Sharing new ideas with important strangers

The life and death survival instincts humans developed thousands of years ago are still an important factor today. Controlled by the oldest part of our brain, the amygdala (aka crocodile brain), these instincts play a nuanced role in determining how well we do in important conversations, especially sharing new ideas with people we don’t know.

The croc brain is often responsible for our emotional responses, it operates automatically and in milliseconds. In “Emotional Intelligence” Daniel Goleman describes the process like this:

“emotions make us pay attention right now — this is urgent — and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?”

In essence the amygdala is our rapid fight, flight or freeze response, but what often gets overlooked is how this influences our first impressions.

First impressions:
If you’re pitching a business idea during a meeting, the audience probably doesn’t know you, and they need to decide whether they can trust you. This determination is going to be made instantly by all of the amygdala’s in the room or at the very least by the one amygdala that counts. This is something you can take advantage of, but often the reverse is true.

The problem is when we’re pitching new ideas to people we need to start by talking to their amygdala. But instead we typically start from our higher functioning brain, the neocortex. We used the neocortex to to prepare the presentation, and we need it for sophisticated communication, but the amygdala doesn’t trust the neocortex, it speaks it’s own language, and if our pitch isn’t explicitly prepared for this, we’re going to run into problems.

In “Pitch Anything”, Oren Klaff (director of Capital Markets for Intersection Capital) describes this as follows:

“Pitching anything means explaining abstract concepts— so it didn’t surprise me that ideas would be formed by the most modern, problem-solving part of the brain[neocortex]. But this is exactly where my thinking— and probably yours— went off track. I assumed that if my idea-making abilities were located in the neocortex (as they are), then that’s where the people listening to my pitch were processing what I had to say. It’s not …

… This is how I thought the brain worked; If I created a message in my smart neocortex and “sent” it over to you (by telling you about it), I figured that you’d be opening that message in your neocortex … [but] no pitch or message is going to get to the logic center of the other person’s brain without passing through the survival filters of the crocodile brain system first …

… my best ideas were bouncing off their croc brains and crashing back into my face in the form of objections, disruptive behaviors, and lack of interest.”

My own painful experience …
I remember a painful example of this, two years ago, when I presented to a room of senior managers at a conference. The pitch was meant to be: Cloud Computing is an important, new, disruptive force, that the audience needed to consider now. There are some risks related to it, and my co-presenters are going to help you through those.

I’d spent weeks preparing the deck, covering different angles etc. But what I wasn’t prepared for was what one of my co-presenter’s — an eminent lawyer — said half way through.

I kicked off the presentation as planned, it went pretty well and I handed off to my co-presenter. I expected she was going to talk about some of the data privacy risks related to Cloud, and what the audience could do to mitigate them. But instead she told them cloud raised real risks of jail time + hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. As you can guess, this had a noticeable effect … and it didn’t end there.

I still had to wrap up, but I’d lost the audience completely in the meantime, they were now focused on jail and fines.

Afterwards I reflected on what that felt like, and the best way to describe it is I was reduced to pleading with the audience to take a balanced view despite what they’d heard. Their croc brains had already made up their minds and my neediness just made things worse.

So what do we do?
If there’s just one thing I took away from all of this, it was simply that we don’t have a lot of time to make a strong impression in a critical encounter. We get judged in seconds, and the most important question a new audience has, at least at a subconscious level, is whether they can trust us.

The croc brain has a sixth sense when it comes to trust, it’s the same sense we use when a stranger knocks on our door at home. Lengthy introductions, complicated analysis, and asking for money scare the croc, and once that happens the conversation is usually over.

I’ll get into more details on what works better in future posts, but for now here are a few things that have helped me:

  1. Be human — how would you introduce yourself to a friend of a friend?
  2. Avoid neediness; avoid lengthy explanations about why something would be good for your audience, or why they have to buy into your idea. This is something they need to come up with themselves
  3. Keep pitch presentations short, no more than 20 minutes! The croc brain works fast and gets bored easily.
  4. Focus on communicating value; e.g. what easy to understand problems does the idea or approach solve?
  5. Strong visuals speak directly to the croc brain, try to use this to your advantage

How do you deal with communicating new ideas in important situations?

Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!