As marketers and salespeople we are good at generating ideas. Where we often fail is pitching them. Why does this happen?

According to University of California business professor Kimberly Elsbach, it comes from preconceived notions about us (the pitchers) and our audience (the catchers).  Elsbach says:

“Before you know it, your audience has placed you in a neat little box, defined by stereotypical biases and images of what they think you represent.”

Knowing how you’ll be stereotyped gives you a leg up in how to control the pitch.  Elsbach came to this conclusion by observing the pitches of both Hollywood screen writers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, which as it turns out  – have a lot in common.

Both are strong stereotypes – that pitch highly creative, high stakes ideas – along with requests for piles of money in order to execute the idea. Money and risk always create a drama-packed, emotional situation that has the potential to blow up if not managed. The requisite step to cooling things off, says Elsbach, is to identify which stereotype your catcher will likely place you (which allows you to play to – and control – the catcher’s expectations).

Elsbach’s research identifies three pitcher stereotypes:

The Showrunner, the seasoned business leader, combines charisma with an implementation track record to win people over. Catchers often see showrunners as good politicians that know how to sell and navigate organizations. They don’t however – expect showrunners to pitch the most creative idea possible, rather to pitch what’s workable and practical.

The Artist, often possesses the showrunner’s charisma, but is less slick and far less conformist. Artists really don’t care about implementation; they are passionate (and highly possessive) about their idea. They sell by commanding the catcher’s imagination.

The Neophyte turns youth and inexperience into a strength – to illustrate what’s really possible if we’ll just let go of old baggage.  Sure, neophytes are naïve, but they use this as a way to come off as refreshing. Unlike the artist, who fiercely identifies with the idea, the neophyte is almost detached from the idea, laying it out as a gift to anyone who wants it, using their selflessness to charm the pitcher.

Armed with this information, marketers can position their idea relative to what their audience is really looking for: a wildly new, brilliant idea that breaks old norms and convention, a great idea that will likely encounter resistance, but will use convention to succeed, or a good idea that will improve what’s already in place without threatening anyone.  

Where pitches fail is lack of alignment. For example, a Showrunner pitches an idea to a catcher that’s expecting a highly imaginative idea (something you’d get from an artist).  Artists of course, shouldn’t be used when time, money and risk mitigation are the catcher’s priorities. Neophytes are great when the catcher is looking for some fresh thinking from someone who is not invested in old norms (because they have not personally experienced them).

So, it all comes back to Walter Cronkite’s sage advice: know your audience.

Given what you know about the perceived weaknesses of these stereotypes, you can complement your pitcher with his or her opposite to fill in any gaps. There’s a lot more to Elsbach’s research, including some good scenarios of all three pitcher types – along with other insight from people who have studied creativity.

You can read a summary of her research, titled “How to Pitch a Brilliant Idea” in the Harvard Business Review. It’s a great read and will leave you with lots of ways to improve your pitch success rate.

Another great resource is a company called Second Story (now part of SapientNitro), which approaches marketing through a storytelling lens.



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