Fear is the idea killer
Not much gets the stomach churning more than standing in front of peers and presenting an idea you’ve put your whole being into. To present is defined as: To show or offer (something) for others to consider or scrutinize. I don’t know about you, but scrutiny is scary.

I believe it’s this fear that has us unconsciously do some strange things that actually hinder our ability to gain buy-in for our ideas.

A typical reaction to this fear is to think every question has to be answered, and all scenarios presented in complex detail. You might have experienced this as a PowerPoint presentation that includes every possible chart, graph and bullet point ad nauseum until you finally check out.  If you would prefer that people check in to your ideas with enthusiasm, understanding fundamental aspects of how human beings make decisions can help.

Show me the math

Recently I facilitated a conversation with visual communication students who were working on their senior portfolio projects. I asked them to tell me about their projects. All I heard were details about the tactics they were designing.

I explained that this was like giving the answer to a math equation without first providing the actual equation.

I had no context for why their answers were remarkable. When I asked them to answer the question again, beginning with the problem they were trying to solve, I heard the personally relevant issue each student was taking on, the strategy they were employing and the tactical solutions they were designing –simple, powerful and compelling.

Don’t make my head hurt

Brain science has advanced to the point where there is a real understanding of the mechanics of decision-making. It suggests that complex cognitive processes can put a lot strain on our brains (head). Trying to process too much complex information can quickly shut the brain down, dramatically affecting our ability to make decisions.1 This is what has us “check out” – it’s not so much how many slides are in the deck, it’s the nature of the information they include and what part of our decision-making brainpower it targets. It’s just like when the students initially explained all the details of their solutions targeted only to my head.

Speak to my heart

Humans are meaning makers. To make sense of things, we seek the meaningfulness in them, or deem them meaningless and dismiss them. The degree to which an idea has meaning for us has great influence over whether or not we decide in its favor.

Science suggests our emotions (heart) strongly influence the cognitive and intuitive aspects of our decision-making 2.

Which is a good thing, because it has been found that the intelligent involvement of our emotions in complex decision-making actually produce better outcomes3. When I asked the students to tell me about the problem they were trying to solve for, their responses engaged my emotions. I felt something for what they were trying to do, and I became much more engaged in the details of how they were going to do it.

Gut response

We’ve talked about how our head and our heart play a role, however, much of our decision-making happens subconsciously at the intuitive, or gut level4. Gut decision-making, unlike head, isn’t overpowered by complex information that forces the brain to shut down. Nor does it fluctuate like our emotional state can. Our gut tells us what to pay attention to, and what to ignore.It can pre-dispose our decision-making before our brain even has a chance to rationally, or logically process the information.

What influences our gut can be hard to pin down, but if we consider our gut reaction a “knife-edge of experience”5, we get some clues.

In my interactions with the visual communication students, my gut response varied depending on several experience factors:

  • The degree to which the student was authentic and fully grounded in their story
  • The degree to which they were engaged in their work
  • The care with which they presented their ideas

All of these factors, and I’m sure more, combined to create how my understanding of their ideas was experienced. Students who were fully grounded and engaged in their work and presented their ideas with care had me intuitively pre-disposed to be receptive to their ideas.

Gut, Heart & Head

Our decision-making abilities are at their best when our head, heart and gut6 are all engaged. Presentations that engage, inspire and provoke enrollment are the ones that speak to all three.

To give a complex idea the best chance of being seriously considered, provide just enough head to satisfy cognitive understanding; enough heart to establish meaning, and deliver it through a high-quality and authentic experience that satisfies the gut.

There is no perfect recipe for doing this; it needs to be considered in the context of the idea you are trying to bring forward. However, there are plenty of examples of what it looks like when it does work. Here are a few:

Steve Jobs introducing the original iPhone. He presents an incredibly complicated piece of technology in a way that has us want it, love it and stop at nothing to learn more about it.

Martin Luther King – I Have A Dream Speech. He provokes an entire nation to see how inadequate the reality of the promise freedom was, and compels all of us to aim for and realize a higher ideal together.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s “stroke of insight.” She discusses micro-circuitry of the brain via a powerful and visceral personal experience that leaves us with a better understanding of the human condition.

If you are struggling with ways to present your idea and think some of these insights could help, lets talk. brentr@fathom.net


1 Ap Kigksterhuis, Maarten Bos, Loran Nordgen and Rick van Baaren On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect.” Science, February 17, 2006: Vol. 311 no. 5763 pp. 1005-1007 .

2,4 Williams, Ray B. How Can We Make Better Decisions? Wired for Success, September 25, 2011

3  Joseph A. Mikels, Sam J. Maglio, Andrew E. Reed, & Lee J. Kaplowitz Should I go with my gut? Investigating the benefits of emotion-focused decision making strategies; Emotion; Issue: 11; 2011; Pages: 743-753

5  Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. William Morrow & Company 1974 .

6 Appel, Wendy. Insideout Enneagram. San Rafael, California: Palma Publishing, February 2012.


About Brent

Brent works with leaders to design futures worth fighting for. A partner at Fathom, he champions an approach to strategic planning, employee engagement, leadership succession and market differentiation that prioritizes people and relationships. As a result, his clients don’t simply plan their futures, they bring them to life through the energy of organization-wide involvement in, and commitment to, generating valuable businesses that matter.


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