How to Gain Acceptance When Presenting a New Idea

Christopher Witt —  May 28, 2014

We often say, “We know what we like.” But it’s more accurate to say, “We like what we know.”

Consider art.

We like what we're familiar with.In his lifetime Vincent Van Gogh was largely unknown and his paintings were unpopular. He sold one painting (Red Vineyard at Arles) in his lifetime. One. That’s it.

Today he’s considered “one of the most famous artists of all time.”

In 1990 his Portrait of Dr. Gachet (at left) sold for $82,500,000. It was the highest price paid for art at a public auction at the time. Taking inflation into account, that record still holds.

What happened? Did his work magically improve over time? Of course, not.

What happened is more mundane. One hundred years ago Van Gogh’s style of painting was new and unlike anything people had seen before. Since then, we’ve been exposed to his art countless times. And we’ve been told by experts and by just about everyone else how extraordinarily beautiful they are. And we think of them as beautiful.

The same is true for music. We tend to like the music we already know — that’s why golden oldies are so popular — and to like music that is similar to the music we already know.

And the same is true for ideas.

Psychologists and researchers confirm that we tend to give credence to information, ideas, and opinions that confirm our current thinking. It’s called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.

What’s that mean for us?

When we present a new idea — and that’s the point of making a speech or presentation, isn’t it — we have to show audiences how it aligns with what they already know, with beliefs they already hold, with their current biases.

And we have to realize that people’s need to be exposed to new ideas — especially radically new ideas — incrementally and over time.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

3 responses to How to Gain Acceptance When Presenting a New Idea

  1. My problem is that the idea I am trying to spread is so different from what people are familiar with that it doesn’t even fit into commonly used categories. I had to write a novel (see the website for both text and MP3 formats) to let people understand the quite simple concepts. If you have any tips for such a unique case ( I have been told by experts in innovation adoption that what I have done is impossible) I would love to hear / read about them. :-)

    • I’m afraid I have no idea how to promote your idea.

      You are facing a difficult task: trying to spread an idea that doesn’t line up with people’s way of thinking. Have you tried using an analogy? “My idea is like…[an idea that people already understand]”

      • That’s the problem. The idea isn’t “like” anything we have experience with. That’s why I had to explain the idea in the novel at . I stumbled across the idea by accident about 45 years ago and played with it as an intellectual toy for a couple of years. Then, working backward from the solution I started with, I came to understand the cause of a huge array of human problems in every nation which the solution eliminated. So even for me it was difficult and unexpected and I’m the first guy to think of this idea.

        At least the novel seems to work quite well in making the idea understandable. But how do you get people to read a whole novel when they are impatient with reading more than an “executive summary” of a couple of paragraphs at most?

        Thanks for your taking the time to reply. Most folks don’t have the time or the interest. :-)