How to Pitch and Persuade

Entrepreneurs are pitching all the time. There are lots of ways to do it better. Framing your powerful presentation as an invitation to collaborate can help you convince others.


Entrepreneurs are pitching all the time. And there’s some really interesting research showing how we can do it a little bit better. The starting point though is understanding the purpose of a pitch. Now I used to think that the purpose of a pitch was basically to convert the other side. You do a little vaudeville routine, ba da da da, and then they agree with you. That’s not right. There’s some great research out of the University of California Davis and Stanford. And what they found is the most effective pitchers didn’t think of their pitch as an attempt to convert. They looked at it as an invitation to collaborate. It was an invitation, come on in with me and work on this idea, share with me your ideas on how we can make this better. That’s what a pitch is. So don’t think of it as an attempt to convert, think of it as an invitation to collaborate.

Every entrepreneur knows about the elevator pitch. The idea is you want to present your idea, your company, your unique selling proposition, in the time it takes to go from the bottom floor to the top floor. Now I have nothing against elevator pitches, but there’s some other fresher, more inventive ways to pitch. Let’s talk about some of them.

There’s the one‑word pitch. This is really powerful. It comes from Maurice Saatchi, the great British ad man. And the idea is what he calls one‑word equity. Which is this, is there a word that when people hear that word they think of your company? When people think of your company they hear that word? You own that word. A great example is search. You say the word search people think of Google. You say the word Google people think of search. That’s one‑word equity. And it’s a very powerful discipline for entrepreneurs to say what’s your word, what’s your one‑word equity, what word do you want to own?

Here’s another one. I call this the Pixar pitch. You make a pitch in a way modeled after the narrative structure of a Pixar movie. The story creators at Pixar have revealed the source code of Pixar movies. And every Pixar movie has a narrative structure that encompassing six simple sentences. It goes like this: Once upon a time, bada bada bah; every day, bada bada bah; one day, da da da da; because of that, da da da da; because of that, da da da da; until finally, da da da da. That is the narrative structure of every Pixar movie, one of the most successful movie studios in the history of humankind. Now there is something powerful about that structure. And a Pixar pitch is pitching your idea, your company, your concept, using the narrative form of a Pixar movie.

And that structure lends itself beautifully to entrepreneurial activities. You say once upon a time everybody did something a certain way. Every day they led a life, there were things that didn’t work very, very well. One day we came along with a way to solve their problem. Because of that, their lives improved. Because of that, something else improved. Until finally people realized that the way to solve their problems, the way to lead a better life is to buy our product. It’s so unbelievably simple and it’s so much at our fingertips. So I encourage, you know, watch a Pixar movie, look at this Pixar pitch and give it a try yourself.

Here’s another interesting way to pitch built on the evidence. It turns out that pitches that rhyme are often more effective than pitches that don’t. Now this seems peculiar, but there’s great research out of Lafayette College. And here’s what they did, they had groups of participants and they divided them into two different groups. One group got a list of Proverbs that rhymed, things like woes unite foes, a caution and measure will win you treasure. The other group got a list of Proverbs that said the exact same thing but didn’t rhyme. Woes unite enemies. Caution and measure will win you riches. And they asked these participants do these Proverbs make sense to you, are they accurate depictions of the human condition. Well surprisingly, the people who read the pitches that rhymed deemed them far more accurate assessments of the human condition than the people who read Proverbs that didn’t rhyme. And when the researchers went back to ask them did the fact that it rhymed make a difference to you they said no, of course not.

But here’s what happened, rhymes increase what’s called processing fluency. They go down easier. And when things‑‑ things that increase processing fluency take just a little bit more. They‑‑ people absorb them just a little bit more powerfully. So alliteration increases processing fluency. Repetition increases processing fluency. So one of the things you see out there is we’re not using rhymes enough. If you look at how kids learn how to read and learn how to speak, it’s nursery rhymes. It’s how we process things. So don’t get too cute about it, but if you have a pitch that rhymes that can be very effective. As I always like to say, pitches that rhyme are quite sublime.

Here’s another one, we don’t use questions enough when we pitch. And there’s some really good evidence showing that we should. The reason is this, questions by their very nature elicit an active response. So if I ask you a question, or if you as an entrepreneur ask your customer a question or your employees a question, the wheels have to turn just a little bit in their heads. Statements, that’s not the case. I make a statement, you make a statement, it can wash over people. And so what happens is that when you ask a question, peoples’ wheels turn just a little bit, they’re more likely to engage. And as a consequence of this, if you have a very strong set of facts on your side, if the evidence is very clearly on your side, persuading with questions is enormously effective. What does it do? It engages the listeners, gets them to process the facts, gets them to evaluate the evidence. And here’s the kicker, gets them to come up with their own reasons for agreeing with you. When people have their own reasons for agreeing with you, they believe those reasons more deeply and adhere to the behavior more strongly. So don’t you think you should start pitching with questions?

Suggested Readings

Founders School || Leadership and Motivation || How to Pitch and Persuade || Impact Guide (PDF).

Pink, Daniel. 2012. To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. NY: Riverhead Books. Chapter 7 “Pitch”.

Wortmann, Craig. 2006. What’s Your Story? Evanston, IL: Sales Engine, Inc.

Guber, P. Four Truths of the Storyteller. Harvard Business Review. 2007.

Watch commencement addresses by Steve Jobs (Stanford, year), J.K. Rowling (Harvard, 2011), and Oprah Winfrey (Harvard, 2013). Observe the stories that they weave during these speeches. Can you find compelling stories in your own experiences?

Here’s a fun assignment: go to and select 10 TEDTalks to watch. Over the course of a few days, watch all 10. As you are watching them, count the number of stories that get told and note whether the stories are “success, failure, fun or legend stories.” Reflect on which stories had the most powerful effect on you. Ask yourself; Why did that story affect me the way it did? Now, in conjunction with the Story Matrix(℠) exercise in a related module, begin to build your story ‘quiver’ so that you will have more impact in your sales meetings.

Questions for You

What have been my most effective pitching strategies? Why?

What new things could I try?

Tools and exercises

What’s your one word equity?