Why good ideas still die: 5 mental 'kill switches'

The portal opens

The portal opens

Imagine I just turned up on your door step and knocked on your door. Would you let me in?

There’s a reason why foot-in-the-door sales people are now a rare breed.  Such tactics trigger rejection.  They come without an invite, you don’t know them, and you don’t trust them.  So you say, “thanks but no thanks” (or something stronger).    

New ideas can trigger a similar - though more subtle - reaction.  You can’t push your ideas into people’s minds: they have to let you in.  So how do we open minds?  

Instead of offering a door, I suggest you build a portal.  A door gives the mind a binary choice: open or shut.  And in these times of information-overload, we all know what the default setting is.  


How portals open minds

A good example of a portal is a website.  It provides a gateway between your search, and the answers that you want.  

If you feel forced to solve puzzles and perform mental gymnastics just to navigate a site, you will leave.  You have no inclination to fumble through a jungle of cryptic labels, jargon and chaotic layouts.  And you will make that decision in a few seconds, without giving it much thought.

Sometimes you persevere due to a pressing need, or a clever headline.  So you click on a promising button, but it doesn’t deliver.  Now you feel let down, frustrated and possibly cheated.  And yet you still want the answer.

You know where I’m going with this.  A well designed user interface creates a gestalt sense of rightness, so that you want to stay and look around.  Without needing to think, you glide through the carefully placed and intuitively labelled buttons.  Each button’s or headline’s promise is delivered.  

Behind the scenes, the site’s design is constructed from an architecture that has been well researched.  This hidden design thinking translates into your easy grasp of what the site is all about.  You sense the site was meant for someone like you, and you just know that your stay will be productive.


How to build a portal for your idea

Let’s say I have a great idea that will benefit you.  I have spent a lot of time and energy constructing this idea in my head.  And so to understand the idea, you now need to reconstruct it in your mind.  How do I make it easy for you?

The way I present my idea to you has to provide a portal that transports the idea from my head to yours.  To do that, I have to send it to you in bits and speed up your reconstruction process.

So I need to give you an easy to use ‘presentation interface’ in much the same way as a website offers you a user interface.  The wrong interface might spin you out of my idea’s orbit.  The right interface will pull you into my idea’s gravity.  

So how do you design this interface?

Simply put, it starts with audience insight which is translated into the language, metaphors, images, stories and other signals that make the idea easy to follow.  These signals provide the unconscious brain with a way to navigate the information, and to make the ‘right’ connections.

This creates an unconscious, fast-track thought process.  And it frees the conscious mind to think about connecting the dots between its problem and your solution.  

The rest of this article describes five mental kill switches that your portal will need to address, in order to open up a fast-track portal for your idea.


Kill Switch 1: Lack of Reference Points

You’ve poured so much effort and time into your idea, that you are intimately familiar with its meaning and reasoning.  Trouble is, this makes it easy to assume that I will make the same mental connections that you do.  And If I don’t, or can’t, then my mind will be blocked by a lack of common reference points.  Your idea just won’t add up.

To solve this problem, you need to pitch your idea to me in a familiar way.  Familiarity is not just a trick of the mind: it provides an essential bridge between our different mental maps and experiences.  Here are three ways that you can help my brain to bridge any gaps.

1. Familiar language

If you’ve studied linguistics, or writing, then you’ve got your head around the rules of syntax and the nuances of semantics.  If you’re an expert in treating joint injuries, then you’ll have a strong grasp of proprioception and its role in re-setting mobility and relieving chronic pain.  If you’re neither, the jargon just raised a barrier.

Jargon is highly useful for domain experts.  But to everyone else, jargon makes it hard work or guess work.  So use familiar terms instead.  

What’s familiar to me is the language I use every day.  I don’t have to think about its meaning: my personal experience tells me all I need to know.  However, what’s familiar to one audience may be unfamiliar to another.  So you have to tap the most common level of understanding in order to open minds to your ideas.  

An unfamiliar term might include a technical reference from a hobby like parachuting, because not everyone does it.  A familiar term could come from the common reference of growing up.  Or the fear experienced when parachuting, since we can all relate to fear.

2. Familiar metaphors

Steve Jobs introduced familiar metaphors to Apple’s user interfaces to make them intuitive.  Nobody needs to explain to you what a waste basket does on the desktop.  Nor what a physical swipe is for: it’s familiar to anyone who’s turned a page.  Even a four year old can operate a phone or tablet thanks to these physical metaphors.  

To find a familiar metaphor for your idea, you have to compare it to something widely known.  Then people ‘get it’ intuitively.  This also makes people feel comfortable, and so learning or adoption barriers are lowered.  

However, some ideas are more challenging.  Or you may want to provoke rather than comfort.  In this case, familiar metaphors can still work: just look for a metaphor that you can compare your idea with.  Describe it as “like this, but different” and the familiar reference serves to aid understanding, but provides contrast at the same time.  Our brains are wired to make sense of the world through contrast, because it is quite literally the basis of how our eyes can see.

One warning: a familiar metaphor should be simple.  Try to ask the metaphor to do too much heavy lifting, and the cognitive strain causes minds to boggle.  

3. Information scent

To borrow again from the online search world, a key concept for designing intuitive websites is what they call “information scent.”  

Information scent is good when people know what to expect.  The key principle is that when you choose a label for something, you are making a promise that must be delivered (or else you will lose trust).

It’s depressingly easy to throw ‘outsiders’ off an idea’s scent.  As experts and business insiders we become blinded by the curse of knowledge.  We get carried away with our concepts and ideas, or feel attracted to clever names or internal jargon.

So choose the labels that will create the right expectations for your audience.  The general rule is that simple, familiar language works best. 


Kill Switch 2: Zombie Words

Some words are like a virus that a Zombie bite would carry.  They’ll put me into a state of mental snooze, robbing me of clear thought and driving me slightly mad.

Zombie words

Author Helen Sword coined this term for the effect that certain words have on mental clarity.  When using adjectives or verbs, she observed that tacking on suffixes like -ity, -tion and -ism prevents clear thinking.  For some reason ‘oxygenation’ sends the brain off to doze, whilst ‘oxygen’ wakes it up.  

In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker offers this advice: “de thing-ify” your words.  He suggests that we use the natural language of speech for actions, comparisons and outcomes.  So rather than say, “body mass index is an increasing function of food intake” you can say “the more you eat, the fatter you get.”  

The Zombie effect is caused by the abstraction virus.  Google defines abstraction as “the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events.”  Abstract words remove ideas from their reality.  They give the brain more work to do in order to connect the dots.  Our unconscious brains are optimised for quickly scanning and navigating the physical world, using our mental maps of how the world works.  Based on these maps, we make predictions.  So we like words rooted in the physical world of things, actions and results.


Clichés have the same soporific effect as Zombie words.  Their familiarity is probably why we often hear ourselves mumbling clichés (and cringing inwardly afterwards), but in this case familiarity is negative.  Why?  Well the familiar language and metaphors we talked about work unconsciously in the background.  By contrast, the cringe-factor of clichés propels them to the foreground, and their familiarity robs them of interest and impact.  They’re boring!

Maria Popova on the blog Brain Pickings nails the problem on its head (whoops), defining the cliché as a “semantic representation of a reusable template-expression.”  A terrible Zombie phrase, but accurate.  When used in business, “template-driven” is a term that implicitly demeans.  It implies dumbing-down.  And “re-usable” is associated with common and cheap rather than rare and valuable.  Clichés devalue what we say, rather than adding value.

So remove them, or at least minimise them. When you simply must use one, try to give it a fresh twist.  Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style offers advice on re-constructing clichés.  For example, saying “the bath was empty, and the baby gone” is better than the over-familiar alternative.


Kill Switch 3: Confabulation

My unconscious mind knows the most important personal projects that I’m working on, even when I’m not thinking about them.  Or attempting to push my worry to the back of my mind.  

The concept of personal projects is exploited by many fiction authors, as I learned at a recent Guardian Masterclass run by the journalist and author Will Storr.  Authors exploit the fact that the right hemisphere of the brain has no direct access to the voice.  

Experiments have shown that when you split the right and left sides of a person’s vision, the two sides of their brain function almost independently.  When the person is then asked about what happened, the left brain - which controls the voice - is totally unaware.  

In story-telling, this can be used with great effect to create characters that strike us as very real, thanks to their complex and unpredictable reactions to people and events.  As Will Storr said, “an author can reveal an internal narrative that changes in relation to a friend, when that friend gets in the way of a core project.”  

It is human nature for our inner narratives to change almost immediately, to justify the unconscious mind’s desire to further its personal projects.  Or, in what psychologists call “confabulation” we might tell ourselves stories when the truth is that we don’t know why we are doing or saying things.  The commonly heard expression “I heard myself saying” serves as testimony to this frequent experience.

Dr Brian Little defines personal projects as “extended sets of personally relevant action that range from daily chores (e.g., ‘order more USB keys, again’) to defining life commitments (e.g., ‘Be sensitive to my partner’s needs, always’).”  

Personal projects unconsciously guide our thoughts and actions.  They help us to home in on the opportunities that move things forward.  According to Dr Little’s research from 1993, the average person has 15 personal projects.  He explains, “Some projects serve to anchor an individual’s project system as a whole and are deeply infused with a sense of self-identity.  These foundational, self-defining projects we call core projects.”

Each person in your audience is motivated by their personal projects.  Some are shared, some are private.  By putting your idea in service of their personal projects, you will unconsciously persuade them, as their inner voices start to like the idea.  We experience this when marketers pitch us products that we don’t need (but want), and we start to justify our desires to ourselves.  Of course, there is a fine line between manipulation and influence.  You know you’re about to cross it when the consequences for someone will act against their interests.  

Discovering personal projects, and thus people’s true motives, requires that you invest in the relationship.  Get to know your audiences over time, and you will see patterns.  You probably share some projects with your audience, and so these are easy to intuit.  

The patterns that reveal hidden projects can be detected by observing what people say, and what they show you through their actions.  But when asked directly, take their words with a pinch of salt: they might be confabulating, or just telling you what you want to hear.


Kill Switch 4: Stuck on the Fence

When you need me to get off the fence and do something, then there is a call to action that I just can’t ignore.  If you trigger my sense of moral outrage, I will feel I just have to do something about it.  Not doing so would put me in conflict with myself.  

Here are two ways to trigger moral outrage.

Method one: get really specific and detailed.  Avoid generalisations.  In fundraising, for example, charities know that talking about the “3 million people” affected by a disaster is not as effective as telling a story about “the nine year old girl called Amira, and her family’s plight.”  

We don’t identify with generalities like “them” or large amorphous groups like “country.”  We identify with specific stories and the people that feature in them.  Authors use descriptive language to paint a picture of a scene so that we see the movie playing in our heads.  

Use specific examples, and tell stories, that bring your idea to life.  And make an appeal to their sense of outrage.

Method two: tap into people’s own stories of David vs Goliath.  Will Storr shared with us in his Guardian Masterclass a pattern that he’d seen repeated many times in his life as a journalist.  In the stories we tell ourselves, many of us cast ourselves as David against our Goliath.  Our brains are hero-makers.  It is no accident that authors write stories about under-dogs: we love them.  

So think about the casting for your idea: does it make sense to appeal to people’s support for the under-dog?  If it does, the fight against impossible odds can inspire your audience to see themselves playing central roles in scenes of the future.


Kill Switch 5: Lack of momentum

Like your idea, every book or movie is a story about change.  

Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey: the universal structure of story-telling that can be seen in ancient myths and legends from all corners of the globe.  Hollywood later adopted this structure to pull the strings of our deepest collective yearnings (and open our wallets).  Its known as the story arc.  Even best-sellers in the narrative non-fiction genre do it, like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point book.

The building blocks of a story are scenes.  Scenes move the story forward.  That’s why stories make for great escapism.  They delete the boring bits in between - that we call ‘real life’ - leaving just exciting scenes that propel the story forward.

The concept of scenes is very useful when thinking about our ideas, because scenes are where the change happens.  An encounter with a mentor, an enemy, or a challenge - in the form of an internal struggle or an external event - can all provide momentum for change.

Aline Brosh McKenna, the screen play writer of The Devil Wears Prada, has succinctly summarised the key ingredient for moving a story forward.  She says that you want to have a “because” in between scenes, rather than a “and then.”  The “and then” link makes for a logical flow, but hardly raises the heart beat.  

A compelling story starts with the human reasons for change: the “because” or what Simon Sinek calls our “why.”  People aren’t magnetically attracted to what we do or how we do it.  They are attracted to why we do what we do.  So if you can position your idea as the “because” link between two scenes of an unfolding story, you can answer the audience’s question “why should I care?”  And the idea becomes not only tangible, but the scenes link it to their sense of time and urgency.


To summarise, these five triggers provide my unconscious brain with the clues it needs to speed up my mental processing.  Without being slowed down by the cognitive strain of trying to figure out what you mean and why I should care, my brain can move on to making the right connections.  

I have mental focus.  I have a clear grasp of your idea, and how I can use it.  And I can feel its gravity.

Thomas Board3 Comments