After 20 years of studying persuasion, I'm convinced the best pitch should  fit on the back of a napkin.

After all, some of world's most successful brands started out that way. A simple vision is the spark that attracts interest. 

Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher has rightfully been praised for revolutionizing air travel and building one of the greatest corporate cultures of any American brand. The business world lost a true maverick and innovator when Kelleher passed away recently at the age of 87.

The historic St. Anthony hotel in San Antonio has created a cocktail napkin to commemorate Kelleher's accomplishment. The story behind the napkin might offer one of the best communication tips you'll ever learn--one that could send your startup flying, too.

Picture the scene in 1966. Two friends meet for drinks at the bar of the St. Anthony club and restaurant. Rollin King is a Texas businessman. Herb Kelleher is a gregarious, whiskey-swigging lawyer. They've been kicking around a business plan to get into the airline business. What happens next is brand-making history.

Kelleher turns to Rollin and says "convince me."  

Since iPads haven't been invented yet and the men don't have paper, Rollin reaches for the next best thing--a cocktail napkin. First, he draws a triangle in the center of the napkin. At the top of the triangle, he wrote "Dallas." On the bottom left, he wrote "San Antonio," and on the bottom right he wrote "Houston." A line connects them. The vision was simple--to create a small, local airline connecting three Texas cities with fares so low people would fly instead of drive.

"Rollin, you're crazy. Let's do it," Kelleher said. 

Far from being an urban legend, the napkin sketch really happened. One year later, on March 15, 1967, their vision came to life as Southwest Airlines. The business plan sketched on the back of a napkin would transform the lives of millions of Americans and democratize air travel.

Thanks to neuroscience research, we know that the human mind needs to see the big picture before getting immersed in the details. The simpler the image of what you're trying to accomplish, the easier it is for your listener to buy in.

If a cocktail napkin isn't handy, a beer coaster will do. Just ask Richard Branson.

The Beer Mat That Launched a $3 Billion Airline

"If a pitch cannot fit on a beer mat, I'd rather listen to someone else's pitch that can fit."

When I sat down with Branson last year to talk about his book, Finding My Virginity, I asked him about a remarkable pitch that launched Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia).

Brett Godfrey was an executive who worked for the Virgin brand in Europe. He had decided to leave the company and move back to Australia. Branson called him to wish him well. Godfrey asked Branson if he could hold on. Branson heard papers shuffling in the background. Godfrey was searching for an idea he had written on a beer coaster at a pub. From the few notes he had on the beer mat, Godfrey pitched Branson on an idea to start a low-cost airline to take on Quantas in Australia. Branson loved it and bought in.

"That beer coaster resulted in a $10 million investment, which turned into a $3 billion valuation three years later. That little airline took on Quantus and did very well," Branson told me. "I think that most good ideas can be expressed very quickly. The best ideas don't always need to have detailed financial projections and complicated business proposals behind them. If it can't fit onto the back of an envelope, it's probably a bad idea. Keep it short, sharp and picture-perfect."

The next time you're trying to figure out how best to express your idea, set aside the PowerPoint slide, head out to a restaurant, and take out a napkin instead. If your idea fits, you'll have a great starting point for your pitch. 

Published on: Jan 8, 2019
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