority

The moral authority frame is one in which you claim the higher ground for reasons of professionalism, ethics, and fairness. Our croc brains instinctively recognize a certain moral code that sets us apart from the animal world. Reminding your target of this code paints you as an enforcer of rules, and her croc brain knows that those who set the rules are the ones in command. 

It also plays on her croc brain’s sensitivity to peer pressure and its craving for acceptance. By invoking the rules of “the group,” you implicitly threaten her exclusion from it. You also convey that you are a dominant peer—a leader, not a follower—which raises your status. 

With the Moral Authority frame, you’ll position yourself as impeccably professional—a person who holds their business partners up to the highest standards because you yourself comply with these standards. For example: “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but we have an unimpeachable record; we’ve done $100 billion in trades this year without a single SEC sanction. We care very much about our reputation, as well as the reputation of our partners. We don’t play games, we do things right. We give you a fair price, and expect a clean deal. Are you able to play by these rules?”

How to Pitch an Idea: Expert Tips From Oren Klaff

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Here's what you'll find in our full Pitch Anything summary:

  • An approach to the art of pitching that appeals to prospects' primitive instincts
  • How to establish your frame as the dominant one
  • The four parts of a successful pitch

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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