Adam Grant on Pitching Your World-Changing Idea

Tactics from social science that you can use to get people to listen to your ideas—especially when you are pitching particularly disruptive proposals for social change.

April 18, 2017

In early 2000, Jacqueline Novogratz sat in numerous boardrooms on Wall Street to pitch her original idea for Acumen.  She described her vision of a new kind of nonprofit venture capital fund that could raise charitable donations and then invest this philanthropic capital in companies serving the poor.  The bankers across the table looked at her with skepticism.  Like many Wall Street professionals, they were accustomed to a clean delineation between charitable donations and investments.  The idea that you could mix these two concepts was so novel that many dismissed Jacqueline’s proposal out of hand, telling her that it would never work.

Fifteen years later, impact investing has exploded in popularity and Jacqueline is regarded as one of the field’s early pioneers.  Yet, in the beginning her idea was so original that she had a hard time getting people to listen seriously. Jacqueline recently told Forbes: “It hurt to be told I was silly or stupid, but…now when I talk to young entrepreneurs, I tell them ‘If people don’t tell you you’re crazy, you’re probably not doing something that will change the world.’”

If, like Jacqueline, you hope to introduce an original idea that could shift systems or change paradigms, you’ll inevitably need to learn how to face rejection and develop resilience.  But there are also tactics from social science that can help you more effectively position novel ideas to gain a receptive audience.  Adam Grant, the most highly rated professor at Wharton and author of the bestseller Originals, has spent the past years studying and synthesizing ways to champion original ideas.

In this exclusive interview with +Acumen, he goes deep on three very practical strategies you can use to get people to listen to your ideas—especially when you are pitching particularly disruptive proposals for social change.


Three Strategies for Pitching Original Ideas

“I don’t think we lack creative ideas in the world or creative people,” Adam told +Acumen. “I think we lack people who know which ideas to champion and how to move them forward. The more original you are, the harder it is to get other people to appreciate your ideas.”

So how can you move from ideation to actualization?  How can social entrepreneurs avoid getting mired in rejection?  Here are three things you can immediately try to get people to listen to and support your pitch—whether you’re selling a new solar lighting solution or trying to get a ballot initiative passed:


STRATEGY: Highlight the reasons not to support your idea.

Sounds counterintuitive, right? But Adam insists it can be advantageous to selectively outline the downsides of your idea—if you do it right. “Sharing the downsides is a great way to build trust with your audience and get good insights on how to solve your problems,” he says.

For example, one entrepreneur Adam encountered-- Rufus Griscom—opened his pitch with a slide that listed the 3 reasons why people should not invest in his company.  Rufus walked away with 3.5 million dollar deal from Disney.

“He learned that listing the downsides of his idea was attention-grabbing,” Adam says, “There’s a time and a place to present the negative aspects.  It can be advantageous to show that your idea is not perfect. It conveys that you are not blinded by enthusiasm for your own ideas.  By employing this tactic, you present yourself as being more trustworthy and credible.”

Featuring the “cons” of your concept also shifts the focus of the pitch from a one-way proposal to a collaborative conversation.  When most investors or stakeholders are listening to someone propose an original idea, they’re instinctively looking for the gaps in the logic or the shortcomings and teeing up their questions.  If you start by owning and listing the problems yourself, then your listeners have to work a lot harder to identify other issues, Adam says. 

“You preempt investors from thinking of their own downsides or objections.  Instead of presenting problems, they actually can start to present ideas for how they might solve your problems. You start a conversation. Your investors might actually be convincing themselves that the problems you outlined are not so big.”

How to Do This:

  • “Acknowledge in your pitch that your idea is imperfect in a bunch of ways,” Adam says.
  • List the 3 biggest problems with your current idea or concept.  Then present your current thoughts about how to address each challenge.
  • Finally, wrap up by inviting participation by saying something along the lines of: “I believe the strengths of this idea outweigh the limitations and I’m willing to do whatever I can to address these challenges. I’d love your thoughts on how to do it.”


STRATEGY: Use the “Airbnb for X” Approach.

If you’ve spent years developing a new water filtration device or devising a new way to get kids to stay in school, your original idea might seem very obvious to you.  However, when you’re presenting to a new audience, Adam reminds us that: “what’s new and exciting to you might be totally weird and illogical to them.” When faced with something very novel or unfamiliar, people automatically gravitate to analogies to try and make sense of the new idea.

“You should build the bridge for them and say: ‘Here’s how what I’m doing is similar to something that has worked before,” Adam says. “In the start-up world, it’s the Airbnb for X pitch.  Some startups take this too far, but bringing that kind of familiarity into your pitches can be really helpful as you’re trying to convince people that your idea has merit.”

How to Do This:

  • Think back to when you’ve pitched your idea before, what parts generated the most confusion or questions?
  • Identify the components of your idea that are most original or unfamiliar. Is it the platform?  The sharing mechanism?  The purchasing function? 
  • Now look for analogs from other sectors or verticals that could illustrate this same component or facet of your product or idea.  For example, if you’re trying to launch a new book sharing program for rural villages, could you call it: “An ATM for books”?  Or if you’re trying to make affordable school lunches available to parents, you could call it: “The Blue Apron for school lunches?” so that people better understand what you’re trying to offer.
  • Test your analogy with a few people to make sure it works and they understand it correctly.  Make sure you’re not drawing false equivalencies and using an analogy that enough people in your audience with be familiar with.


STRATEGY: Become a tempered radical. 

Finally, Adam suggests that we could learn from research from Debra Meyerson at Stanford that suggests that if we’re trying to introduce approaches that will be very potentially disruptive, it can pay off to unfold them gradually.

In the social sector, many of us are idealistic and compelled by a sense of urgency to do all we can to help others.  However, our sense of moral urgency can sometimes lead us to foist our original ideas for change rather forcefully on others.  Yet, Meyerson’s research suggests that to be effective, it can sometimes pay to become “under-the-radar rebels.” Rather than pitching an original idea immediately or in its fullest form, build relationships first or share stages of your proposal more gradually.

Adam notes that this is the exact approach that serial entrepreneur Elon Musk took to get his SpaceX program off the ground.  At first, his space program was being knocked down by everyone so he decided to just talk about a small aspects of his concept for launching a rocket as the initiative gained credibility.

In talking to Elon, Adam says that he learned: “There is a time and a place to unfold your full vision. But you don’t have to explain it all at once.  Sometimes it’s the more achievable, more believable, middle range goals that you want to explain to people and then once you prove you can make progress on those, it’s time to share the bigger vision.”

How to Do This:

  • Lay out your full vision privately.  If you start to get a lot of pushback when you introduce it publicly, decide whether there are stages of this vision that are more concrete or immediate or easier to grasp that you can begin introducing first.
  • Build relationships with people.  Establish trust.  Work on parts of your vision behind the scene as you establish credibility.
  • Then, once you have a track record established—whether that is a few other paying clients or your first product launch—begin to pitch the fuller or more grandiose vision and see if people now are willing to buy in.

For all of these strategies, it’s not about substantively shifting your original idea or vision, it’s about strategically adjusting your framing.  This doesn’t compromise your originality.  In fact, Adam argues that helping others become more comfortable or familiar with new ideas so that they are actually compelled to adapt and change with you is one of the key differentiators between creatives whose ideas burn out and originals who are able to move ideas forward.

“When I think of originals, I think of the people who drive creativity and change in the world,” Adam says, “It’s not just about having new ideas, it’s also about taking action to make them a reality. So originals are people willing to stand out and speak up. They take initiative. They look at the world around them and say, ‘Look, this is not perfect and I want to try to do something to try to make it better.’ Any time you take a little bit of action to try to improve the world around you and try to take something that existed before and try to replace something that with something new, that to me is original.”

Adam Grant's Master Class on Developing Original Ideas is now available! You can register here for a $80 discount. 

Spread Positive Change



Newsletter Form