Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Monroe's motivated sequence: Pitch and persuade with a capital P

Every talk or presentation has a job to do, and that job determines the content, delivery, and much more. There's no more of a workhorse presentation than the pitch, by which I mean any presentation where you're trying to persuade an audience to do something.

In some cases, that means investing in your product. In others, you want to prompt votes, donations, or even a pay raise. But you want something from this highly specialized audience. Action must follow if your pitch is to succeed. For that workhorse of a presentation, there's a workhorse of a solution in a venerable--but highly effective--rhetorical structure called Monroe's motivated sequence.

Developed in the mid-1930s by Alan Monroe at Perdue University, the sequence has five steps, or types of content, that make your pitch persuasive. In order, they are:
  1. Attention -- Pitches need strong starts, and you need to get the audience's attention with a dramatic fact, quote, story or example.
  2. Need -- This is not, as some pitch presenters think, their need. It's stating the audience's psychological need, the one which your product or service will satisfy.
  3. Satisfaction -- How will you satisfy the need to your audience's satisfaction? Again, this isn't about what would satisfy you.
  4. Visualization -- What would the world look like with your solution? Without it? Or a little of both?
  5. Action -- Tell the audience what they can do to solve the problem. That might be a traditional call to action (votes) or one that propels your solution forward (investment).
I sometimes wonder whether Monroe ever met his contemporary, American conposer Meredith Wilson, best known for his musical play The Music Man. It's set in 1912 in middle America, and a slick traveling salesman comes to town looking for a way to convince the community that it needs a boy's marching band. His plan is to sell them the instruments and band uniforms, then skip town with the money before he provides anything. To do that, in a song called "Ya Got Trouble," he walks right through Monroe's motivated sequence, from getting the townspeople's attention, to defining their psychological need to give their children a moral upbringing, to providing a band as a diversion from the less-desirable pool hall in town. The song's known for its repetition of the line about "ya got trouble/Right here in River City/With a capital T/and that rhymes with P/and that stands for Pool."

This song includes both positive and negative visualizations, and the call to action is clear as a bell. And while it's an old-school, old-fashioned pitch, you'd do well to study its example. You've never seen anyone drum up support, as it were, like this.

Today, the business world is where we see most pitches, and you can be a smart presenter by putting Monroe's to use in the boardroom. On the US television show Shark Tank, which shows some of what it's like to pitch to venture capitalists, two women engineers recently demonstrated a great pitch presentation for a toy they invented called Roominate--a doll house that girls can not only play with, but build, hack and wire to meet their own specifications. Right off the bat, the pitchers ask the women investors what they'd have thought if they could have had this kind of dollhouse as children, but keyed to their eventual career choices. It's a smart opening gambit that sets the stage for later visualization.

Shark Tank's a great show to watch if you're pitching, with plenty of good and bad examples. You'll also get a good sense of what it's like to pitch to an "audience" of investors or judges. Seth Godin just published a post titled Pitchcraft, with a series of questions that mirror the steps in Monroe's, but from the point of view of the investors/supporters/donors listening to your pitch. It's a useful, brief test to see whether your pitch will answer their questions, and an insight into what they are thinking.

I've been coaching for a couple of organizations that have asked university researchers to make five-minute pitches in the style of Shark Tank. They're using the untraditional format to help projects compete for some grant money and to enliven the conference program, and they've asked me to do 1:1 coaching for the people planning and delivering the pitches. In many cases, these are very senior university executives, provosts and administrators--but this type of pitch is foreign to them. I've been sharing these two examples, "Ya Got Trouble" and Roominate, to illustrate the flexibility and staying power of Monroe's motivated sequence.

I recommend the sequence because it works. Your pitch will stay focused on the audience to whom you're pitching, you'll describe a problem and connect it to a solution, and you'll be able to make the "ask" appropriately. Monroe's also can help keep your pitch on time. In five minutes, using the sequence as your template, you can cover a lot of purposeful ground.

You can read the lyrics to "Ya Got Trouble" here, and do watch the master, Robert Preston, at work in the 1962 version of the musical The Music Man, below. Beyond that video is the Roominate pitch on Shark Tank. Very different, but equally good examples. Need help crafting your next pitch, or helping a group with individual pitches? Email me at eloquentwoman AT to get the prep and support you need.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by kris krüg)

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