A couple of weeks ago, I spent an afternoon at the National Publicity Summit, an event in which people with books and projects to promote get a few minutes each to pitch journalists one on one. I went in part because the event's organizers offered to support the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund in exchange, but mostly, I went out of curiosity. For years, ASJA has had a similar event in which writers pitch editors, agents, and other clients. I wanted to see what it was like on the receiving end of the pitches.
It was an educational afternoon. I learned that being on the receiving end of a pitching event is much less nerve-racking but much more wearing than being the one doing the pitches, because no sooner is one brief pitching session finished than someone arrives for the next one. I met about 40 people, some of them authors with interesting concepts that I was happy to hear about. But to my surprise, almost no one who pitched me used what I've found to be the most powerful tool in these settings.
That tool is asking questions.
All of the people who pitched gave a description of their product or concept and why they thought it would appeal to the readership of this column, and then they waited to hear what I thought about it. None of them asked what kinds of stories I was looking for or what kinds of topics appealed most to my readers.
Admittedly, they had only a very short time (less than three minutes!) to sell me on their ideas, and I'm sure they thought there wasn't much time for back-and-forth. But even in the shortest of pitch sessions, asking questions is a powerful and smart thing to do. Here's why:
1. You'll break the pattern of endless pitching.
A rhythm develops when you step or sit in front of someone and launch right into a spiel. Pausing to ask a question or two breaks that pattern in a good way and gives the person you're pitching a short breather from the onslaught of sales pitches. And because so few people think to ask questions in this setting, your pitch session is likely to stick in your prospect's memory.
2. You'll engage your potential customer.
"The sexiest sentence in the world is: 'Talk to me.'" A colleague of mine with a very successful track record from pitching events told me this once, and it's really stuck with me. Asking people what they want shows that you care about what they want. And most people are more open to transacting when they feel cared about.
3. You can better match the prospect's needs.
Years ago, I met with an editor from CreditCards.com at a pitching event. I had a set of pitches about the credit card industry all ready to go, but early in the conversation, I asked the editor what she was looking for. The answer surprised me: offbeat and unusual topics.
I didn't have one of those prepared, but I had recently been given a debit card that my bank printed while I waited and that had no raised letters or numbers. I pulled it out of my handbag and showed it to her, and asked if she'd be interested in a piece on these weird flat debit cards. She was, and her company has been a regular client ever since. If I hadn't asked, I wouldn't have known to pitch that topic and might never have landed that first assignment.
4. You won't seem in a rush to make a sale.
Veterans of pitching events all know it's extremely rare for a deal to be completed in a meeting just a few minutes long. Your objective should be to make a connection, one you can follow up later on outside of the hullabaloo of a pitching event. Asking questions signals your intention is to build that relationship rather than just make a quick deal.
5. You'll be better able to continue the conversation.
If all you've done is pitch your product or idea, then the only follow-up you're able to send is more information or a written sales pitch for that same product or company. Asking questions opens up many new possibilities. If you learn, for instance, that the person you're pitching is interested in some newly released technology, you might send an article on the topic with a note reminding your contact of your meeting. Building that kind of relationship puts you in much better shape to make an eventual sale.
6. You'll gain a competitive edge.
Looking for a way to stand out from the crowd? Many people making pitches try to make an impression with a little schwag or a slickly produced piece of literature. I like schwag as much as the next person, but to be honest, asking questions and getting to know what a prospect really wants will make you stand out much more in that person's mind than a gift of the latest cute gadget. Especially because no one else is doing it.
7. You'll make the pitch about the potential customer or investor, not you.
This is the most important reason to ask questions during a pitching session. You came to the event with one goal in mind--to sell your product or gain investment for your company. But the person sitting across from you has his or her own agenda, which may involve buying products or making investments but is certainly not the same as yours. Asking questions lets you quickly focus your interaction on fulfilling the person's needs, not yours.
And that's the quickest way to make a sale.
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