“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
– Pablo Picasso (supposedly, popularized by Steve Jobs)
A few years ago I started a new job managing a cold calling team. We agreed my first few days would be the same training program for new reps and I’d spend a couple days making calls so I could see what it was like firsthand.
When they handed me the pitch I didn’t see a mere pitch. I saw a short story. If this were an elevator pitch you would have needed to pitch in the Empire State Building, and the only way you’d finish in time is if your prospect was getting off on the 102nd floor and the door opened on every single floor.
All I could think was, “There is no way I can say this over the phone to a prospect and expect them to listen to the whole thing without cutting me off. Absolutely not.”
(I was wrong about that – on my second call someone not only listened, they bought almost immediately. That’s the only reason someone will listen to a lousy pitch, when they absolutely need what you’re selling.)
I took at look at the team to see how they were doing. A few reps were hitting their numbers, a few were around 80% of quota, and the lowest performers weren’t cut out for a high-volume cold calling role.
I couldn’t really help the reps in the wrong job, but it took me a few weeks to realize there was one clear difference between the top reps and those who were hitting 80%.
Why did it take weeks instead of a few days? It wasn’t anything easy to pin down. I realized the best weren’t necessarily the brighter reps. Nor did they work harder, or smarter. They didn’t do anything different from their peers except for one thing.
The top reps didn’t use the pitch they were given in training.
There was no consistent pitch between the top reps – it’s not like someone rewrote it, handed it to a few of their colleagues, and said “hey say this instead, it’s better.” Each one of them had streamlined the pitch into a few core points and added their personal style. They all sounded compelling, too.
It seemed so obvious to me that the reps hitting 80% should just steal from their colleagues… except it wasn’t obvious to them.
Within a few months everyone on the team was using a consolidated version I came up with. Which I basically stole from the top reps.
Right here is where you might think I’m going to say, yes, you should steal the top rep’s pitch. It’s not that simple. Here’s why.
About a year later we formalized the pitch again. This time my boss and I collaborated on a borderline masterpiece. We pulled out our best tactics, tweaked the weak spots, and fine-tuned the pitch until the structure of it was as good as I’d ever seen for a training pitch. Until my boss suggested everyone say it word for word.
It worked like training wheels, which is to say no one used the pitch word for word once they were two months into the job. They simply stole changes from one of their colleagues and made it their own.
You see, the perfect pitch isn’t one that someone else writes for you. The perfect pitch is the one you steal nearly everything and make a few changes that work better for you.
I had a rep who had her own version of the pitch that was shorter and worked great for her. She’d pull reps aside and teach them her pitch. It didn’t always work. However, it did show them what was possible, and they’d steal the parts they thought were the best.
By then I had learned that the best reps didn’t need to be given a magic pitch, they just needed to know what to keep and what they could change.
Unfortunately, using someone else’s pitch word for word comes with one caveat: odds are you won’t do as well as the person you’re stealing it from.
You see, that pitch has been perfected for the person using it. Specifically for her.
It likely needs some tweaking to suit you as perfectly. Not making tweaks to the pitch to suit you would be mistake #1.
However, mistake #2 would be changing the pitch without using it word for word, or at least trying to use it word for word. Most great pitches need subtle changes by each person using it. Too many reps overhaul the pitch in the beginning because it’s not comfortable.
The reason it’s not comfortable? Because you’ve never gotten used to it. That’s what comfort really is, getting used to saying something.
Back to the pitch they gave me when I was training. One day I heard the other Manager give his team feedback and suddenly he was saying the pitch word for word. It was perfect. I don’t think he should have taken out anything. That’s when I realized the pitch was exactly what he had said while he was a rep, and because it worked for him he figured it should work for his team.
Months later, when we were actively working on a revised training pitch we had a meeting with the CEO. He pulled out an old pitch he wanted us to reference. I read it over and asked him why he was giving me an altered version of the Manager’s old pitch. After all, we had already come up with a better pitch the whole team was having more success with, why would we go back?
The CEO said, “That’s the pitch I wrote years ago. The other Manager took most of it and made it his own when he was a rep, and when we promoted him that’s the pitch he used to train the team.”
I was not surprised one bit.
Which brings me to another point: if you have no one else to steal from, steal from the CEO. Odds are the CEO doesn’t have a pitch so steal the words he uses talking about the company.
Learning how to properly change a pitch well is an art form that takes a lot of time. What I can give you right now is the shortcut version:
Do your best to say the pitch word for word every single time you use it. Write it down and try to say it perfectly. I don’t mean read it or memorize it – try to say it word for word the best you can. This might sound easy, but it’s not.
That begs the question: how hard can it be to say a pitch word for word?
From personal experience, both my own and my team’s, the answer is: it’s almost impossible. It’s very simple as to why. You don’t talk exactly like that person! Yes, even when you’re the one writing the pitch down.
I wrote scripts for years at a direct marketing agency and on my best day I’d struggle to say every single word I wrote, even when I wrote what I considered to be a masterpiece. It’s really hard to nail the words so perfectly.
Even if you think you wrote it perfectly you will face this dilemma. You will have specific word preferences. There will be a twist you add. Maybe you hit the key points a little faster or you like to slide an extra phrase in that makes you feel right at home. You might change it based on how the prospect sounds when she picks up. Whatever the change is, it suits you better. It’s like wearing the same outfit as your style icon but with a specific accessory that you love and feel completes the look.
That’s what you’ll figure out if you steal the pitch and try to say it word for word. You will figure out how to change it just by using it.
When you say the pitch, write down the changes you’re making. Ask yourself, does this change work? Am I communicating the same message? It’s crucial you do this because it’s too easy to rework the whole thing and lose the essence of what made that pitch so good in the first place.
After all, that essence is precisely why you set out to steal the pitch in the first place.
Keep the essence and add a dose of your personality.
One favor: if you write a great pitch and see someone struggling with their pitch, or if they ask about your’s, please, trust me, let them use your pitch.