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Let This Former Googler Help You Tap The Science Of Persuasion

Drawing on a large body of brain science and psychological research, this tech expert explains why the most persuasive people spoil surprises on purpose.

Let This Former Googler Help You Tap The Science Of Persuasion
[Photo: Flickr user Gary Ku]

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.

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“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.

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–a deep body of psychology and brain science he’s spent years applying in the startup environment. Here’s a look at a few of the principles and tactics Odean believes founders can use to raise money, build effective teams, and convince the world to love what they build.

How Our Brains Make Decisions

“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.

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“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 five-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,” Odean explains. “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.”

Hacking The System In Order To Persuade

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. So Odean has developed a few key 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. Here are two of them:

Ruin Surprises On Purpose

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.”

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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.”

Make Your Plan Easy To Visualize

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.

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“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 to 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.

Ultimately, Odean believes, persuasion is a multi-pronged endeavor that requires you to think proactively and holistically about how you’re building an argument. But hopefully these techniques can give you a few new tools to do just that.


A version of this article originally appeared on First Round Review. It is adapted with permission.

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