Three ways of pitching an original idea


I went to an excellent talk by Adam Grant last evening, hosted by the how: to academy. Grant’s book, Originals, is about how to get innovative ideas off the ground. It champions disrupters and disruption, urging individuals to speak out when they have an idea and organisations to encourage and facilitate this. Of course, without the latter condition, the former is a very risky course of action. Hence why it’s rare; and why anyone thinking of giving it a go needs all the help they can get. Assuming that means you, here are three fascinating and counter-intuitive suggestions for how to sell big ideas, courtesy of Adam Grant.


1. Frame scary ideas so they’re not so scary

 We love to sell a vision, don’t we? The bigger the better, we often tell ourselves. But sometimes, a really big idea can scare people off. According to Grant, Elon Musk attracted top minds to his SpaceX project by pitching it simply as a bid to get a commercial flight into space. Quite scary, by most of our standards, but it was only later that Musk revealed his true mission: the whole colonizing Mars thing . This is reminiscent of the “Foot in the Door” strategy deployed since time began by salesman the world over and identified by psychologists in the 1960s. The way it works is that I sell you a small thing now, so you’ll be primed to buy the bigger thing later. Sneaky? Perhaps. Smart? For sure. I’d argue the ethics depend more on what it is you’re selling than the methodology itself. Ultimately it might be the only way to get someone to make the best decision of their life.


 2. Present the flaws in your idea

Another standard principle of the salesman is never to admit a weakness. Accentuate the positive at all times. But Grant begs to differ. Often he says, it is smarter to call out the weaknesses of your idea before your audience gets a chance to do so. Perhaps don’t start there, he admits…but once you’ve established the problem you’re passionate about solving and pitched the idea, you should then give your potential backers some reasons to walk away. The chances are they’ll be attracted to your candour and self-awareness. They’ll also have only one option remaining if they want to show how smart they are: no longer able to point out the flaws, they’ll have to start giving you ideas for how to resolve them! I think there’s a lot of truth in this. It recalls the pratfall effect and the way we are attracted to imperfection - but only once competence as been established. As Grant points out, it’s how Rufus Griscom sold Babble to a bunch of venture capitalists and then, two years later, to Disney for $40m.


 3. Make the unfamiliar seem like a long lost friend

We strive for originality. We hate to belittle our idea by pitching it as some sort of copy. But one of the big reasons why fresh thinking is so hard to buy is that we are all have a bias towards the familiar and the readily understood. We like familiar things so much that we actually confuse familiarity with liking – which is why we judge smiling faces to be more familiar to us than neutral or negative looking ones. So linking a new idea to a familiar one is a way of making it seem more attractive. According to Grant it’s how the creators of Disney’s first original-concept animated movie sold their idea to Michael Eisner, the CEO, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Studio chief. When “Bambi in Africa with lions” failed to cut it, Eisner reportedly asked if it could be made into a take on King Lear. At which point one of the producers seized the moment: “No, this is Hamlet.” Sold. The Lion King earned 2 Oscars as well as over $1bn in takings for Disney.


What all of the above have in common is their psychological insight into the mind of the decision-maker. They temper the enthusiasm and passion of the idea originator with the recognition that big ideas ask a lot of the "buyer". By seeing the problem through their eyes,  all three of these pitch techniques make it easier for buyers to say yes - and for big, fresh, innovative ideas to happen.