These days I receive a great number of books for prospective review. Very few make a major impact, but the book I received this week — Pitch Perfect: How To Say It Right The First Time, Every Time had my attention from the word “go.” Due April 1, Pitch Perfect is the product of two-time Emmy Award winning correspondent and communications pro Bill McGowan, who’s reported some 700 televised stories and anchored hundreds of hours of news (his credits include ABC News 20/20, A Current Affair, Dow Jones and CBS News).
McGowan currently makes his career as a communications strategist to C-level executives and entertainers. Eli Manning, Kelly Clarkson, Jack Welch and Kenneth Cole are some of the personalities he’s advised. As the CEO of Clarity Media he coaches companies such as Dropbox, Facebook, AirBnB and Salesforce.com. This, I admit, is a career path I envy. I confess to reading the proof copy of Bill’s book from cover to cover the minute it arrived at my door.
Two-time Emmy winner and CEO of Clarity Media Bill McGowan, author of Pitch Perfect
McGowan had my attention and I believe he’ll gain yours as well. Why? Because of all of the necessary attributes for launching and running a business, communications skills really matter to entrepreneurs.
I loved the stories he told, such as media coaching Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook (spoiler alert—he flubbed the address and arrived at the cherished appointment time incredibly late). He also shared the tale of staking out a small-town prospect for multiple days for A Current Affair before the magic moment he was able to confront his protagonist face to face while the cameras rolled. Whether you love investigative reporting or hate it, McGowan has clearly experienced a full spectrum of the “think on your feet” moments that call for the ability to communicate instantly and well.
There are many golden nuggets in McGowan’s collection of tactics and tricks. (Conversation escapes. Apologies. Asking for favors or raises. Telling someone to ditch the smartphone while you speak.) He provides ideas for presentations and speeches. (Show crisp conviction. Keep it short. Display sheer delight.) But I was especially impressed with McGowan’s seven rules of persuasion, which for an entrepreneur, in particular, apply to us all. The rules had their genesis, McGowan says, from his many days as a correspondent and producer, perpetually winnowing thousands of video hours into the one minute segments that would make a story compelling and bring the listener’s attention alive. Initially, the “seven secrets” were simply a mental checklist for Bill until he realized after thousands of hours of video editing that nearly all winning sound bites and segments adhere to the same set of rules. So he named them. Now the Seven Principles of Persuasion are available to all, as follows:
1. The Headline Principle. Get attention for a topic by sharing your best information first, McGowan says, especially if it’s a thought-provoking line that makes listeners think “I want to know more.” This is golden wisdom. It applies to investment pitches, sales presentations, and, of course, to articles, press releases and blog columns as well. As I like to put it, writing a great press release or article is like telling a joke backwards: You begin with the punchline. Then you proceed down the pyramid to fill in the color and the additional details.
2. The Scorsese Principle. In a persuasive setting, you can hold attention by providing your audience with visual detail. For example, says McGowan, few people who’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s movie Goodfellas can forget the scene of Paul Sorvino thinly slicing a garlic clove with a razor blade as he prepared a culinary feast while in jail. The image told a vivid story: Sorvino and his wise guy pals were living like kings behind bars. Consider this principle as you prepare your pitch or presentation. You are the director of your own product or company story. What are the images (and also the details and words) that will bring your message to life? As your high school English teacher used to say about your writing assignments, “Name the dog.” (What kind of a dog? Large, small, ferocious? Hector? Skippy?) These details count.
3. The Pasta Sauce Principle. Every sauce is better when it’s boiled down to its essence. You should make your message as rich and brief as you possibly can, McGowan maintains. Your story takes three pages? What happens when you distill it to a couple of bullets and words? Avoid the temptation to overwhelm your audience. Leave them hungry for more.
4. The No-Tailgating Principle. Says McGowan, “The speed with which you talk should be directly proportional to your certainty of the next sentence coming out of your mouth.” The more certain you are, the more briskly you can speak. But if you’re prone to saying the first thing that pops into your head, slow your speaking – add strategic pauses – and be certain that every thought you utter has a strategic purpose and a distinct beginning, middle and end.
5. The Conviction Principle. Deals are won and engagement established with the strength of the speaker’s convictions. Be certain you are conveying certainty with your words, your posture, your expression and the tone of your voice.
6. The Curiosity Principle. The best broadcast interviewers earn trust, McGowan says, by displaying genuine interest in their interview subjects. Their demeanor expresses there’s nowhere else they’d rather be. For example, he notes, consider the former Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert. The look on his face conveyed how much he really did love his job. Consequently, he asked whatever he liked and his interview guests were remarkably forthcoming. No matter how direct the question, it was never perceived as a “gotcha” remark or low blow. This trait is useful in persuasive discussions or sales presentations as well.
7. The Draper Principle. Yes, this principle is named for the fictionalMad Men character Don Draper, who plays the role of creative director in a Manhattan advertising firm and is renown for his ability to win pitches. The best way to stay on point in a persuasive discussion is to steer the dialogue into the directions that play to your strengths. It’s the legendary Don Draper adage, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” (Yes, it does require some practice and tact.)
There are many more ideas in McGowan’s gold mine of strategies for handling situations ranging from conversational bores, liars, one-way dialogue hoses, and even sticky wickets such as what to say to the colleague who’s received the promotion you want.
McGowan’s most salient point, in my opinion, is this: “No one graduates from eloquence school.” Like it or not, we are perpetual students. Every one of us can benefit from continually learning to communicate better, regardless of the position we hold. (U.S. President? News personality? Emcee?) On that front, no truer words have ever been spoken. Thank you, Bill.
Editor’s note: In the coming weeks I will be interviewing Bill McGowan on video with the help of video production company BizVision (an agency client). More than 90% of CEOs struggle with the thought of appearing on video, research shows. McGowan has agreed to share his coaching advice to CEO clients with Forbes. Readers are invited to weigh in with questions they’d like to hear McGowan answer below.
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