When launching an idea, should you focus on the “why” or the “how”?

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There are two camps on the most effective way to formulate an innovative idea. One argues that you should underline Why the idea is desirable. The other says you should focus on How? ‘Or’ What to implement the idea. Which one is right? A research project found that the answer depends on your audience. If you are pitching to novices, focus on Why. If you’re talking to experts, focus on How? ‘Or’ What.

Framing your message is the essence of targeting a communication to a specific audience. It’s the art of pitching an idea to get the broadest possible buy-in. While conceptually intuitive, the reality is that most of us don’t think strategically enough about how to properly phrase our ideas to maximize impact because we take communication for granted. This can be a particularly severe limitation for entrepreneurs and innovators trying to get their projects off the ground.

There are two distinct camps on how best to phrase an idea. In one of the most popular Ted Talks, Simon Sinek argues that if we are to mobilize people and resources around an idea, we need to frame our message with an emphasis on Why of what we’re trying to achieve. Communicating the purpose of an idea, he says, makes it easier for people to engage with the idea, as it allows them to understand the motives and goals behind it.

In his bestseller OriginalsOrganizational psychologist Adam Grant takes a different stance: He points out that innovators who formulate new ideas with a lofty goal are more at risk of violating people’s notions of what is possible. Instead, Grant suggests, skeptics may be more likely to be persuaded by focusing on How? ‘Or’ What you plan to implement your idea.

Who is right? Is a Why or one How? ‘Or’ What a more effective oriented framework to generate support for its innovative idea? Take the case of an entrepreneur looking for seed capital to start a new business: should she focus on the usefulness of her idea or should she instead promote a more concrete focus on how the idea works? when it appears in front of an audience of investors?

To find out, we conducted a study, whose Strategic Management Review published in August. We designed a series of experiments that involved asking two groups of people – a group of investment novices (example 1) and an expert group of professional venture capitalists and angel investors (example 2) – to evaluate a PowerPoint presentation of a pitch for a new idea entrepreneur. We then examined whether their responses to the idea varied when the innovator framed the solution in terms of concrete actions (for example, “How the product / service can meet specific objectives“) or for high level purposes (for example,”Why the product / service is desirable“).

Sample 1 consisted of a group of 129 investment novices recruited through Prolific, a UK-based online platform for high-quality data. For sample 2, we recruited a group of 59 professional investors affiliated with three entrepreneurship centers located in the United States and Canada. Participants were invited to view and rate two pitch decks based on an actual product prototype for a wearable exercise sensor: one that highlighted in factual terms what it did and How? ‘Or’ What to use it, and a second that explained Why you might want it.

As predicted by Sinek, novices liked the idea more when it was framed in a more abstract way. Why terms. However, experts liked the idea more when it was formulated more concretely. How? ‘Or’ What terms, as Grant suggests. The difference turned out to be significant. A Why frame, as opposed to a How? ‘Or’ What framework, increased the likelihood of novices to like the idea by 25%. Conversely, present the idea by emphasizing a How? ‘Or’ What Rather than a Why frame increased the likelihood of experts selecting the idea by 44%.

To recheck the results of our first two experiments, we recruited another group of novices and another group of experts (innovation managers) and asked them to review the pitch of another product, a special solar light. that mimics natural light. These additional experiments confirmed our results. Choose a Why or one How? ‘Or’ What coaching makes a significant difference in mobilizing support, but there is no one-size-fits-all coaching solution. Instead, there is a good framing for the right audience.

Why is this important

Experts (e.g. professional investors or innovation managers) are individuals who, over a long period of time, have gained significant experience in evaluating innovative ideas, while novices are not used to evaluating ideas. In the absence of specialized knowledge, novices focus more on the desirability of an idea and its ultimate benefits. Locations focusing on Why help novices understand the reasons for an idea and why it is desirable, especially if they perceive it to be useful. This is what matters most to them. Experts, on the other hand, are more likely to respond to concrete arguments about how something can be done, probably because they already understand what the benefits of the idea would be.

Although the audiences that control the essential resources to support innovation (e.g. crowdfunders, venture capitalists, angel investors, funders, innovation or R&D managers, users etc.) strive to select the best ideas, they often make mistakes. When initially funding entrepreneurial projects, major resource providers overlook or even scoff at innovative business ideas that later prove to be very valuable. Groundbreaking company founders whose early arguments to potential investors have repeatedly been rejected include the people who gave us Apple, Southwest Airlines, Airbnb, Grameen Bank, and Teach for America.

Our experiences show that the use of a Why Where How? ‘Or’ What framing is a terribly important choice, and if it works best for framing an argument for an idea in Why Where How? ‘Or’ What the terms will depend on who is receiving the land. Innovators who champion new ideas are more likely to appeal to novices (eg, crowds, friends, family) when their argument emphasizes why it is desirable. But the same ideas presented to experts (e.g. professional investors, innovation managers) would be better served if the focus was on How? ‘Or’ What something can be done. In other words, if you have to choose Why Where How? ‘Or’ What depends on your audience.


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