Words are powerful, and this power can be harnessed in multiple ways — from what you choose to say, when you choose to say it, and how you choose to communicate it.
Daniel Codella, digital evangelist at Sigma Computing, has studied the psychology of this type of communication and has actionable tips to share on how you can improve your pitching skills as soon as tomorrow.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- The psychological triggers that can help you communicate your pitch more effectively
- Why the order in which you say things matters
- How to successfully communicate major ideas in a meeting
- Why pitching an idea once may not be enough
- Bryan Zmijewski – Twitter
- The Inverted Pyramid
- The Imagineering Story
- 4 Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Stakeholders [blog post]
Amanda: Today on the show, I’m happy to welcome Daniel Codella who is the data evangelist at Sigma. I actually met Danny when he spoke at Content Marketing World, and after I saw his talk I thought this would be a really good topic to adapt to this podcast. So welcome to the show, Danny.
Danny: Thanks so much for having me, Amanda.
Amanda: Of course. So when I saw you at Content Marketing World, you spoke about the psychological traits behind decision making and one of the things you mentioned was that 95% of purchasing decisions happen in the subconscious, which I thought was, that’s really interesting stat that I don’t think a lot of people realize, but it got me thinking about how those types of strategies when you’re communicating can apply to other types of communication, and can help listeners understand the case you’re trying to make. So I’m really excited to kind of see if we can adapt some of the things you talked about to what we’re trying to do on the podcast, which is help people communicate the work that they’re doing effectively so that people get excited about it, they understand it and they get the buy in for it. So one of the first ones I remember was, I think it was called request justification. Can you talk a little bit about that one?
Danny: Definitely. So that’s a psychological trigger, and basically what that means is that people are more likely to comply with a request if they are given a reason, and the funny thing is that it doesn’t even have to be an amazing reason. There just has to be a reason. And so the example that I was sharing at Content Marketing World was this study that was done in the ’60s. People in an office waiting to use a Xerox machine and they would have people cut in line and they’d have some groups say, Oh, excuse me, can I cut in line? And then they had the second group say, excuse me, may I cut in line because I have 15 pages that are overdue, and they found that just by having that “because” statement, 94% of people let people cut in line.
Amanda: I remember that. I was really surprised by that.
Danny: Yeah, it’s crazy. Just having a clear reason is all that matters. And so they started to have people cut in line and just say all sorts of things. We even had one group of people say, excuse me, may I cut in line because I need to make copies and everyone’s in line. So that’s really powerful when you’re trying to build internal support. I think there’s a lot of resources that it takes to carry out a great content marketing strategy, especially these days in such a crowded market. It takes a lot of time and money and investment and people to make good content because we’re all just trying to rise above the noise, and we’re trying to create content that’s not easily replicable by the competition. And so that takes money and effort and resources. And so you really need to sell your stake holders. And so like you said, that’s one of the best ways to do it is to provide a reason and make that reason as compelling as possible.
Amanda: Right. I think I’ve done this. I think everybody at some point in their career has done this. We kind of assume people understand where we’re coming from sometimes. Like to us, we all know our own jobs so well and we forget that other people don’t know every aspect of it as we do, and you might not explain things or provide context for things to the amount at which you should, and I thought this was a really good reminder of that. It’s like for everything you’re trying to pitch, you have to explain why. Why did you come to that conclusion and position it really well for them so that they understand that.
Danny: Yeah, you know there’s this myth that really great ideas are these totally easy to understand, inspiring things that can persevere despite any opposition, and the truth is, is that really great ideas are often very fragile and they need to be kind of shepherded along and protected. And so we might have the most brilliant content marketing idea ever and we think that that’s going to be enough, but it really won’t be. Ideas are fragile and so we need to kind of protect them and make space for them to exist and to grow in peoples’ minds and so that takes a lot of effort. And as content marketers, I was just reading this quote, the study that found that nearly 25% of marketers are finding lack of executive buy in to be one of their biggest challenges.
Amanda: Wow. Yeah.
Danny: And so when you’re presenting to execs, if you’re fighting for budget, if you’re fighting for an additional hire, you really need to go into it with that request justification on your mind. Have the reasons, have the data, have the effects, have exactly what you’re going to need to pull this off. Have that all there for them, and often they may not even have to agree with it, but if they just see that you’ve done the research and you have it prepared, that is often enough to get the okay.
Amanda: Yeah, that’s an interesting point cause like you’re saying sometimes it’s just people having a reason rather than just being like this is what we should do and then because. Those are all really great points. So I think that leading into the next one, which is called serial positioning, and correct me if I’m wrong, but serial positioning has to do with the first thing and the last thing that somebody says ends up being the most memorable. So when you’re coming up with what to say, you have to bookmark your spiel accordingly. Isn’t that right?
Danny: Yeah. This is actually, I think one of the most handy and useful of all the triggers that I’ve been going over in my research. The order in which we are presented with information really matters, and there’s a physiological component to it. There was this great study done by the University of Indiana, and what they found is that things that we hear first, that benefits from something called the primacy effect and so that’s stored in our long-term memory. And the reasoning is that often when we hear a bunch of information or a list of information, what is said first typically is influencing the other parts. So our brain automatically considers that very important and commits that to long-term memory. And then things that we say last benefit from what’s called the recency effect, and that gets committed to our short term memory. And you may have heard that we can store about seven things in our short term memory, and so beginning and end are most important. Things that we hear in the middle, we tend to forget most easily. And so when we can apply that to all sorts of things, but even when we’re pitching these ideas to our stakeholders, put the most important details at the beginning or at the end, or even better at the beginning, and then do a summary at the end if we really want them to remember what we said. As marketers, sometimes we want to draw people along a path of discovery that kind of is a representative of our own path of discovery, but when people want details, when they need to make a decision, they just want you to get to the point. So it always helps to just skip the preamble. What do you want? Say that up front and then go into all the reasons why the story and then again, put your ask at the end.
Amanda: I really love this one because like you said, I think it’s something that everybody can do tomorrow. It’s one of those things where you can take anything you’ve been working on and apply this principle to it. And I think especially the end is something that people kind of will taper off on, or they’ll be like, okay, I’m done. That was my presentation. And they’re missing that opportunity to really drive home those key things they think are going to be convincing and compelling. So I really think that’s a really actionable one of these things that you can start doing right now.
Danny: You can’t underestimate how much or how little people are paying attention. The fact is is that we’re all distracted. Our minds wander, and so like you said, it’s so critical. It’s such an opportunity to do that review, that summary at the end. That is really where you can often get the most support and to get people on board. Tell them at first, go through some of the details, but then at the end provide that summary. I had an old boss, Brian Zmijewski. He’s the founder of this design agency Zurb that I led marketing for, and he would tell me this all the time. He would always say, tell me, show me, tell me what you showed me, and we had to live by that and we even had an email format that we had to use where you had to put your ask three times in the email. You had to put it in the subject line. You had to put it in the first paragraph. You had to put it in the last paragraph. And that was our process and it works. You need to repeat things and they need to see it at the beginning and the end.
Amanda: That’s interesting because I think that’s so rare. A lot of email communication at least. I don’t I think I see that a ton and that’s a kind of a snippy way of remembering it. What was it? Tell me, show me, tell me what you showed me.
Danny: Yeah, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot when it comes to product announcement emails and stuff. Often we want to tell a little story about why we develop this new feature or why we have this new product. But then I look at my own behavior and when I’m going through my email list and I see even if it’s a company or a product, I really like if I don’t know what that email is about in the subject line, I’m more than likely going to probably delete it and move on cause I’m so busy. So if you’ve got something to say, just put it in. Don’t waste time. Conclusion first. Just put it there. You’re going to tell your story and have that opportunity later, but people are busy so tell them what you want to tell them upfront, then follow through with the story.
Amanda: Sounds similar to the inverted pyramid structure in journalism.
Danny: Oh yes, exactly.
Amanda: With the lead and then your supporting details and then any background, but you had to make sure that you’re getting to the meat of why they’re reading it right up front.
Danny: It’s so much harder in practice though because we always want to tell people this story and guide them along this journey first, but you gotta fight that urge.
Amanda: Yeah, I think a lot of us are storytellers, and it works but like you said, it’s good to consider these other things, these other components that it all works together, it’ll be the most impactful.
Amanda: So the other one I’ve marked down is called faith in aesthetics. Can we speak to that?
Danny: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we are visual creatures. I thought this was amazing. More than 50% of our brains are actually devoted to processing visual information. And that’s especially astounding when you compare it to our other senses. Like only 3% of our brains are used for hearing.
Amanda: That’s a dramatic difference!
Danny: Oh, it’s a super dramatic difference. I mean, even our sense of touch, which you know, our entire body is comprised of nerve cells. Only 8% of our brains are dedicated to our sense of touch. So because we are so visually oriented, the brain is so good at finding visual discrepancies and making judgment calls. And so often just by how things appear, we make judgements in our subconscious about the credibility, the trust, the authority, the value of whatever we’re seeing. And so this is really difficult though when you’re trying to win over an internal stakeholder because you’re going to be presenting ideas that are not completely fleshed out or imagery or copy that it’s not completely finished. So that’s the challenge here is you want it to be of a high calibre visually, but at the same time, you know you’re presenting an idea that you haven’t worked on to completion yet. So whatever you can do to present something that is at least complete in some way and outline some sort of sketch to go along with what you’re saying. Just something that can be evaluated visually goes a long way. Like when I was working at that design agency, even if it was an idea for a blog post or something, I would always come with some sort of sketch or something else that would help provide some sort of visual aspect to evaluate the idea on.
Amanda: Yeah, I was thinking about this the other day actually and in a weird context because it had nothing to do with work. I was watching Disney Plus and I’m like a huge Disney freak. So I was watching that show, the Imagineering show. Have you heard about this?
Danny: Oh my gosh, that’s my favorite show on there.
Amanda: Oh my God. Yeah. I was catching up on that. And one of the things I mentioned was one of Walt Disney’s quotes, and I couldn’t find the actual quote after I watched the episode, but he was talking about this. He was saying, I have realized when pitching ideas that people don’t always see the same potential that I do. They literally can’t visualize what I have in mind, and after going through that so many times, he would mock it up in some way. He would always bring something visual to the tables so that they can have that shared vision together, and it always increased the chances of everybody being bought in, and I thought it was a great illustration of exactly what you’re talking about.
Danny: That’s such a great point. I mean, if you watch that show, they made the most detailed models and miniatures and now today they do these amazing 3D walk throughs of rides. Often they’re making all of that at the pitch stage. It hasn’t even gotten approval yet and they’ve already created these amazing mock-ups because they realize that we are visual creatures and the best way to get someone to truly understand what we’re talking about, even in the end of it’s not a very graphic or visual thing, is to have some sort of visual representation at least to sell the ideas or the metaphors or something. So as content marketers, if you can do a couple of quick sketches along with your pitch just to kind of illustrate some of the concepts or an idea of what your charts or your visuals and your piece will be, or even just visual metaphors to sell the ideas themselves, you’re going to be a lot more successful.
Amanda: Yes, absolutely. And even your vision past life, what you wanted to achieve, I would think too. What you imagine the goals will or the results will look like. I think it’s really helpful.
Danny: And if you’re not an artistic person you can always grab ideas from online, from other sources, just anything. Build some sort of mood board or a collage of some sort or grab even just to give an impression of the feel of what your piece is going to achieve or the color palette, or just something that people can kind of latch onto. Even something like that helps.
Amanda: Have you used any tools in particular you would recommend, because I know now there are things like Canva that’s free and you can do, like you said, if you’re just doing like a mood board or color demonstration and all of those things can probably be done in Canva. But does anything else come to mind?
Danny: That’s a great question. In addition to just clipping images online and just throwing them in a click slide presentation, I often use a Sharpie and a piece of paper and there’s a couple of reasons for that. And I use the thick Sharpies too. One, it forces you to only convey the major ideas because you can’t get into a lot of visual detail with a Sharpie. You just can’t. You’re basically trying to get buy in on the big idea and you can’t get super high resolution. And so what’s great is that you can quickly sketch up hundreds of ideas, literally hundreds of ideas in an hour and go through them with a Sharpie and paper. And secondly there is something to the tactile physical paper that does change our decision making.
Danny: I was reading this great study I could do a mock up on an iPad or something and then I’d hand my iPad to someone, but the very first thing I’m thinking of is I want my iPad back. It’s just kind of involuntary. I’m not thinking about is that person do they understand my ideas? Is my idea resonating with them? All I’m thinking about is I want my iPad back. Whereas if I’ve sketched out something on paper and hand that to someone, I don’t care if I get it back. All I’m concerned about is what do they think of my idea? How can I explain it better? It actually shifts our thinking. And then also our retention as humans is so much higher when we’re looking at something or reading something off of a printed page versus a screen. There’s less cognitive load and processing our brain has to do, so if you really want to understand something or if you really want someone to understand what you’ve written, it’s always best to do that on paper. And I know it’s silly and it’s kind of sounds strange in our modern world, but I always go back to paper when I want to convey ideas.
Amanda: No, that’s fascinating. I think it’s also, and maybe this is me totally guessing, but it also sounds like we’re so used to digital that at the bare minimum, I would think doing something on paper would stand out almost. You’d be surprised to receive that in a meeting. That’s something that was just printed out. Even like something that was drawn, I think it would make a statement of sorts.
Danny: Yeah, I agree. And then often executives too will ask for things on printed paper versus digital too because you know, executives they’re thinking also they’re always on the go and they might be on planes. They may not have internet connection. So there’s a lot of utility in printing things out, especially when you’re trying to win over stakeholder approval, so think about those other factors too. You want the most chance that they will be able to evaluate your idea, and if they’re in a plane and they don’t have internet connection or something, it helps to have a paper backup.
Amanda: That’s a great point. I didn’t even think about that. So I want to make sure we have time for this last one that I jotted down. Can you talk about what’s called the availability cascade?
Danny: Oh yeah, definitely. That’s an interesting one. And basically what the availability cascade means is that the more a piece of information is repeated, the more likely we are to believe it. And so again, I think this relates to that whole idea of ideas are very fragile. Sometimes only pitching your idea once it is not going to be enough. People need to be exposed with an idea multiple times for it to really sink in and for them to take action. I know like in the sales world there’s a saying that someone needs to be exposed to a message seven times before they’ll respond, or a marketing message seven times. There’s truth to that. So not only do we want to make our pitch and do it as well as we can the first time, but are there other ways that we can introduce or expose the idea to the stakeholder in that decision-making period. Could we have other people reinforce the idea in some way? Could we have our in-person presentation but also follow up with an email? Look for multiple touch points with your stakeholder and they’re going to be more likely to believe and have confidence in that idea just because they’ve been exposed to it more.
Amanda: I found this interesting because I’ve experienced this at previous organizations where we would have to get a lot of buy in from different departments for ideas. And I think that it naturally lent itself to this concept because the fact that other people were aware of what we were trying to do, it would just more organically come up in other meetings before the official pitch even happened. They would just mention it. And when you explained this, I was like, I think I know exactly what he’s talking about. Even if you don’t do it explicitly, just getting more people involved and even if they’re not explicitly involved, just getting more people on board and knowing what you’re doing, it just comes up.
Danny: Our group of stakeholders is more than likely bigger than we think it is too. As content marketers, our stakeholders inevitably also include our head of PR, our CEO, Head of BizDev, salespeople. All those people are in some way stakeholders because they’re going to no doubt leverage the content, or be affected by the content in some way.So if you can get even those kind of fringe people that we think are not directly related to this particular project, if you can get them on board and them talking about what you’re doing, it’s going to move your idea forward faster than you can on your own.
Amanda: Definitely. So do you have an example of when you’ve utilized some of these or when you’ve had a situation where you had to pitch something and you put a presentation together?
Danny: Oh, absolutely. Yes, I’ve always worked in organizations, aside from the design agency, that was very much okay with experimentation, I’ve always worked in organizations that were a little more afraid of failure and a little more afraid of trying new things. And so I’ve always kinda been like the lone person that wanted to do the most daring thing. I think one of the best examples I can think of is I wanted to do this campaign for an office opening that involved…we were opening a few offices all over the world around the same time, and so I wanted to do this kind of live stream story across multiple people, all contributing to our social media feed at once and kind of carry this relay across the world. So to get buy in on that, I just went around and got little video clips, shot on phones just to kind of stitch together how it might look in practice.
And so we made this kind of demo reel of what this around the world relay video story would look like and feel like. And so that made it a lot easier for people to get on board and to participate because they already saw an example of what it’s going to look and feel like. It was making a prototype basically. And so I think that if you’ve got a crazy idea as we’ve talked about, make a prototype, show it to people, get feedback, show people that are beyond maybe your initial group of stakeholders, and get people jazzed about it and get them advocating for it as well. And so it moved forward and it was really, really cool. I’m super proud of how it turned out.
Amanda: That does sound really cool, and it’s nice to hear an example of somebody doing these things in practice and experiencing success from that. I think hopefully that’s good for listeners to hear. We can hear about things in theory, but it’s nice to hear about them actually working.
Danny: Totally. And another thing too, when parting ideas, a “No” is not necessarily a no forever. You may get a no at first, but you know, there that’s not, there’s still opportunities to sell your idea if you truly believe in it. We often think of Steve Jobs as being this dictator that would always shoot ideas down and stuff, but in talking with a lot of people that worked at Apple around Steve Jobs, they all told me that he would come in with a hard opinion like that because he wanted to see who was most passionate and would fight for their idea the most, because he knew that those ideas are the ones that would survive and do well. So if you came at Steve jobs with an idea and he shot you down and you didn’t do anything at that point, he knew that you didn’t have the wherewithal to make it come to fruition. Whereas if you came back to him and fought for it hard and rallied support around the idea, then he would ease off cause he’d be like, okay, this person is passionate about it. They’re going to be successful. I’m all for it.
Amanda: I think you might’ve answered my final question actually with that because what I’m asking everybody is on the show is what do you think is the biggest mistake people make when they’re pitching? I think this can certainly be an answer, which is like giving up after the first try and realizing you can come back to it later. Maybe things might change. You might be able to make your case more. But is there anything else that comes to mind in terms of what do you think something? What’s a common mistake people make when they’re trying to communicate what they want to do?
Danny: Again, another great question. Yeah. I think again, giving up too easily, that’s probably the number one. The number two is not thinking about the motivations of your stakeholders. Everyone is going to have their own agenda and their own goals and their own vision of success. And if you are not, as you’re giving your pitch, thinking about that, you will be unsuccessful. So you need to think about what each person in the room wants, what each person in the room, what their contribution is going to have to be? Are they aware of what you’re asking of them? What are their motivations? What is their vision of success? And you’re going to have to sell it to each individual person, but there is a way to do it. There is a way for everyone to win. And so communicate that effectively. Don’t just make it about you, but make it about each person that you’re trying to get buy in from.
Amanda: That is great advice. This has been really fun, Danny. I’ve one more question. I lied. I have one more, which is knowing the goal of this podcast, do you have any recommendations on who should be guests on the show?
Danny: Oh my gosh. Wow. Well, you know what? I think it’s always good to aim high and to reach out to people that it doesn’t matter what their status is or how famous they are. I always say go for it. So some of my favorite people, I love authors like Ryan Halliday, he’s one of my favourites. Mark Goodson, he owns a marketing agency and they do what’s called movement marketing. They start movements, which I think is incredible. I think he would be fantastic. Those would be like my two top guests.
Amanda: Awesome. Thank you. So I love hearing who other people know and what they’re interested in and who they’d love to hear from. So it’s really helpful. But thank you so much for being on the show. I think this is episode had a lot of really actionable things that people can start doing, so I think it’s going to be extremely valuable.
Danny: I had a blast. Thanks so much.
Amanda: For more insights and exclusive resources on how to justify content marketing, join our email newsletter by going to FRAC.TL/content-marketing-podcast. See you next week.