Geithner Gives Lesson in How to Pitch an Idea

I have no idea whether Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s plan to save the banks will work. I certainly hope it does work.

But the plan he laid out yesterday is a nice example of how to get people excited about an idea: give a detailed plan.

If you recall, Geithner’s initial discussion of plans to save the banking business last month were not well-received.


 The universal complaint was that the ideas were too vague.  The stock market plunged.  And as I noted in a recent blog post, one of the ways to screw up a pitch is to give a vague plan of how to help your prospect.

What a difference some details can make.

Yesterday, the market soared almost 500 points on news of Geithner’s proposal to revive the banking industry.    And note the headline of the New York Times article, “Rescue Plan With Some Fine Print Dazzles Wall Street.”

The point is that the selling is often in the details. If you give your listeners a clear and well-defined plan — with fine print — there’s a good chance that they’re going to get excited.  Those details help your prospect visualize success. They think “Oh yeah. Now I see how this is going to work! That’s exciting!”

And if you’re trying to make a sale, that’s a very good thing.

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Public Speaking Tip from James Bond

“Bond . . .  James Bond.”

Today is the premier of the newest Bond film “Quantum of Solace.”

And it gives us an excuse to talk about something that the British superspy does as well as anyone: pause.

The power of the pause is that is conveys a sense of confidence. So often, people feel a need to fill every moment with words. But it shows supreme confidence to allow silence to settle in.  

And if there’s one thing that Bond has, it’s confidence.

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Five Keys to Making Your Pitch Like a Test Drive

Buying a car is easy. You go to the Honda dealership. You say, “I’d like to test drive the new Civic.”

The salesman says, “Sure. Let me get you the keys.”

You give it a spin and you get a feel for it. You know pretty quickly whether the car is right for you.

Hiring a service provider for your business is much more difficult. You can’t take an architect for a test drive. You can’t ride around in a lawyer.  You can’t hop inside your accountant and give him a spin.

That’s why your sales pitch should do everything possible to give your prospect the closest thing possible to a test drive. Everything in your pitch should be aimed at giving your prospect a sense of what the experience of working with you will be like. 

There are five keys.

Key 1. Focus your message on a solution to the prospect’s key business problem. The prospect is not hiring a law firm. It’s buying a solution to a troublesome legal problem.  Your main job in a pitch is not to show your credentials. Your main job is to give the prospect a sense of your proposed solution to their business problem.

Key 2. Keep your message simple. From the prospect’s perspective, one of the main experiences of working with you will be meetings, conference calls and other forms of spoken interaction.  Your prospect wants to know if you are able to speak to her in a way that is simple and easy to understand. If your presentation is simple and user-friendly, that says a lot about what it will be like to work with you. It says that you’ll be user-friendly. And that’s good.

Key 3. Be passionate.  If you’re hired, the prospect is going to have to spend a lot of time with you.  If they see that you’re passionate, then they’re going to sense that spending time with you will be a pleasure. What if you’re not passionate about your work? Consider a new line of work.

Key 4. Be interactive. Make sure that the prospect has plenty of time to ask questions and discuss your ideas. Q&A is a test drive of the intellect.  The more interactive the presentation, the more the prospect gets a feel for what a meeting with you would be like. That’s a good thing.

Key 5. Rehearse. Good preparation is obvious to the prospect. If you show up well prepared, it gives your prospect a feel for how well you’ll be prepared for them on a daily basis.

Follow these five keys and you’ll give your prospect a sense of what it will be like to work with you. It’s the closest you can come to giving your prospect a test drive.

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Five Storytelling Tips From Barack Obama


When Sen. Barack Obama made history last week, I wrote a post about his skills as a storyteller.  I included the above clip from YouTube, in which he tells the story of his first trip to Greenwood, S.C. and how it produced his campaign’s signature chant “Fired Up! Ready to Go!.”

I’ve thought more about the Greenwood story and I think there are five storytelling lessons we can take away.

Lesson 1: Start with the Point

Like all good storytellers, Obama begins with the point. “I want to [tell] a story that some of you know. It shows the importance of one voice. It’s a story of my first trip to Greenwood.”

In addition to ensuring that your listeners get the point, starting with the “moral” creates a mystery that drives the narrative. Knowing the story’s destination, listeners pay attention to unravel the mystery of how to get to that destination.

Let’s say that you’re an attorney giving a presentations about litigation strategies. You might start a story by saying, “I want to tell you a story that illustrates how little mistakes can lose a lawsuit.”  If your listeners want to win lawsuits, they’ll listen carefully to find out how.

Lesson 2: Narrate Chronologically.

Obama allows his story to unfold as a series of chronological events.

I fly into Greenville and get in late. It’s about midnight. I get to my hotel about 12:30. I’m exhausted. I’ve been campaigning for 10 straight days and I miss my daughters. I miss my wife. I’m dragging my suitcase into my hotel room when suddenly I get this tap on my shoulder. I look back. It’s my staff person who says, “Senator, we’ve got to wake up at 6 am tomorrow.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because we have to go to Greenwood like you promised.”

Of course, Obama could have just said, “We woke up early and drove to Greenwood.” But that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as allowing the story to unfold in movie-like fashion.

Any business person can enliven their presentations with the same narrative style. You could say, “My CFO was angry.”  Or you could say, “I went in to see my CFO to discuss our budget. Sitting behind his desk, he looked angry. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’ve decided that you’re either an idiot or are trying to make me angry. Which is it?’”

The narration is more interesting.

Lesson 3: Details make it live.

Obama includes vivid details.  Once he arrives in Greenwood, S.C. he describes meeting Edith Childs, who originated the chant “Fired up! Ready to Go!”

“She’s dressed like she’s going to church,” he said. “She’s got her church hat on.” The church hat brings the story to life.

I worked with a lawyer who told a story about an emergency hearing held in a judge’s home. He grabbed his listeners by describing the living room where the hearing occurred.

Lesson 4: Reemphasize the point.


Obama ends by reminding the listeners of the point: “One voice can change the world.” Reemphasis brings finality.


Lesson 5: Practice


Obama has told the Greenwood story many times, refining it with practice. Great story tellers rehearse a lot. Stories tighten with age.


Learn to tell a story. As Obama knows, it’s a skill that can take you a long way.

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Stories in a Sales Pitch Give a “Taste of the Wine”

I hate buying wine because you can’t taste it until you get home.  And by then, it’s too late.

Buyers of business services have the same problem.  You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right lawyer until the judge renders the verdict. You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right architect until you have the very expensive drawings in hand. You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right contractor until you’ve spent $50 million dollars on a new office building.

That is why sellers must tell success stories as part of a sales pitch. It gives the prospect a chance to “taste the wine” before they buy.

Let’s say that you’re pitching for a chance to defend a lawsuit in a complex anti-trust matter. The company is considering three extremely prestigious law firms. 

Just looking at the resumes, won’t give a sense of how well any of the firms will perform in this particular lawsuit. But if you tell a detailed story about how you defended a similar lawsuit and won, it gives a prospect a sense of what result they can expect before they make a decision. It gives the prospect a “taste of the wine before they buy the bottle”.

Of course, other factors play into the decision. Personality and relationship are important.

But one key factor in the decision will be whether the prospect can get a feel for the result they will get prior to making a decision. Stories help give that feel.

Tell stories during your presentations. They give your listeners a “taste of the wine.”

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Have the Courage to Focus on a Single Hot Button

During a presentation yesterday to a group of about 150 economic developers from communities across the country, I made the point that the best way to start a sales pitch is to detail what you understand as your prospect’s single biggest challenge.  “Then you promise to help them find a solution to that challenge,” I explained. “The rest of the presentation delivers on that promise.”

As I said it, there was a man seated in the front row who squirmed uncomfortably.

“I just don’t agree with that,” he said, interrupting me. “That’s dangerous.”

I love being challenged during a presentaiton. It’s a chance to liven things up.

“Why do you disagree?” I said, smiling patiently.

“There are usually many hot buttons,” he said. “You risk missing the other ones if you just focus on one.”

He was right. You do risk missing one if you narrow your focus. But it’s a risk that you should take.

Of course prospects have lots of problems.  But you’re job in a pitch is to find out the single biggest one that you can help solve and focus on it. 

You have a limited amount of time in your sales presentation, usually only 30-45 minutes. A good pitch offers a solution to a prospect’s business problem. But no one can credibly propose a good solution to four or five major business problems in a single short presentation.

Of course, picking a single major problem can be scary.  The gentleman seated in the front row today was scared of picking the wrong one.

Here’s my response. “Don’t pick the wrong one.”

The best sellers hedge their bets with due diligence, working the phones and building the relationships.  That allows you to be confident in judging the prospect’s key problem.

And of course you can touch on other key issues as you go through your presentation.

But the best pitches propose a solution to a single key business problem.

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Baby-Faced Spokespeople are More Believable

If you have a tough message to deliver, put on your best baby face.  That’s the message from a new study done by Columbia Business School.

It turns out that controversial messages are more believable if the spokesperson has a “baby-ish” looking face. People with baby faces — big eyes, high foreheads, small chins and small noses — tend to be perceived as trustworthy, according to the study conducted by Prof. Gita Johar of Columbia along with with Profs. Gerald Gorn and Yuwei Jiang of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

According to an article released recently by Columbia:

Subjects were shown fictitious news articles describing mild or severe side effects caused by a drug. The articles were accompanied by different pictures of CEOs, some baby-faced and some with more mature-looking faces. When side effects were described as less severe, subjects reported believing the baby-faced CEOs more often than the mature-faced CEOs. But there are limits to the baby-face effect: when side effects were described as being more severe, subjects were less likely to trust either the baby-faced or the mature-faced CEOs’ claims of ignorance.

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Persuasion Tip from Tennis Legend Arthur Ashe

When I was a kid, my favorite tennis player was Arthur Ashe, who won the 1968 U.S. Open and became, as an amateur, the first African-American to win a men’s major tennis championship.    I was watching a televised documentary about him last night when I learned an interesting tidbit about his life and his skills as an orator.

In 1973, Ashe traveled to South Africa to play a tournament, despite the protests of anti-apartheid activists. He wanted to play there not to support the government, but to build relationships that would eventually help with anti-apartheid protests.

During his visit, he took time out from the competition to visit a local university and debate a college professor on the subject of apartheid.

During the debate, Ashe identified an elderly black man who was seated in the audience next to a white man. “All that is well and good sir,” Ashe apparently said to the professor. “But how do you explain how that man is not allowed to vote and that man seated next to him is allowed to vote? How do you explain how that man is not free and the man seated next to him is free?”

It was a turning point in the debate and incredibly powerful.

The lesson here is that often the simplest analogies are the most powerful.  Ashe used the members of the audience to shame his opponent into admitting the unfairness of the apartheid system.

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Focus Your Pitch on the Hole, Not the Drill


Here’s a sales pitch fable.


There once was an associate in a hardware store named Johnny. The store had begun carrying what the associate considered the best power drill on the planet. It was the SuperDrill 5000. This drill was a super-duper hand-held model that came with dozens of drill bits. The SuperDrill 5000 was so light anyone could use it with ease. It was extremely powerful. It was fully portable and held a charge for twice as long as the other drills. And above all, it was absolutely beautiful. Johnny had been selling drills for years and yet he still got a slight thrill every time he looked at the SuperDrill 5000. 


One day, Janet walked into the store and went to the drills. 


“Interested in a drill?” said Johnny.


“Yes,” she said, “I need to drill a few holes for a doghouse I’m building for my dog Baloo.”


“Have you thought about the SuperDrill 5000?” As Johnny said the words, he felt a thrill of excitement. He thought, “How could anyone not fall in love with the SuperDrill 5000”


When Johnny described all the features of the drill, Janet could hear Johnny’s passion; she could see it in his eyes.


Then she pointed to another drill, the K-250—a lesser drill in every respect. “But this drill costs a third as much,” she said.


Johnny scoffed at the K-250, reminding her of all the features of the SuperDrill 5000. “This drill comes complete with twenty-four drill bits. And it’s so light.”


“But I only need to drill four holes to make my dog house,” she responded. In the end, Janet bought the lesser drill.


What the moral of this fable? 


People buy holes, not drills.


Put another way, people buy solutions, not products or services. Always. So you should never pitch anything else.


Don’t pitch your law firm. Pitch a solution to the law suit. Don’t pitch your architecture firm, pitch a solution to the owner’s building design needs. Don’t pitch a piece of software. Pitch a solution to a business problem. 


Pitch solutions. Always.

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