Tyler Odean kicked off our meeting with a contentious statement: “For startups and founders, being persuasive is way more important than having vision.” Given how many thousands of articles have been written about finding and nailing down mission and vision statements, this is jarring to hear. But when he explains, it makes sense.
“The reality is that visionaries like Steve Jobs haven’t been successful because they thought of something amazing and original out of thin air. Rather, they were gifted at constantly persuading many people to follow them on their journey to something amazing and original.” To succeed, startup founders need to cultivate persuasion as a skill and habit he says. “That’s how they're going to get the funding, the talent, the momentum to make their vision work.”
As a long-time product leader for Chrome at Google, Odean found himself using persuasion as a tool to herd massive organizations — engineers, designers and executives — toward product decisions and developments. He realized how powerful it was — as a product manager in particular — to be able to rally people to his and others’ points of view. Today, he regularly speaks on the topic and applies it in his role directing ranking, relevance and search products at Reddit.
In this exclusive interview, he presents the science that has informed his approach, as well as the many patterns that have emerged in his own work: how our brains process information, the cognitive biases that shape our realities, and how this information can be used to change other people’s minds. Read on for persuasive tactics startups and founders can use to raise money, build effective teams, and convince the world to love what they build.
“When we look at what visionaries really succeed at, they give us a confident, consistent and coherent plan that makes us feel safe,” says Odean. “We trust them not because their vision is perfect, but because they have it under control. They communicate clearly without giving us all the answers. What most people think of as vision is actually persuasion.”
This feeling that visionaries create can be explained by the two-system model for how the brain receives and experiences information. (On his way to becoming a persuasion expert, Odean took a deep dive into scientific literature that he’s distilled below).
System I is the part of the brain that handles the simple things: sensory input, automatic and unimportant decisions (i.e. I’m going to reach for my drink), casual social interactions, and other inbound signals that can be processed rapidly and rather easily.
System II is the higher-order, logical part of the brain. “It’s the part that thinks at the speed of the voice in your head,” he says. It brings processing power to bear on decisions and problems that require deeper thought.
System I is involuntary; System II is deliberate. System I thinks in black and white; System II sees many shades of gray.
“If you think about all the things the brain is constantly handling — it’s not just impressive, it’s insane. But you’re able to do it because the part of your brain that you’re aware of, System II, is always outsourcing the bulk of the work to System I,” says Odean. “I like to think of System II as a beleaguered, overworked but very intelligent manager. System I is the army of interns that she’s hired to solve all the simple problems she can delegate — even though they mess some of them up.”
Think of System I as childlike. Just like a 5-year-old views everything in terms of cause and effect — and has absolute certainty about the things they know — this part of the brain will either believe something with great conviction or not. Nothing in between. “System I has no time for, ‘This thing has a 30% probability of being true.’ That’s reasoning. That’s System II,” he says. “And the thing about System II is that it’s always looking for evidence that something isn’t right or isn’t to be believed. It’s a skeptic.”
What does that have to do with making a persuasive argument? If you speak to System II (i.e. pose something complex enough that it requires reasoning), you’re asking to be doubted. Many of us have had the thought while listening to someone: “I don’t know why you’re wrong, but I still don’t believe you.” That’s System II doing its job.
To persuade someone, you need to speak as much as you can to System I — the child, the interns — who want to believe you (because it just makes so much darn sense, what’s not to love?). Trouble is, most tech operators express themselves with complexity, nuance, facts and figures. That’s their default, and it doesn’t appeal to people’s unconscious processor.
Throughout school and in our professional lives, we’ve learned to build strong, well-reasoned arguments with a lot of evidence. But nobody taught us to talk to System I — even though that’s what we need to do to actually get things done.
The next step to mastering persuasion is understanding the biases and shortcuts the human brain automatically makes to cope with the constant information the world throws at us. Learning how to lean into these shortcuts makes it easier to speak to System I more of the time.
Odean highlights five cognitive biases that are particularly relevant to the entrepreneur’s task of getting customers, investors and employees on board:
Let’s delve into how each shows up and can be put to work.
“Availability bias makes the ideas that come to mind easily seem more true,” he says. “Your brain is first and foremost a threat-detection engine. The more times you see a thing, the more confident you can be that it won’t kill you — because it hasn’t killed you yet, right?” Think of it like this: you’re probably okay with the bugs where you live — but go to a foreign country and the creepy crawlies are terrifying. We’re all more comfortable with the things we’ve seen a lot in our lives — including ideas.
Take Silicon Valley’s tendency to favor trends as an example. “The more everyone talks about blockchain, the more everyone else thinks, ‘Hmmm, this blockchain thing seems pretty legit…'”
For founders, this can be instructive in a couple ways:
You’re also susceptible to trends. As you’re developing your ideas, be aware that you’re probably being influenced to think that familiar, less outlandish concepts are better.
Your baby will always be beautiful to you. You spend more time thinking about your idea and company than anyone else on the planet. So, it’s going to seem like a no-brainer to you — but probably not anyone else without doing some work.
“We all eventually fall in love with the smell of our own bullshit,” says Odean. “You need to remind yourself to be suspicious of that. If you assume that other people are as familiar with your ideas as you are, you’ll assume they’ll be far more receptive than they actually will be.”
One tactic he recommends: Have a designated buddy in a totally different industry or milieu that you can call and say, “Hey, you don’t spend all day thinking about this. How does it sound to you?” If they tell you it sounds crappy, don’t assume it’s because they “just don’t get it” (a common founder fallacy). “You’re not going to be successful if people you talk to don’t get it. Don’t stop developing new ways to explain it until they do.”
At the same time, you can use availability bias to your advantage by generating as much familiarity with your product or brand as possible. If you make yourself ubiquitous on social media (having influencers share about you, for example), over email, in the news media, through word of mouth, you’re going to become the no-brainer you want to be. It takes a lot of preparation and elbow grease, but creating a sense of familiarity is one of your most effective marketing advantages.
When making decisions, the initial thing a person sees becomes a powerful reference point for them. And once established, these reference points are hard to change.
The first number you throw out when you’re talking about pricing for your product (or size of your fundraising round) will always be the most important number you say. Be damn sure you’re okay with the direction that number takes you in.
This is particularly true in ambiguous situations, when you’re dealing with unknowable values. “If you’re a wine expert and I tell you that a bottle you’re familiar with is worth a million dollars, you’ll just say back, ‘Okay, but it’s not.’ But if we’re guessing the valuation of a three-person startup with just a slide deck and an idea in a brand new market, no one has a clue what that’s actually worth. You have the chance to establish a durable reference point that will give you an edge. Take the time to consider that carefully.”
Anchoring plays an even more important role when you’re comparing values. It becomes a limiting factor you have to acknowledge if you want to move in any given direction. “If I initially throw out a valuation of $10M, but then I want to move it to $15M, I have to basically convince you that it’s worth all those values in between individually. Why is it worth $11M, $12M, etc.? Make sure you respect your own anchor points when making these types of arguments.”
To give you a simpler (and sillier) example, there’s a good reason why late night show hosts always lead with, “We’ve got a really great show tonight!” It doesn’t matter that you know they always say the same thing no matter what. As soon as you’ve contemplated whether tonight’s show is great, it’s been anchored in your mind that it is — your outlook on it is already positive, thanks to System I.
After any experience, humans create a representative image or memory of what happened — and they reason off that image. For instance, if they have an argument with someone, they’ll take away one or a handful of representative images of how that went down. No one gets to choose what sticks, it just happens.
For founders and marketers, this hits on one important point: “People will remember a totally random sample of the information you give them about what you do.” It won’t be the best sample. It won’t be the summary you wish you could hand them. It’s a random set of data.
Many people, given the opportunity to get in front of an important audience — like investors or an industry reporter — think they need to say it all. They have to tell a full story about their company or product so that it can be well understood in the exact context you want.
People pack meetings with every selling point they can think of. But that’s actually the worst thing to do.
“They’re going to remember hardly anything you cram into that hour,” says Odean. “Because they’ll remember random parts, you want to construct a message that — when sampled at any point — reinforces your argument and remains persuasive. Keep it to the highlight reel and stick to a very short, simple message that you repeat in different ways again and again. When there are fewer things to remember, your audience is more likely to remember what matters.”
Stick to only your strongest points, too. The way the brain works, even if you’ve made a ton of extremely compelling arguments, one weak one can spoil the whole thing. Think of two hypothetical sets of goods:
The first includes 5 iPhones, one of which is broken.
The second includes 3 iPhones in good condition.
We all know that the first set is the best choice (thanks, System II), and most people will choose it when presented with both options side by side. However, when they’re only shown one set at a time, they tend to put a higher price on the undamaged set. Even though they intellectually understand the value is the same, they still emotionally respond to the damaged goods.
“Your audience is always creating a representative picture of who you are and what you can do for them,” says Odean. “If you give them an image that involves negative elements — in which anything that’s not utterly awesome is negative — that can be more damaging than it should be.” A lot of startups have the impulse to throw unexciting benefits into their pitches — something like good battery life. This actually detracts from what’s truly special about your app.
“People want everything to always be the same. We want smart people to be smart. We want good people to be good,” says Odean. “The same goes for ideas.” Because we so badly want equilibrium and predictability in our lives, we’re pretty willing — eager even — to believe that things are more consistent than they actually are. This leads to a couple common behavioral concepts:
Halo effect: If you like one thing about an idea or object, you’ll like other things about it too. However, if you dislike one thing about it, you’ll tend to dislike other facets as well. “Life’s just easier when your feelings on a subject have a consistent valence. A product recommended by a friend you love will seem well-made. A product that seems well-priced will also seem reliable.”
Confirmation bias: “We would all prefer to live in a world where we’re the smart and able-minded protagonist. It takes effort for us to contemplate our own mistakes or being wrong. We have to burn calories to do it — it’s been proven in the lab.” As a result, people always tend to interpret new information in a way that confirms what they already thought or believed.
“It’s infinitely more difficult to persuade someone that they’re wrong than to persuade them that there’s new information that should change their minds,” says Odean. “Any time you’re trying to convince someone to change their thinking, always frame it as an opportunity to be right going forward — not an admission of past error.”
Let’s say you’re a product manager or founder trying to get a team to ship faster. There’s no point in arguing that they should have shipped code last week. Only talk about when and how they can ship things at a quicker cadence in the future based on the information you have today. That’s the only conversation worth having.
Human beings are incapable of reasoning about the world in the absolute, so we default to the next best thing: comparative reasoning. “Framing determines what choice is seen as default or normal,” says Odean. “An easy way to think about this is imagining you have three cups of water — one hot, one cold, one room temperature. If you put a finger in the room temp water after the hot water, it will feel cold. If you do the same after the cold water, it will feel warm.”
To make whatever you’re offering appeal to a human being, be aware than any information you put out there will be consumed through a comparative lens.
If you don’t explicitly tell your audience which comparisons to make, they’ll make them on their own. And these automatic comparisons probably won’t be as flattering as the ones you’d choose for them.
“Cognitive biases create our reality. The best we can do is accommodate and lean into them — we can’t escape them,” says Odean. This can be good news if you know how to turn them to your advantage in order to be persuasive. Next, he shares his top seven tactics for leveraging the inevitable mental shortcuts humans make to create messages that speak directly to System I — messages that are very easy to agree with and act on.
This sounds incredibly obvious and unoriginal. But, Odean says, people vastly underestimate exactly how simple they need to be. It’s one of the biggest areas where mistakes are made. “We’re not talking a short paragraph, or even single syllable words, nor a question,” he says. “The most people can process without consulting System II is a very short, declarative phrase using the simplest words possible.”
Let’s say you’re building a slide deck to convince an audience of something.
Any time you’ve included a bulleted list or a paragraph of text, or even a graph without a very clear, obvious explanation, you’ve already lost.
In any of those scenarios, System II has switched on and is already doubting the information it’s being given.
“Stick with a few words that viewers will consume and understand before they even make the choice to,” says Odean. “Short declarative sentences on the slides behind you will repeat over and over again in your audience’s mind while they’re listening to you talk. ‘We are growing fast. We need money to keep growing fast. With that money, we would do X.’ You want your message to sound and feel like a ‘See Spot Run’ story. The words you pick should feel intuitive, almost to the point of being too basic. That’s the level that’s going to speak emotionally to your audience.”
This is where it’s important to remember that you spend all day steeped in your own business plan. The people you’re convincing of your plan do not. Don’t rapidly shift between different parts of your story and expect people to follow you. “I’ve seen a lot of startup pitches go back and forth between growth and revenue plans. Don’t do this. You want your story to build one block at a time.”
Repeat whatever it is you really want to have stick with people. “At the end of the meeting, when people’s brains are randomly sampling moments and trying to remember what you shared, it’s the very simple, declarative points that will stick out because they encountered them more often and immediately understood and agreed with them in their heads. It’s like the chorus of a song — very few of us remember the words to the verses, but we can usually remember the chorus.”
While founders need to keep their own availability bias in check, they also need to accommodate and feed into others’ availability bias to be persuasive. Just like people are set up to favor things that feel familiar, they also have a strong tendency to favor what they can fully visualize.
“For example, if I were to offer you $100 verbally to be paid immediately or hand you a bright blue envelope containing five crisp $20 bills, the second offer would seem better because you can picture it really completely,” says Odean. Our brains love this type of specificity, even when it’s not logical. This is a powerful bias and tool for persuasion.
“A lot of people know this one, but it hits this point home: Let’s says I describe to you a woman who loves folk music and was active in the nuclear protest movement in college. Then I ask you whether she’s more likely to be a bank teller or a feminist bank teller? Most people answer, ‘feminist bank teller’ because it seems most in line with the rest of the story. But there are no feminist bank tellers who are not also bank tellers. By definition, ‘feminist bank teller’ is a narrower category — which makes it less likely that’s the right answer.”
How can you use this do your advantage? By adding descriptive detail to a scenario, you make it statistically less likely — but you make the picture clearer so it seems more likely.
So, when you’re presenting your company or product to key stakeholders, paint a picture. Don’t just say you have a lot of users. Describe Jerry the CTO from a mid-market printing firm in Ohio and how he loves using your product between meetings because it saves him so much time. Literally show a picture of him smiling as he uses your product. For any success you seek to convey, make sure that your description is underscored with a specific, concrete image — and not left as an abstract concept.
System I hates surprises. It freaks out really easily, summoning System II to the rescue, which can only say, ‘I’m not freaked out.’ System II is never going to have a more positive reaction than System I will. “Every time you surprise someone, you risk making them suspicious. Even when they don’t become suspicious of you, they’ll still be a bit less comfortable with you and what you’re telling them than they were before.”
Of course, when you’re first sharing an idea with someone, there’s no way around a bit of surprise. But you can try to ease them into it. “One of the best things you can do in a presentation or conversation where you're sharing something new is say, ‘In the course of this talk, I plan to show you X’ before actually showing them anything.”
Another way to ease surprise is to tell your audience that someone or a company they already know and respect — or simply identify with — already use your product or works with you.
“People desperately want to seem normal and do what seems normal, so the more you can mainstream an outlandish or unseen product or idea, the better,” says Odean. “When Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart to his grocery store, he paid models to push them around and pretend to shop. People saw this, and even though they thought, ‘That’s weird. Why would anyone need that when they have baskets?’ the models made it look normal — attractive people were willing to try it.”
This might seem hard to square with a tech world that’s all about game-changing innovations and dramatic reveals. But remember, there’s a big difference between persuasion and generating excitement. “There’s persuasion and then there’s hype,” he says. “If you actually want someone to buy into what you’re saying or offering — and you don’t have the massive credibility of let’s say Apple — then you want to take as much surprise out of it as you can.”
'Trolley problems' help us understand the way humans make decisions. In the context of one of these problems, there’s a runaway trolley, and you — as the pretend track switcher — have to decide and rationalize who it should hit, given multiple choices.
“Let’s say that a trolley can go in one of two directions, and there’s a set of people in its way on each track you could choose. If I tell you the trolley is headed to the left, you’ll probably let it keep going that way. Same if I told you it’s headed to the right."
Most people choose not to take action because humans are very loss averse. We all want to minimize regret, and we tend to ascribe more regret to acting rather than failing to act. Failing to act doesn’t really feel like our fault.
If you’re trying to be persuasive, you can anticipate this instinct. If you desire a particular outcome, make sure that your stakeholders need to take action to achieve a different one. “Always, always, always phrase what you want to have occur as the thing that will happen if nobody does anything.”
If you send an email asking your team, “Should we ship the widget?” you’re putting the onus of the action on them. They have to proactively say yes. But if you instead say, “We’re going to ship the widget. Any objections?” the default will be to do what you want. The onus of action is on the people who want to object or push back and you just made it cognitively more difficult for them. Sounds like a small thing, but it works almost every time.
“People hate losses much more than they like gains,” says Odean. But they don’t evaluate losses and gains relative to what they have — they evaluate them relative to what they feel like they have. “If you’re totally convinced you’re going to get a promotion, and then it falls through, you might experience that as a loss, even though — technically speaking — you didn’t lose anything. You just didn’t gain anything.”
When you need to persuade someone, you can purposefully adjust their reference point — alter what they feel like they already have locked in — to get them to do what you want. If you talk like something is already true, and you do so simply, continuously, and in a way that’s easy to visualize — people will start to feel like it is true.
“You see this all the time in sales pitches. Rather than telling customers to buy something, the campaign tells them that their time is running out to purchase. They therefore have the opportunity to buy in hand, but are about to lose it if they don’t act. This is why brands always incentivize you to try on clothes or test drive a car. Once people start contemplating their ownership and see it in action, that’s their mental reference point. They’ll have to suffer a loss if they decide not to buy.”
Imagine talking to a job candidate deciding whether to join your startup. Start speaking to them as if they’ve already made the decision to join. “Say, ‘You’ll have this much equity, and this will be your desk, and these people will be on your team.’ Start using the collective first person — ‘We have this opportunity ahead of us,’ ‘We can solve this problem together.’ It will sound like they already have something concrete — and they’ll have to willingly give up all those things by turning down your offer.’ People don’t like to give up things if they can help it,” says Odean.
There are many ways to control how you present information about your business, but the most important one is to curate how it’s compared to other options in the field. You can’t stop your audience from comparing you to your competition. What you can do, though, is take steps to ensure those comparisons put you in the best light.
“Your presentation can control how salient and dominant those comparisons are,” says Odean. “For example, if you put two things right next to each other in your slide deck, that comparison will be dramatic. If you put one at the beginning and one at the end, that comparison will be much weaker. If you make a comparison really explicit — you show value A, value B, and the delta — then people will remember that difference. If you know you’re the better option, you might want to make the comparison this stark. If, however, you’re nervous about comparison, you want to mention the downsides of your competitor separately without putting it right next to your offering for easy comparison.”
Job candidates are always comparison shopping, so this lesson is particularly applicable in this arena. “The most effective comparisons you can make are to something or a company that’s very similar to yours but slightly worse in some respect. The similarity makes it easy to draw the comparison, but in a way that’s flattering to you,” he says.
“Let’s say someone has three options — A, B and another version of A that’s a little crappier. It’s really easy to simplify the choice by immediately discarding the crappier A. At the same time, A starts looking a lot better. So, now you’ve tilted the choice between A and B in A’s favor, even though nothing about their A or B changed.” You may want to insert a slightly crappier version of your product or argument into a comparison to push it in your direction.
Then there’s pricing — where comparison becomes a powerful marketing tool. Many companies will offer tiered pricing for software: individual, pro and corporate packages. “A lot of companies make the mistake of thinking they have to sell each one of these packages. You don’t. Sometimes the purpose of offering a package should be just to force favorable comparison for a more expensive package.”
You can make something seem bigger or smaller or more or less likely, or more or less risky — all based on what you place next to it. When you want a fact or figure to be more memorable, for example — or to seem more likely — make it easier to visualize. Conversely, for anything you’re trying to downplay, make it more vague and repeat it less often.
“A classic example is that if you want a figure to seem large — use the phrasing: 1 in 20 or 1 in 150. If you want a figure to seem small, use a percentage. When you say, ‘1 in 1,000 children are affected,’ your audience pictures a real child. When you say, ‘0.1% of children are affected,’ the automatic response is to think, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound like very many.’ If your mandate is to raise money to combat a disease that impacts children, you’d go with the former.”
Movie persuasion is not real persuasion. Don’t do what you see on screen. We’ve all seen some version of a hero or heroine delivering a relatively long, moving, eloquent speech to move the minds and hearts of the people around them. “It appears as though a single argument expressed in a single moment entirely changes the way people feel,” says Odean. “Suddenly everyone wants to fight the aliens, or agrees the monster isn’t quite so bad.”
That’s not how the brain works. “In fact, if someone tried to do that to you in real life, you’d probably get really defensive and shut down. You’d think, ‘Why are you giving me this speech? I’ve got my pitchfork ready. I’ve got my torch. I’m monster hunting no matter what you say.’”
So put aside fantasies of grand oratory persuading your audience to do what you want. Instead, think about how you can work with your team or board members or job prospects to gradually move them toward your viewpoint over time.
“When someone tries to change your mind immediately, you often entrench. You feel like they’re trying to rob you of your own agency with a clever pitch. You feel like they’re telling you that you’re wrong. No one likes that,” he says. “Salespeople who are too polished make us suspicious and uncomfortable for this reason. How dare they try to change the way we feel in such a short window of time?”
There are a few ways to implement more successful, gentle persuasion. If you’re planning to use a deck to make your pitch, send it to your audience early. This will serve two purposes: 1) it ensures that your deck is designed well enough that it can stand on its own. This is an important test you want to make sure you pass. 2) It avoids surprise, and keeps you from making an overly dramatic reveal or appeal.
“Too many people believe they have to be there in person whenever anyone looks at their deck. They have a vision that their skill and rhetoric will be so overwhelmingly awesome that it will change minds on its own — which, if it were true, would probably be disadvantageous. Whatever you managed to push them into believing wouldn’t stick with them the way you need it to — the way it sticks is when they willingly buy in and make the decision to believe you.”
Persuasion is a multi-pronged endeavor that requires you to think proactively and holistically about how you’re building an argument. But hopefully the tools above give you all the levers you need to do just that. Consider using it as a checklist whenever you have a pitch or you’re about to close funding or a candidate for a job. Are you taking all these elements into account? For extra assurance, use Odean’s five favorite gut check questions below before you ship any messaging:
Where would my pitch trip up a child?
Of course, you shouldn’t be treating potential investors or job candidates like children. But the goal is always to appeal to System I — the childlike part of the brain. So ask yourself whether there’s anything about your root argument and how you're expressing it that a child wouldn’t believe or understand. If there is, the odds are good that you’ll awaken your adult audience’s System II, and you’ll have to work much harder to alleviate their doubt.
What’s the one thing I want my audience to remember? Is it also the most prominent thing in my argument, message or pitch?
“Basically, you want everything to be as prominent as it is important for people to remember. Increase or decrease prominence using repetition (or not), simple and vivid statements (or not). Prominence and importance must match.”
What words can I cut from my pitch?
Making a point prominently isn’t about more — it’s about less. “Cut out literally every word you possibly can from every message you send,” says Odean. “And I mean that in the most neurotic, complete way.” No word is too small to cut. Modifiers are rarely necessary. Give the brain as little as possible to process. “If your argument is even slightly too dense, System II will be called in to unpack it, and System I won’t even have a chance to accept what you’re saying.”
Is my preferred outcome the default?
Remember, people typically ascribe more regret to acting than failing to act. Leverage that inertia. Moving a team toward your goal can be as simple as phrasing an ask in a way where no action or no response actually helps everyone make progress.
Is there anything I can do to boost people’s familiarity with my ideas beforehand?
“I often ask myself, ‘Who are the people I need to have agree with me? Can I meet with them somehow before I need to sell them or pitch them something?” says Odean. Perhaps an email can do the trick, or a chat with someone they know and trust. “You want to speak to your audience’s availability bias. Understand what they care about, and then gradually show them that you're trustworthy and value the same things before you ask for something.”
Finally, resist your urge to downplay the impact of cognitive biases. Once you understand them, they start to feel like common sense. You might be thinking that it’s impossible to use relatively simple tricks on the enormously brilliant people you’re trying to hire or ask for money. But it doesn’t even matter if they know about biases themselves.
“I can explain to anyone how an optical illusion works — but they still see it,” says Odean. “People are not computers. Even if they understand the ways in which biases can be used to influence them, they’re not immune. The most important thing to know about cognitive biases is that they’re applicable to everyone — without exception.”
Odean credits the work of Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, Amos Tversky, Charlie Munger, Robert Cialdini, and Dan Ariely for informing his approach to persuasion and how it can be applied for success in the startup environment.