The Telephone Test: How To Spot Problems in Your Pitch
Does your elevator pitch actually convey what you mean? Test it and find out.
This a fun and wildly revealing test that I absolutely force people—including my C-level clients—to do as a way of testing their message. If I could force you to do it, I would.
What you believe is clear and concise and easy to follow may not be that way to others.
What you may not realize about great Hollywood writers is that they are unique in their ability to make the imagery, emotion, and story clear to everyone in the same way.
What you’ve probably never thought of is that every person who writes a screenplay thinks it’s great. The reason is, all the motivation and emotions are perfectly clear to the writer. The writer understands the characters and the twists and the story elements perfectly, as clear as a bell.
Surprise! What not all writers are good at is making the audience see their story and characters the way they do (sound familiar?). The only difference between a great script and an OK script is the ability for the reader to grasp it all as the writer intended. This should sound familiar. It’s what we’ve been talking about on every page of this book.
Look at your 3-Minute pitch. I’m betting you feel it, know it, understand it, appreciate it, and believe in it. To you it’s very clear and concise. You might even think it’s a little too simple. So let’s test that theory.
I want you to get in touch with a friend and enlist their help. Choose someone who doesn’t know your pitch or presentation or maybe even what you’ve been working on. Ask them to listen to your pitch. Then ask them to call someone else and pitch it to them. Ask them to then pitch it one more time to a third person, who is going to call you and pitch it back to you.
You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?
You or your kids have probably played some form of telephone at birthday parties all your lives.
And what you’re thinking should scare and excite you. I know you don’t want to do this, and many of you will skip though it or pitch it to one person and ask them to pitch it back to you. But this is an amazing exercise and you should jump at the opportunity to get real feedback. If you only do three degrees of telephone on this, you will be shocked at how much information you get back. You’ll also be surprised at how much information is lost in translation. There will be elements that you felt were so important that never made it down the line. That’s OK, you can adjust. But you need this input.
I sat in a conference room with a company that was trying to raise money to start a network that would provide information about legal marijuana. It was a great idea to centralize the information about the laws of marijuana into one easy- to-access, all-knowing service. You have a question about weed, they have answers. They don’t sell anything, they don’t stock anything, they just provide the service. Think 1–800- DENTIST, but for marijuana.
I called my brother, and asked my client Keith (the weed info king) to pitch him on the phone. He did, and then I gave my brother the phone number for the conference room. “I need you to pitch that concept to one of your friends, and then have them pitch one of their friends, and then give them this number and call to pitch it back to us. Tell them it’s a game and we have to have it back in one hour.”
We hung up the phone and went back to work and discussed the company some more. After forty-five minutes the phone rang. You would not believe the excitement that jolted in the room. We put the conference phone on speaker.
“Hi. This is Jeffrey? I was asked to call you guys for this game and pitch this idea?” Jeffrey was a millennial. Millennials tend to end their sentences with rising voices and question marks.
“Yes, Jeffrey. Please go ahead. We are listening.”
Jeffrey pitched us an idea about a weed shop that stores your information, and you can access it anytime. They have a social media service that you use to find information on specific news about the marijuana industry.
It was a mess and it wasn’t at all what Keith was pitching. What was revealing was that the one piece of information that survived was the 1-800-DUI-HIGH phone number. Jeffrey knew perfectly well that that was the number to call if you had questions about the laws in your state and if you needed to connect to a lawyer who specialized in marijuana issues.
This was really helpful. It showed us what pieces of the pitch were resonating (people tend to remember the things they like or are drawn to), and it showed where some of Keith’s ideas that looked clear on paper were not being understood.
We played the game a few more times (we actually had to buy $200 in Starbucks gift cards to bribe people to play after we ran out of personal connections), and eventually Keith’s pitch was coming back the same way it went out. That was a very exciting call.
You might feel apprehensive. I get it. It’s the feeling that I get when I screen a movie for the first time for an audience that doesn’t know me. I hate it. Or when I have to fly to Vegas to do a focus group for a TV show with twelve strangers paid $25 and a sandwich to give their opinions about my show. There has been more than one time I wanted to jump through the two-way glass and strangle someone.
But it’s important to face the reality of the public and the people you are pitching to. That’s what you’re facing, so you are way better off facing them on your terms in a practice run. I can assure you, what you learn will be well worth it.
Play the game. Make the calls. Buy the gift cards if you have to.
Do it once and you’ll be hooked. Yes, it kind of sucks the first time because you’ll want to scream, “How stupid are you?” when they don’t pitch something back to you that is as beautiful and obvious as when it went out. But when you eventually answer the phone and a stranger pitches you back your idea and gets it right, you will scream with joy. I’ve seen it.
From The 3-Minute Rule: Say Less to Get More From Any Pitch or Presentation
By Brant Pinvidic, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.