The Top 3 Tips for Presenting Your Business Ideas

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

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Do you have a business idea in mind? What do you think is the most important factor when it comes to presenting business ideas to a third-party audience?

Once you have an idea, you’ll likely need to bring other people on board, whether as investors or teammates. Presenting business ideas can be an unnerving experience, and that’s understandable—the stakes are high.

Whether you’re pitching to a private investor or potential partners, here are some tips for presenting your business ideas clearly and persuasively.

Tip 1: Use Powerless Communication

When presenting business ideas, if you anticipate your ideas to cause a skeptical or defensive reaction, try powerless communication. Many people, when threatened, try to bluff their way through it. They flash badges of authority, present only the best evidence, and hide their weaknesses. This actually evokes the opposite reaction – you feel like you’re trying too hard, and you must be hiding something.

Instead, do the opposite – express doubt and highlight weaknesses. Tell your audience why your idea might fail; signal that you don’t know everything. This makes listeners more receptive to your ideas because:

  • It lowers their defenses. Hostile listeners are aware that someone is trying to persuade them, and unbridled optimism seems too sales-y and dishonest. If you attack yourself, the listener is content that his points are addressed and is put into a more constructive mindset.
  • It makes you appear smarter. Presenters who don’t explicitly consider counter-arguments seem to have done only a cursory analysis. By pointing out possible weaknesses, you don’t look naive.
  • You seem more trustworthy. You seem honest and modest, instead of a trickster trying to deceive the audience.
  • It puts the listener in a position to help, not to attack. Seeing weaknesses automatically makes one consider how to overcome them. Furthermore, the listener is biased to like her own favorite solutions to the ideas, making the weaknesses seem more surmountable.
  • It itemizes the weaknesses. If you show your 8 greatest weaknesses and only 2 of them seem really serious, it doesn’t seem like a bad situation after all – “there are only 2 weaknesses!” 
    • This is more effective than focusing on just your 1 big weakness, since the listener is left wondering what other problems lurk under the surface.
  • Through recency bias, it becomes harder for the listener to come up with novel weaknesses. The ones you’ve presented are fixated on.

Tip 2: Appeal to Both Ends of the Totem Pole

Third, speak to the top and bottom of the totem pole. People in different social levels have varying receptivity to new ideas. People at the top have a secure enough position that they can tolerate risk and champion new ideas. People at the bottom have little to lose and much to gain from joining high-risk, high-reward projects. 

In contrast, middle managers are the most conservative. They’ve fought their way up to where they are and want to keep going; a fall back down to where they started is painful. They’ll be less willing to rock the boat.

Similarly, bias toward communicating with disagreeable people. Despite being less pleasant to work with, disagreeable people speak their mind and are more open to new ideas. They care more about improving the organization than about ignoring its shortcomings. They are less likely to care about personal status and see new ideas as threats. Agreeable people tend to do the opposite.

Tip 3: Repeat Your Idea Over and Over

Finally, expose the new idea repeatedly. When you’ve thought about an idea endlessly for days, you lose the ability to empathize with a first-time listener. You underestimate how much exposure is needed to get a new audience to buy into your ideas.

Instead, repeat your idea over and over again. Studies suggest that liking continues to increase over 10-20 exposures. Exposures are more effective when short and mixed with other ideas. Furthermore, delay the initial introduction of the idea and its evaluation – pitch an idea briefly to your boss on Monday, then ask for feedback at the end of the week.

Why does this work? Repeated ideas become more familiar, and more familiar ideas provoke less defensive reactions. Repeated ideas are also easier to recall, and because of recall bias, people are more receptive to things they can recall more easily. (Studies show that senior managers undercommunicate critical ideas by a factor of 10.Fun fact: in Apple, the Macintosh team granted an annual award to one person who challenged Steve Jobs. This was a good way of promoting speaking truth to power and getting good ideas from everywhere.

Miscellaneous Tactics

Strike Urgency: People don’t just need a reason to act – they need a reason to act now. Environmental campaigns were more successful when they conveyed a sense of urgency. When presenting your idea, emphasize urgency. Without urgency, people won’t make the needed sacrifices.

Hijack Loss Aversion: Loss aversion is an irrational bias toward weighing losses of an amount more heavily than gains of the same amount. Instead of presenting your arguments as gains, message them as potential losses. For instance, climate change, emphasizes not the gain of sustainable energy, but rather the loss of millions of homes through coastal elevations.

Emphasize What’s Wrong with the Present: To drive people out of apathy, emphasize the current state of affairs. Make the gap between the status quo and what-could-be as large as possible. Great orators employ this technique. In loss aversion terms, this makes it a guaranteed loss.

The Top 3 Tips for Presenting Your Business Ideas

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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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