How To Make Your Pitch Stand Out

John Livesay
12 min readDec 4, 2015

John Livesay interviews Dorie Clark

Today’s guest is Dorie Clark, who is a branding expert according to AP. She’s written not one, but two books. One is called ‘Stand Out’, the other is ‘Reinventing You’. She consults for companies like, oh, I don’t know, Google, Microsoft, Yale. She’s also a contributor for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. She teaches at Duke school and is a former presidential campaign spokesperson. My goodness, what an impressive background. Dorie, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much. It’s really fun to be talking with you.

You know, I always love to hear about the concept of branding and I was listening to one of your talks where you said that your personal brand is, “your career insurance” which I think is such a great way to think about that. Before we dive into that, I want you to take our readers, if you will, back a little bit - how did you start out? What made you become interested in branding and how did you write your first book and all that good stuff?

Well, I got interested in branding essentially because I needed career insurance and I came on board too late. I started to learn about it and to try to help other people figure out they could get a little bit ahead of the curve as compared to where I was. I started my career as a political journalist and I was about a year out of grad school, I had been working as a reporter for a year and unfortunately had entered the profession at a pretty bad time.

It was right around the tipping point where the internet started to erode the newspaper’s profits, which had been very fat for a long time. I mean, newspapers, we forget now, was a very, very lucrative business and all of a sudden Craigslist was just going nuts taking everybody’s business and so my newspaper laid me off and it was during a bad recession.

It proved almost impossible to get another journalism job, so I really had to reinvent myself and try to figure out a new thing that I could do and I realized that it would be a heck a lot easier for me or for anybody else if you have the kind of really strong brand that has developed so that people are seeking you out specifically. For me the true test is not ‘are you immune from vicissitudes or lay offs?’ because you can’t control what’s happening at a macro economic level. You can control necessarily what’s happening at your company. I mean, the poor people at Enron or Arthur Andersen or whatever, there’s lots of really good people that had no clue and no way of doing anything about it, but the real thing that you can protect against is at an individual level; what is your reputation? what are you known for? and if you lose your job or if you fall off the horse, how quickly can you then recover?

What motivated you to write ‘Reinventing You’? Was it this whole concept that you had to reinvent yourself from a political journalist into a branding expert?

Yeah, pretty much it was. The genesis of ‘Reinventing You’ was I started out with a blog post that I wrote for the Harvard Business Review and I didn’t really think of it as a big official statement per se, but it was one blog post that I did based on my experiences. It was called How to Reinvent Your Personal Brand and I thought oh, this will be interesting.

I’ll share a few insights about the process, but it turned out that it actually proved to be a very popular blog post. Popular enough they asked me to turn it into a magazine piece, so it went from about 700 words to about 2,500 words and it when it came out in The Harvard Business magazine, I got approached by several literary agents that said, ‘hey, have you thought about turning this into a book?’ At that point I realized that it was an idea that had traction and so I decided to go ahead and turn it into a book proposal and make that work.

Wow, what an amazing Cinderella story. I mean, so many people feel like they have a book inside them, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody tell us the story of a blog, to a magazine article, to a book. It really shows if you put something out there whether you’re a start-up with an app, or in your case somebody putting out really great content and it clicks with people, it will be successful organically and that’s a great way of reinventing yourself, so I would guess if you’re going to get career insurance and being a branding expert that you would recommend people make sure they start putting out good content as a great way to enhance your reputation and brand, yes?

I’m a big fan of that. It absolutely worked for me. I mean, the asterisk on this, the proviso, is that what happens to me in terms of publishing something and then having agents come to me, it’s of course relatively rare, but what I did to team myself up for that possibility was not trying once and then you get so. I had actually written three book proposals prior to ‘Reinventing You’. None of them got picked up. No one was interested and so it was part of a continuing process where this one clicked, but I was trying to put myself into the path of opportunity beforehand.

Thank you for clarifying that, because it is helpful to know that you’re not just an overnight success. That you learned so much just like entrepreneurs do while they have their start-up. When they pivot, well, that proposal didn’t work, nobody bought that one, let me try something else and often times people really don’t get the successful exits until their third or fourth or fifth start-up and in your case it was three and bam, after that, you got the book. I’m extremely curious to know how you got and what it was like to be a presidential campaign spokesperson. Talk about branding and everyday dealing with poll numbers going up and down; one wrong word and your brand is damaged, that’s right?

Yeah, absolutely. The initial transition that I made was because I lost my job as a political reporter and I kept hoping that I could get another reporting job but it was just not happening. Finally after about six months of freelancing and trying to cobble together a living, I got a phone call from a guy that I knew. He was a political consultant and it turned out that Robert Reich, the former US labor secretary was running for governor of Massachusetts; and he entered the race really late, didn’t have any campaign infrastructure and needed to hire people very quickly. My friend knew that I had been out of a job and asked me if I was interested in it, so I ended up taking the job to serve as Reich’s press secretary.

That was my initial experience working as a high level press person on a campaign. After that I figured that I might be able to leverage that into a role on the subsequent presidential cycle, because the New Hampshire primary, of course, is really central to the elections and most of New Hampshire’s medium market is the Boston medium market. There’s actually only one television station in New Hampshire. All the others are the local Boston channels, so I had relationships with all of those reports. I thought, you know what, that’s an asset I can leverage.

So, again, it took a long time. It took about six months for me to be able to make the connections that I needed, but Howard Dean was the candidate that I most wanted to work for and I had to really finagle my way in. I had a bunch of meetings that didn’t go anywhere, but eventually they did hire me.

That’s a great story of networking. You knew enough people that when an opportunity arose somebody thought of you. You had brand awareness and you delivered on your brand when the opportunity arrived. So many of the founders are looking for how to position their start-up to investors in a way that comes across as a brand with a culture that attracts the right team, because number one criteria for investor is not the idea, but the team. The team is attracted to the leader, which creates a culture, which is what the brand is, so that’s why you’re such a great guest, because you’re a branding expert. The readers need to know how to create a brand. So, when you’re talking to Microsoft and Google, what advice do you give big established brands like that?

It is an interesting challenge when you have this sort of behemoth that people already had fixed thoughts about, so I think that the key thing there is you want to focus on segmentation. You’re never going to be able to succeed in changing everybody’s mind at the same time. People have different levels of awareness.

If you think about a tech company as your example, there’s going to be a different opinion in the general public of, ‘I’ve heard of them’, versus tech super users who have really particular opinions like ‘they’re amazing’ or ‘they suck’. You really have to start with that and figure out who are the distinct constituencies, what is the message we want to drive with each of them, and what are the proof points that we need? What do we actually have to do? because a crucial thing that people often fail to understand when it comes to marketing and messaging is they think it’s just about spewing messages at people, but actually it can’t be, because no one will ever believe it, no one will ever take it seriously.

Marketing has to be integrated with product, with operations, et cetera, because if people think your product sucks, you actually need to change the product in such a way that it doesn’t suck and then you have the ability and flexibility to change the messaging. It becomes about ‘hey, have you tried this? Have you looked at us lately?’ But I think that some people just think it’s this generic spin doctor kind of thing, but actually it’s taking a holistic look at everything that the company is doing and then making sure that a light is shined properly on those initiatives.

What I find fascinating is you use the word constituency, which is a political word, right? You have taken your political expertise of branding a politician and who their audience is, they can vote for them in their neighborhood, region or state and apply it to branding for start-ups. Huge successful tech companies figuring out they’re going to break down which segment they’re talking to. Are they gonna be the first adapters to try something new from Google or Microsoft? Or if you’re working for Apple, the new apple watch. You have to segment out who’s going to be the first to try and who are the brand ambassadors. Can you share any differences between the brands of Google and Microsoft? I think everyone has their own person opinions, but I would just love to hear what Google and what Microsoft want to think of them as brands. What’s their idea goal and see if it matches what we each think.

The first caveat with that is I wouldn’t want to say in anyway that I speak for Google or Microsoft.

No, no, of course.

And I’ll also say too, I have consulted for Google and worked for them as a consultant in the past. Lately, my most recent connection with both Microsoft and Google has been as a speaker. So, I’ve come in and spoken to their organization. My new book ‘Stand Out’ came out in April and for folks who are interested in watching online, in July I was at Google’s offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I gave a talk about Stand Out to that, which is available on YouTube. Also, when I was on book tour, I spoke at the Microsoft campus in Redmond about the book.

Well, let’s talk about that then, because that’s even more interesting than my question was. So, instead of what is Google’s brand that they want people to think of, I’d love to hear what was it in your message from your book Stand Out that Google felt compelled to listen to? I mean, how much more does Google need to stand out? Or how much are their employees trying to get their idea to stand out? So, give us a little trailer/teaser to get us to go to YouTube and watch your whole talk; what was it that made Google say this book and this topic is right on brand for us?

Well, one thing that I have learned a bit about Google is after having spoken at Google at different offices three times for ‘Reinventing You’, I spoke at their Mountain View headquarters. That’s actually available on YouTube as well and I spoke about ‘Reinventing You’ at their London office and then the Stand Out one at Cambridge. Something that I’ve learned that I think is actually quite interesting is that Google, I wish more companies would do this, really seem to have a culture where they’re interested in retaining their employees. Even if the employee gets bored or for some reason doesn’t want to do the job that he or she has been doing, well fine, leave. But they really are invested in these people, they want to keep them, so there’s a lot of culture, in fact, encouragement within a culture for people to switch jobs and functions within the company and so it’s constantly revitalizing yourself creatively by having the opportunity within the confines of Google to do a lot of different things. So, that’s kind of exciting.

I think that is relevant to the message of ‘Reinventing You’ that you’re constantly proactively deciding what you want to learn. What do I want to be doing and how do I go about doing it? For Stand Out, I think the message that seems to resonate there is that if you’re doing something within a company or outside a company, if you want to have an impact, which I think most of the people at Google and probably many people else where want to have, it needs to get recognized.

You don’t want it to be you’re doing this amazing thing and a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears about it. You want the word to be able to get out so that people can a) understand your contribution, but b) so that the idea can spread. I talk a lot in Stand Out in the latter section of the book about how to build a following around your ideas. So, if you have something you’re doing that you’re really passionate about, I think that people are excited to spread the word.

Do you have to get them to believe in your vision in order for them to spread your word? I would think that there’s got to be something in it for other people to get them on your team. I keep using the analogy of a founder getting really great talent to come join his start-up when they have other choices and some of the other choices might even pay them more, so it goes to this whole culture of, if you get into Google and Google puts you through such a arduous process to get in, I can see why they don’t want to let you go. Obviously they feel like they’ve picked the best of the best, but this whole concept of you’re a start-up or you’re in a big company like Google, how do you get your idea to stand out? Or if you’re a start-up working on your pitch, how do you make your pitch stand out? Do you have any tips that you could give our readers - if you’re pitching an idea or in this case asking for money, what are your tips for standing out on a pitch?

Exactly. Well, I think your question John is really to the point, because I lay out a framework in Stand Out that is a three-step process. I interview about 50 thought leaders and tried to reverse engineer what their process was for how they got known.

My readers are going to love the fact that you reversed engineered that by the way.

That’s right. When in doubt reverse engineer. That’s definitely how to do it. What I learned was that almost everybody followed this formula for spreading their ideas. It’s a three-step process and I’ll lay it out briefly and then explain a little bit more, but the short version is: step one is building your network, step two building your audience, and then step three is building your community.

But wait…there’s more!

This post has been adapted from The Successful Pitch podcast. Listen to this past episode for more on the inspiring story of DORIE CLARK

Subscribe to The Successful Pitch via iTunes.

To learn more, watch my Get Funded Fast video.

As a funding strategist, John Livesay helps CEOs craft a compelling pitch which engages investors in a way that inspires them to join a startup’s team.

After a successful 20-year career in media sales with Conde Nast where he worked across all 22 brands in their corporate division [GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, W and Vogue] and created integrated programs for clients such as Lexus, Hyundai and Guess, John won salesperson of the year in 2012 across the entire company.

Follow John on Twitter at @john_livesay. We welcome your comments.

John Livesay

Funding strategist helping start ups craft a compelling message to get investors and advertisers. Host of The Successful Pitch podcast.

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