Let me tell you a story about Johnny Miller.
Trust me, you don’t know this Johnny. But I bet you’ve seen one of Johnny’s co-workers walking down your street, knocking on door after door attempting to sell magazine subscriptions. Last weekend I answered the door while blocking my big, loud and unhappy dog who was intent on killing the stranger outside. One hand on the door, one on the dog, I was not an ideal prospect. Johnny, however, had me hooked in 10 seconds. I sidled out to the front step, and before I knew it I was sitting down with a magazine salesman for a product pitch.
When you think door-to-door salesman, the word “inspiring” doesn’t come to mind. Most of my friends would have sooner pretended they were not at home. But being brave, I figured I’d politely brush Johnny off. Little did I know that Johnny, a 21-year old raised in the projects of Charleston, South Carolina, could sell his words, ideas and products brilliantly. I think entrepreneurs can learn a lot from his example.
Many entrepreneurs get the strategy and execution of their pitch completely wrong. Rather than paint a picture in the world of the investor or customer, they make the mistake of focusing on what they make or sell. It is easy to talk about your product or service. It’s what you know, and it’s wonderful, right? As an entrepreneur, you dive in when asked the innocent-sounding question, “so, what do you do?” The truth is that most pitches fall flat and don’t succeed, and that’s where we can learn from Johnny.
Johnny has knocked on 10,000 doors in 3 ½ years of selling subscriptions all over the US, and managed to sell skeptical me with no powerpoint in sight…on words alone. Here’s how he did it:
1. Johnny Engaged Immediately. Johnny got a hook in me immediately.How? I’ll get to that. The point is he knew he had a very thin lifeline. Now take a look at your pitch– verbal or powerpoint – how long is it? And your real lead, the juice, the reason for your faith and enthusiasm in your business – how many slides into the deck is it? If you are doing an executive summary, how far down the first or second page until you get to the heart of your business? I’m getting bored already. Johnny wouldn’t let me get bored or disengaged.
2. Johnny’s Words and Questions Were Honed to Perfection. Johnny used his first twenty words like a scalpel. Have you refined your pitch down to its essence? No empty words? Everyone knows what an elevator pitch is, but why do so few entrepreneurs actually do it well? Listing your lawyer or accountant in your executive summary is a loser move. Endless copy about confidentiality – unnecessary. As Mies Van de Rohe said: less is more. Johnny is a scientist. He experimented in his delivery and discarded losing experiments in favor of winners. Most entrepreneurs keep plowing through the same long turgid prose.
3. Johnny’s Pitch Was Human. Johnny’s pitch did not distinguish between the product and the man selling it – they were one and the same. It’s a given that entrepreneurs fall in love with their technology, product, and design. They love their baby. But even with all that emotion, they make the mistake of pitching very rationally, unlike Johnny, who made his product come alive. The thing is, we human beings are emotion-based decision makers. Here’s an example that plays to pure emotion. My friend Dominic Luzi served as interim CIO at Hästens, a maker of high end beds costing $15,000 to $65,000. I asked Dom how a bed could be worth so much? He told me that his first night in a hotel room with a Hästens bed he wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so before turning in, he lay down on the bed in a full suit, tie, and shoes, just to test it out for a minute. The next thing he knew, it was the following morning and he hadn’t moved an inch from his original spot. There is magic to that bed and all Dom had to do was tell me his experience. Can you get that level of feeling into your pitch?
4. Johnny Listened. Just because it’s a pitch doesn’t mean it’s canned. Yes, hone your message, but don’t go on autopilot. Johnny knew he was selling a basic product. Rather than rambling on about why magazines are great, he asked me what my first job was. And as I blissfully reflected on my past, Johnny listened like his life depended on it. Come to think of it, I guess for him it did.
Johnny is consistently successful in the most brutal form of business combat, the stone cold pitch to a completely uninterested prospect. Get in the mind of your prospect and you’ll win. Thanks for the lesson Johnny. I can’t wait to get my first copy of Vegetarian Times, and I’m not vegetarian.
**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.