The Toddler’s Guide to Salesmanship

ToddlerCommunication_Kah_Zanon
They wreck our stuff, kill our sleep and chase away our non-parenting friends. But we still love ‘em and want to take care of them. I’ve learned a lot about effective persuasive communication from my three-year-old.

And it only makes sense. Toddlers are too small to do much, and lack their own credit cards, but they need the same food, shelter, love and amusements that anyone else does. All they have are their powers of persuasion.

These suggestions aren’t (just) tongue-in-cheek. Try them out in your own communication to make some stronger connections.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself

Parents of young children are typically broke, frustrated, chronically anxious, time-crunched and sleep-deprived. In this, they strongly resemble customers.

Toddlers know that when you’re speaking to a distracted audience, you might have to repeat your message 6 or 7 (or 60 or 70) times to get heard.

Repetition at toddler levels will drive your customers out of their minds. But you can repeat your message a lot more often than you think you can. Just like exhausted parents, your customers are only listening to you with half an ear. Be sure you’ve made your point enough times for them to get it.

Grown-up tip: Look for varied ways to convey the same message, or you’ll run into Are We There Yet Syndrome.

Look for ways to surprise and delight

My boy imperiously demanded some animal crackers the other day. “Animal crackers!”

“Hmm, what could you say that would make me want to give you animal crackers?” I said, in that mom way I have.

“Animal crackers, darling?” he said.

Darling bought him a lot more animal crackers than please would have. Their ability to surprise us and make us laugh is a big part of what keeps toddlers alive on those difficult parenting days.

Grown-up tip: It’s not always easy for us to reproduce the sideways logic of a toddler. Start by capturing all your ideas, including (especially) goofy ones. Set aside some time regularly to noodle on communication ideas that are “too silly” or “can’t work for me.”

When you come up with something both simple and surprising, you may just have a winner.

Use the language of your audience

The other day, my always-entertaining small person looked me in the eye and asked soberly, “Mama, is Papa maybe not a morning person?”

One of the vastly amusing things about toddlers is the way they repeat our phrasing exactly. This gets kind of stressful when we start worrying about the kid getting kicked out of Montessori school for R-rated language. But mostly it’s one of the great joys of hanging out with little kids.

Toddlers know that we hear best when we get a message that uses our own words.

Grown-up tip: One of the less-known uses of surveys and testimonials is to find the language of your customers. Look through everything your customers send you for wording you can mirror back to them. Artful, “writerly” language isn’t nearly as important as using the words and phrases that your customers do themselves.

Added 6/21: Don’t miss Bob Hoffman’s brilliant observation in the comments below that “clients are just toddlers with money.”

If you found this post useful, subscribe to my free email class on creating better content!

Flickr Creative Commons image by Kah_Zanon

Relationship Marketing Series #3: Come Out of the Closet

fancy-chihuahuaA young blogger recently came out of the closet. Her long-term relationship had just fallen apart, she was heartbroken, and she just didn’t want to keep up any more pretenses.

The interesting part wasn’t coming out about her sexual orientation. Anyone who still cares about that is someone you can definitively do without. (Not counting your parents, that part is still pretty hard.) The interesting part was her coming out about her hatred of long-form squeeze pages, autoresponder sequences and FaceBook.

She was a dutiful student of a high-profile Internet marketing program that fed all of these things to their students. She repeated them like a good girl on her blog, and carefully let her readers know about her progress. She researched her niches and keywords and worked on her backlinks.

Finally, when she was too heartbroken to give a damn, she confessed that all this stuff seemed spammy, pointless and gross.

Aha, now that is interesting.

You’ll never be remarkable dancing to someone else’s song

Our heartbroken young blogger was pretty good at the paint-by-numbers routine. She stood out on the forums, she got herself noticed, she built a little following. She was doing perfectly OK.

But that little jolt of authenticity woke her readers up and made them really pay attention. A lot of them admitted they hate that stuff too. Telling the truth opened up a space for real connection, for real passion. Her little band of followers noticed, and told her so. She’d found something real, and the value in that was palpable.

I don’t know if she’ll take advantage of that opportunity to create a new niche for herself. Maybe she’ll market to the legion of folks who don’t much like hideous squeeze pages and spam tactics. Maybe (hopefully) she’ll use that energy to come up with something really unpredictable. If she’s going to find real success, that’s the right place to look.

Some of the step-by-step Internet marketing programs look a lot like factory work to me. Take part A, connect it to part B like you were shown how to do, repeat until someone gives you new instructions.

Nobody buys it anyway

It’s interesting how hard it is to pull off being something you’re not. No one actually believes that your business is bigger than it is (and anyway, we all know Small is the New Big). No one is willing to read through the pile of verbiage you’re using to describe your leveraged dynamic synergies.

Most of all, no one gives a rat’s ass about the huge investment of energy you spend trying to be like everyone else.

Most of us (maybe not Pema Chodron or the Dalai Lama, but the rest of us) spend most of our time and energy carefully cultivating our masks. And those masks are almost universally a) laughably transparent, and/or b) boring.

It seems simple, and it is, but it’s also hard. Being remarkable means being different. “Different” is not actually all that far from “weird.”

The great thing about the Internet is you can now find all the people in the entire world who are weird in the same way you are. (That’s the only definition you really need for the Long Tail.) It’s your own cheap, portable New York City. Everything is here–and you get to make a connection with the other weirdos who value your precious, unique brand of freakiness.

One of the great cornerstones of marketing (note to self, must add this to the marketing tool kit for my newsletter) is differentiation. You’ll also see it called the unique value proposition or unique selling proposition. You need to find out, and communicate, what makes you unlike all of your customers’ other options. What makes you uniquely valuable. What makes you interesting. What makes you remarkable.

What makes you weird.

It turns out your mom was right. Just be yourself, and someone will love you exactly as you are.

When I was a young adult, it never, ever occurred to me that I might be passionate about business–or, even worse, marketing. I grew up in a solidly lefty household and majored in the hardest liberal arts subject I could find and lived in Berkeley. We just didn’t think about these things. Coming out of the closet for me meant actually acknowledging my interest in (gasp) how corporations work and (gasp) how to convince people to buy things.

Since I finally figured out my own orientation (with a little denial and shame along the way), things have started to come together for me. I’m finding work I think is deeply cool. I’m making connections with smart people I admire. And I can pay the mortgage by doing interesting stuff, which is always very nice.

Just don’t tell my dad. He’s cool about a lot of things, but he’d never understand this one.

The Relationship Marketing Series

Be Happy, Make Money, Help Others

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Maureen reminded me that it’s really hard for many nonprofit organizations to get over their unhelpful mindset around money. Nonprofit workers often have limited (or hostile) ideas about wealth that get in the way of their goals to mobilize a lot of resources and help a lot of people.

I’ve been working on some materials to try and help people get over what I’m calling "financial anorexia," or a damaging and unhealthy fear of financial success. (It’s not limited to nonprofits–plenty of small-business owners and hopeful entrepreneurs have the same problem.)

I’ll let you know how that project is coming along, but in the mean time, Boing Boing has pointed us to a terrific post about working for success in a nonprofit setting.

Here’s my favorite quote (because this is out of context, I added some italics for clarity or emphasis):

You have to get as passionate about talking to the people with as you are
talking to the people without. Because we need each other, and you’re the bridge
person. If you were just desperate and needing of services and help, you
wouldn’t be working at a not-for-profit. If you were a gazillionaire, you
probably also wouldn’t be working at a non-profit. So you are the person whose
job it is to bring the haves and the have-nots together. And you have to be
passionate about that.
Yeah, somebody will say "You self promote! You’re
self-promoting!" Fine, and proudly so! Get that out of your mind as a barrier,
and look at the service you can provide . . .

If you can overlook the really unfortunate term "she-roes" (feminine of heroes, oh dear), this is a kickass post about how to get over yourself and help more people.

The art of happiness
While I’m at it, in honor of Boxing Day and the other solstice-ish holidays we’re celebrating, I give you this link on happiness. I debated posting it, but the more I work with small businesses (and large ones, for that matter), the more I realize that getting smart about how to be happy makes everything else work better. The article is written from a Buddhist point of view, but the concept of Little Me is unbelievably useful no matter what your belief system.

And thanks also to Senia for pointing me in the direction of a terrific book, Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. It’s all about the serious research that’s been done on chasing the unicorn of happiness. I’ve been reading and re-reading it all month and I have a lot of new ideas for integrating the science of happiness with the art of business. Very cool stuff.

It’s Time to Get off our Ass and Save the World

Istock_000003374582xsmall Seth Godin directed our attention this morning to an organization called Room to Read, a nonprofit group that builds schools and libraries for children in some of the world’s poorest rural communities.

Here are some stats from their site. In the past seven years, they’ve built 287 schools, established more than 3,700 libraries, published 146 new local-language children’s book titles (with a more than 1.3 million total print run), provided 1.4 million English-language titles, funded 3,448 long-term scholarships for girls, and established 136 computer and learning labs.

Total number of children provided with access to books so far? 1.3 million. And they’re not even thinking about slowing down.

Their founder is a guy named John Wood, who learned how to move fast and aggressively (and to think huge) as a senior marketing and biz dev exec for Microsoft.

He’s shown an impressive immunity to being overwhelmed. His response to the challenge of lifting 10 million children out of illiteracy, in a 2002 interview with Fast Company, was "Why is that not possible? Microsoft doubled every year in its early days. Cisco more than doubled every year. I worked in a lot of different organizations at Microsoft that doubled year to year, and none of us thought it was incredible."

Welcome to the new philanthropy
Organizations like The Acumen Fund, Kiva, and of course The Gates Foundation are taking their tactics from the big-picture, big-action dotcom culture–and it’s working.

There are a lot of reasons Room to Read has been successful. One that interested me is that Wood and the organization he runs aren’t at all shy about asking for large sums of money. One aspect of their model essentially "sells" a school to a donor for $5,000. Woods has the experience to know that for his audience, $5,000 is a puny amount of money balanced against the satisfaction of seeing a school built and hundreds of children’s lives changed forever. He knows his market, he knows what drives them, and he knows that price is pretty elastic.

In simple marketing terms, Wood has the right message and the right offer. He has a strong, benefits-oriented tag line ("World change starts with educated children.") He has a good hook (impoverished local communities co-fund the schools, providing exceptional local accountability and buy-in) that speaks to the language and concerns of his customers. His value proposition–a package that presents the problem, the solution, the price tag, and the tracking that guarantees accountability–is sound.

His campaign has all the ingredients of any intelligently-run marketing campaign. His product just happens to be saving the world.

Traditional nonprofits are often run by folks who think "ethical marketing" is a contradiction in terms. They’re extremely smart about real life stuff like helping people in need, but often not so smart about the business and marketing that could help them accomplish that. Their staff and volunteers have a strong tendency to hate and fear the rich, and it’s never a good idea to communicate with anyone you hate and fear. And career nonprofit types are sufficiently accustomed to living on ramen and good luck that they have a hard time saying, "The best part is, it only costs $5,000."

Those organizations are still doing incredible things and alleviating suffering, and I mean them no ill will or disrespect. But sooner rather than later, their work will be overshadowed by this new model. And since the new model has the potential to work incredibly well, I celebrate that.

It’s time to quit making excuses and save the world, already
It’s easy to lose sight of it in the depressing information clutter after 9/11, but we actually have a shot at ending extreme poverty on this abused little planet. Not just in my two-year-old’s lifetime, but in my lifetime.

The technology of making stuff has gotten so good that we can make enough stuff for everyone (if we figure out the energy thing, which we will). New tools and new business models let us think on a global scale and act accordingly. A fractured status quo provides a lot of air and light for revolutionary ideas. Massive action is tricky to take in any context, and a lot of excuses have always been made about third-world inefficiencies, but the new players are looking at factors–cheap labor, social cohesion, powerful aspirations–that can make third-world projects workable on surprising scale.

My challenge to the bright, wired oddballs who read this blog is to get out there and find a way to help out. Together we and our bright, wired oddball kin are smart and obsessed enough to do this thing.

In the words of John Wood back in 2002,"We’ve helped 100,000 kids gain access to books so far. That is one one-hundredth of 1% of the illiterate people on this earth. So congratulations. Get your ass back to work."

Related reading:
An End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs
Fast Company’s 2002 interview with John Wood
How evil is Bill Gates?
Room to Read’s Web site
We are not powerless
The WILD Foundation and the Umzi Wethu project

A Manual for the Odd and Lonesome

Istock_000004325126xsmall Tonight I offer you a lovely post by Shane of Shane and Peter about the process of learning to connect with other people.

I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of folks who read this blog (certainly the person who writes it) can identify with the gawky, geeky boy who didn’t know how on earth to meet all of those other humans milling around him.

I’d tell you what I’ve spent on clothes over the years in an attempt to cloak how hideously freaked out I am at "networking opportunities," but then I’d have to kill you.

(See my Armani and fear me! Grrr!)

It makes me think of the vain little rose in The Little Prince, waving her thorns to show how very very fierce she is. We do an awful lot of dumb stuff–in business, in life–to make ourselves seem fierce and prickly, instead of doing the simple things that would connect us and make things better.

Make eye contact. Smile. Say hi. Then shut up. No thorns required, after all.

In Praise of Crazy Shit

Hugh McLeod announces that after the distraction of well-paid, interesting, rewarding work that’s burning him out, he’s going to refocus his attention on his cartoon blog, for which he makes basically peanuts.

So he’ll be scaling back what’s probably a gigantically sweet deal with Microsoft. Scaling back the sexy, rewarding and highly visible work with Stormhoek. Scaling back the consulting gigs that a lot of us would kill baby harp seals for.

(I am just kidding. Baby harp seals are very cute with lovely dark eyes and I would never kill one, or even hurt its feelings. Please do not send hate email.)

One nice thing about doing truly crazy shit is that it’s almost never wrong. If your gut is so insistent on picking the path that doesn’t make "practical" sense, it’s generally also kind enough to give you a massive whomp of energy to go open about a zillion new doors.

This is not an argument to do dumb shit. This is not "leap and the net will appear." Anyone who’s been around awhile can tell you that sometimes it’s "leap and the bottom of the ravine will appear." If you need a net, don’t leap.

But when you just can’t sleep thinking about that wild hair, your curious monkey mind usually kicks into supergear to figure out how you can make it work. New connections, new business models, new points of intersection. Maybe you can move to Tibet and become a lama. Maybe you can go spend 10 years taking care of AIDS orphans in Lesotho.

Dumb shit, nah. Anyone can do dumb shit, it’s an oversaturated market. But crazy shit can sometimes be the exact right thing.

Is Your Good Taste Costing You Customers?

Logobigger250 Here’s an entertaining video, well-crafted to be virally passed along. Your designer might already have sent it to you. It was passed along to me, I snickered, and sent it to some fellow marketing geeks in my office.

You can study it as a useful example of how to make a video that will get passed along, and it does well at that. But I thought it was interesting that the advice it implies isn’t, necessarily very good.

There’s clearly some mockery of magic bean thinking here–the idea that if you spent a cubic buttload of money on that logo, by damn, you want it big as hell on everything. But notice also the reaction to wanting to get rid of white space. Primitive, right? Philistine. Only an ignoramus with no design sense would consider it.

Unless you’d done any research comparing how well ads pull set against what they cost. Then you might agree with the ignoramus. Leaving lots of expensive white space makes an ad look good, but it typically doesn’t make it pull any better.

Which means your marketing ROI is shrinking proportionate to the ego of your design team. Which isn’t smart.

The starbursts they’re making fun of are indeed hideous, but the practice of having an impossible-to-miss graphic element that tells customers exactly what to do is actually a pretty damned good one. (This is also known as the Big Red Fez principle.)

My point is not to make marketing and advertising more hideous, but to encourage you to think critically about the advice you get from every source, including me. Is your designer pitching a fit over something tacky you want to try? Does your father-in-law call you a naive moron for the approach you want to try in your newsletter? Does your friend’s friend who works for an ad agency (and spends 150% of his paycheck on shoes) sneer at your copywriting?

There is, in fact, one right answer: "Let’s test it."

The people who matter
At the end of the day, no one matters except your customers. (However you define that term.)

And actually, the only customers who matter are the ones who buy from you. Your paying clients or your foundation’s donors or the folks who come to your church services. They’re the ones you have to convince, and the ones you have to please.

If your communication moves them to behavior that you want, it is good communication. And you cannot know whether or not you’ve met that standard if you don’t test.

Not everything tasteful is good. (Not everything tasteful is bad either–you’re no better off listening to some of the cranky old-school hardasses who insist that nothing has changed since John Caples.)

Keep asking questions. Keep testing. And find out for yourself what that white space is doing for you.

The Absence of Fear is not Courage. The Absence of Fear is Mental Illness.

Istock_000002165252xsmall I am awfully pleased for my friend Naomi, who made the front page of Digg yesterday with this post: What to do when you’re scared sh*tless. (Sphinn censored the name by dropping the last word, respectful asterisk and all. How sad is that? It’s also a study in what differentiates a great headline from a mediocre one.)

For those who will read anything that tells you how to get on the front page of Digg, she walks you through that too. She left out several instructions, however. Be smart, funny, relevant and fearless weren’t part of it. Add that stuff and you should have no trouble reproducing her results. Also, put a naughty word in the title. No one can resist that.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably scared shitless about something. You’re starting a new business. You’re starting a big project. You’re juggling a day job and a new business and a big project or two, plus a two-year-old. (Oh, wait, that would be me.) You need to make more connections than you’re making. You need more customers and you need those customers to spend more money, and it would be helpful if they were less of a pain in the ass.

It’s possible you also just like stock photography of monkeys.

Being scared is part of the price of admission. If you aren’t scared, you probably should crawl a little further out on that limb. Everything worth doing will scare the shit out of you.

One nice thing about not being 20 any more is I can look at all that fear and say, Oh, right, that’s just fear. It goes away. It may not be comfortable (actually it may feel a lot like being eaten by fire ants), but it does, in fact, go away.

Being remarkable is deeply scary. That’s why big dumb companies do such a crappy job at it. There are too many people involved who have to be willing to tolerate that discomfort, to feel their pulse pounding in their ears and that strange feeling in your scalp that suggests your hair might be starting to fall out.

So what are you doing lately that scares the crap out of you? Drop me a comment, we’ll cheer you on.

The most powerful lever to get the results you want

using pain in marketing

There are a lot of tactics to attracting attention on the Internet. You might use pay-per-click advertising, banners, backlinks from trusted sources, a visible presence on social media sites.

But attracting attention is only the very first part of the game. Whether you’re on the Web or using more traditional media, you don’t just want to capture attention–you want your readers to do something.

There’s one tool that works better than any other to move people to action.

Pain, glorious pain
Happy people are hard to persuade. They feel good about their sex lives, their complexions, their parenting skills. There’s no painful lack in their lives, so they don’t seek anything that might solve that lack, or make it hurt less.

Unfortunately for universal human enlightenment but fortunately for marketers, happy people are a myth. Most of us walk around most of the time in just-tolerable discomfort about one thing or another, with the emotional equivalent of a low-grade toothache.

Just in case we’re one of the lucky few who isn’t wired for dissatisfaction, the advertising industry uses every wily trick it has to create dissatisfaction, assisted by TV news, urban legends, social isolation, and other breeding grounds for fear.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would get rid of all that fear and pain, and then I’d have to find something legitimate to do like build houses or wait tables. But since I can’t, there’s always work for me as a marketer, persuading someone in pain to buy something that gets rid of pain.

Is pain-based marketing unethical?
Smart salespeople know that you can convert a suspect (someone who’s heard of you and might buy something one day) to a customer by asking questions to increase their level of perceived pain. Probing questions. Even, if handled deftly, uncomfortable questions.

As the salesperson (or sales letter, or Web site) keeps asking and asking, the prospect gets more and more miserable with the discomfort of his current situation. The reassuring salesperson nods empathetically and sizes up how much the sucker’s got in the bank to solve this mess. Before you know it, our prospect is the proud owner of a timeshare/investment-grade gold coin/junk bond.

This is probably sounding a lot like something out of Glengarry, Glen Ross. But marketing to pain isn’t, by nature, unethical in any way. The expression "find a niche and fill it" should really be "find a source of unresolved pain and remove it." One of the smartest marketing strategies is to find an audience with a bad problem and sell them a product that actually fixes it.

Good nonprofits are some of the most successful users of this technique. It works beautifully on me. I was in a lot of psychic pain (losing sleep, unable to concentrate at work) about the AIDS orphan crisis in Africa. I logged into WorldVision and "adopted" a child in Lesotho for $35 a month. Very cheap solution to my pain.

(Yes, my pain will return in a week or two when I realize that $35 is a tiny drop in a vast bucket. That’s the nature of the thing, and it’s ok. WorldVision will keep marketing to me, giving me the opportunity to up my donations and make more impact. They’ve already got my pledge for an additional $20 a month to help children who have been hit by terrible trauma–children rescued from the sex trade, famine, and civil war.)

Paint two pictures
When you use pain to persuade, your first task is to make two realities very clear.

First, you need to move the prospect out of denial and into full–maybe even miserable–appreciation of his pain. Convey the reality of his pain in detail.

One handy technique is to tell a first-person story. "I was in so much back pain I lost my job." "I was so worried about money that it nearly cost me my marriage." "My family was on food stamps and we had to eat the neighbor’s goldfish." Etc.

First-person stories are good because you can really get in there and wallow. The more humiliating the detail, the better. It doesn’t work as well when it’s a third person story, which can come across as exploitative and manipulative.

It’s an odd trick of the human psyche that most people simultaneously empathize with severe pain and at the same time get a mild charge out of our superiority to it. That’s what makes us slow down at car wrecks, even as we disapprove of all those awful rubberneckers. We’re a disgusting species, but occasionally there’s hope for us.

The second picture is, of course, the blessed relief. The freedom from back pain. The freedom from financial worry. The freedom from acne. The freedom from a job that would make Dilbert quit. Whatever.

The types of pain
Unless the relief comes in the form of easing literal physical pain, we’re generally talking about emotional benefits. It’s interesting how often the underlying pain is abandonment and the payoff is connection. Then again, abandonment/connection is just about the first emotional struggle we engage in as tiny babies, and it still hits us hard.

Other possibilities are humiliation/confidence, drudgery/freedom (which boils down to humiliation/confidence), and of course the Internet marketer’s favorite, poverty/wealth (also, at heart, humiliation/confidence).

The two pictures are usually presented with pain first and relief second, but not always. There are two absolute necessities:

  • The prospect can hold the two pictures, pain and relief, side by side in his mind.
  • The path to move from pain to relief is clear and believable.

Prevention doesn’t sell
More than 100 years of advertising testing have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that most people will not buy prevention of future pain, only relief from existing pain.

For example, Pepsodent toothpaste was one of the great advertising successes of the 20th century, and one of the first multinational brands. It was sold not as a prevention of painful tooth decay, but as a beautification tool removing the "cloudy film" that was a blemish on attractive teeth. Did people know they had the pain of "cloudy film" before they saw the advertising? No. But once they were shown this pain, they ponied up their fifty cents a tube to get rid of it.

Don’t forget that fear and worry are existing pain. If your prospects are worried about something today, they will buy a solution that takes that worry away. And, I blush to say, if you can make them worried about it today, that works too.

Homework
Start noticing when you’re being sold pain. 98% of television, publishing, and of course our friend Internet marketing, exists to pick off the scabs and show off your pain in a fresh new light.

If you use this technique (which, of course, you will), try not to do any evil with it, ok?

Build a better elevator pitch

better elevator pitches
We all know what an elevator pitch is, right? You’ve got 20 seconds to sell something as the elevator goes from the lobby to the 8th floor. What do you say?

Sales pros, entrepreneurs looking for venture capital, chamber of commerce networkers scrounging for customers (even though every one of them is there to sell, not buy)–an elevator pitch is an absolute requirement.

What’s not required is that it be awful.


Elevator pitches that should get you thrown off the top of the building
Here’s a widely distributed formula. Everyone has heard it. For most purposes, it sucks.

For target customers who are dissatisfied with the current alternative, our magnificent product is a breathtaking new category that provides kickass problem-solving opportunity. Unlike lameass competitor, we have assembled mind-blowing product features. We will initially target the specific victims, since they unique problem they couldn’t resolve if you plated it with titanium and sent it to them FedEx. Our freakishly excellent solution solves this problem by vaporizing the problem into infinitesimal molecules of solved-ness.

What do you think your victim will be doing 15 seconds into this? Trying to puncture his eardrums with his Montblanc? Jamming the 8th floor button again and again trying to make the elevator go faster? How fast do your eyes glaze over when someone pulls this on you? This is not a conversation.

Let me be clear–the classic elevator pitch is a superb device for analysis. You have to understand these variables and the way they fit together. But spewing it verbatim (after having rehearsed it to your cat until he horked a hairball to shut you up), in 99 cases out of 100, is highly unhelpful.

Why the elevator pitch doesn’t work
Remember the great scene in The Music Man, where the con man delivers his dog-and-pony show with great fanfare and sells all the rubes?

That approach was highly effective for sideshow carnival barkers and vendors of premium snake oil. In 1917. You could probably find some pockets of innocence where it continued to work until as late as 1950. After that point, you’re pitching to a naive audience that doesn’t exist any more.

The problem with a rehearsed, made-to-formula elevator pitch is that it completely fails to take audience into account.

(Yes, there is an audience for this particular style of pitch. Here’s how you know–if someone says, Give me your elevator pitch, this is what you give them. In that situation, the audience is there to be sold, they want the bullet points, and they have an exaggerated sense of how busy they are.)

But for the most part, human beings in the 21st century hate to be sold. We still have problems that we want solutions for. And god knows we still love to buy. But we don’t want to be sold.

This is even more true of the new social media crowd, many of whom think selling should be punishable by stoning. With very small rocks so it takes longer and hurts more.

Things almost everyone likes

  • Talking about their problems
  • Feeling smart
  • Indulging their whims
  • Rewarding themselves
  • Talking about their problems
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Avoiding pain
  • Avoiding social abandonment
  • Talking about their problems

Things almost everyone hates

  • Salespeople

Conversations go two ways
In the brave new world, marketing communication isn’t a one-way vehicle. It isn’t a speech or a pitch or an ad. It’s a conversation.

The best step-by-step outline I’ve seen for replacing the highly rehearsed elevator pitch with a human conversation is in Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid. He essentially walks you through the classic pitch and gets you to expand and clarify your thinking on each individual point.

What problem do you solve? Who do you solve it for? Who are some people who have had that problem? How did you solve it for them? What is it about your offering that solves that problem in a neat way?

It doesn’t matter if you’re networking at a conference or developing a new landing page on your Web site. You take the steps of the buyer/seller dance and you create a conversation around each one.

You build opportunities for dialogue. You tell stories that show how it works. You ask more questions than you answer. You shut the hell up once in awhile.

Conversations, not pitches. Your audience won’t stand for anything less.