How to Make a Pitch that Sticks

Daniel Pink’s replicable strategies for moving beyond the elevator pitch and pitching memorable ideas with charm and impact.

September 18, 2017

Have you ever made a pitch in an elevator? Sold anything on an elevator?

Perhaps you have, but the act of pitching has become such a common component of most jobs (particularly in the social sector), that the elevator may no longer be a useful metaphor for us. What if we need to make a shorter pitch? A longer one? We ask for attention or action in many forms—from emails and tweets to offers of collaboration or partnership.

Even people who aren’t in sales roles spend about 40% of their time at work trying to move others—whether that is asking for their attention, encouraging someone to take action, or proposing a new idea or project. Pitching is the key skill for making these kinds of “non-sales selling” asks when you work to move someone else to action.

One of the simplest, yet most effective pitches is a pitch that comes in the form of a question

The good news is that the art of pitching can be taught.

In our Master Class, Daniel Pink, bestselling author of To Sell is Human and Drive, shares replicable strategies and formats for pitching that will help you move beyond the elevator pitch and present your ideas with charm and impact in a wide range of contexts. Daniel’s research on the art of the pitch compiles ideas from management, psychology, politics, business, and even Hollywood to synthesize what we find compelling, trustworthy, and memorable in a pitch.

For people working on issues of social impact, Daniel offers three key formats for effective pitches:

  • The question pitch
  • The subject-line pitch
  • The Pixar pitch

These pitch formats will give you a concrete framework for how to draft powerful pitches that help you create impact, and how to practice your pitching skills on a small scale, every day.

The Question Pitch

One of the simplest, yet most effective pitches is a pitch that comes in the form of a question. Daniel’s classic example of this pitch is Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

A question pitch demands a response, which forces the listener to think harder than if they were confronted with a statement, and it forces the listener to come up with their own reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with your proposal. When used in person, a question pitch also prompts interaction, which opens the door to developing a relationship with the person you’re speaking to. In that situation, the listener is no longer passive—they are included in the collaborative process of considering a choice, as opposed to being told what to do.

Daniel highlights research that suggests questions are most powerful when the underlying arguments behind a question are strong. Questions are potent when you’re confident in the alignment of the response.

...three factors make email subject lines effective: utility, mystery, and specificity

When using question pitches in the social sector, think about your customers’ key pain points. Could you phrase a question that allows them to independently confirm and speak to that pain point in their own life, such as “Do you feel safe in your home?” If you are offering an alternative to an existing choice, like a more efficient or solar-powered appliance, could you phrase a question that emphasizes the potential created by your product or service, such as “What else could you spend your fuel budget on?”

The Subject-Line Pitch

In 2015, research estimated that the average person sent and received 122 work emails per day—and that number was only expected to increase (Radicati Group). It’s a safe bet that you write more work emails in one day than the number of elevator pitches you present in a month. Whenever you write an email, you’re asking—pitching—someone to give you their attention, and you have an opportunity to create engagement.

Daniel’s research has found that three factors make email subject lines effective: utility, mystery, and specificity.

Utility refers to whether or not the contents of the email will be practically and/or immediately useful to the recipient.

Mystery refers to whether the subject line is intriguing enough to be appealing without clear utility to the reader.

Specificity refers to the concreteness and detail of what you’re describing, such as specifying a number of tips or steps, or articulating a particular time frame in which someone might take action.

Note that a subject line should be either useful or mysterious—trying to do both is rarely effective. Specificity can make either strategy more effective.

Here are two examples from the social sector:

Steve MacLaughlin, author of Data Driven Nonprofits, writes annual roundups of his favorite fundraising subject lines, such as Oxfam America’s “No, you can’t have my blender” (playing on the power of curiosity), and Environmental Defense’s “mini serialization” with a set of emails, noted numerically as [1 of 5], that create anticipation.

Nonprofit Pro quantitatively evaluated the effectiveness of varying email subject lines, and found that Daniel’s recommendations do indeed hold up; they demonstrated the power of curiosity when “‘It's a trashy party, and you're invited!’ (35 percent) outperformed ‘Join us at the Red Clay Valley Clean Up!’ (28 percent),” and the power of specificity and personalization when "’Uh-oh, your membership is expiring!’ (35 percent) outperformed "[Organization Name] Membership Renewal" (29 percent).”

In order to practice formulating great subject-line pitches, Daniel recommends going through your Sent messages box, evaluating which subject lines appeal to utility, curiosity, and specificity, and rewriting those that do not. Every email you write is an opportunity to hone your skills in communication and thoughtfulness.

The Pixar Pitch

The Pixar pitch is a structure created by Pixar Animation Studios that harnesses the narrative DNA of storytelling to craft compelling micro-narratives.

...begin by telling a story about one past customer for whom you created significant impact.

A Pixar pitch is a sequence of six sentences that follow this format: Once upon a time ___________. Every day, ___________. One day, ___________. Because of that, ___________.  Because of that, ___________.  Until finally, ___________.

Pixar pitches are compelling because they take advantage of our natural love of stories and the way we identify with narratives and characters, and because they help to present cause and effect. This is particularly effective when you’re asking someone to take action, like volunteering or donating, because you can clearly illustrate how a contributor’s action will allow you as an organization to create a desirable outcome. For instance:

Once upon a time, a mother of three named Faith lived in an urban community in Kenya. Every day, she spent a big portion of her income on wood and charcoal to fuel her cookstove so that she could feed her family. One day, Faith spoke with her neighbor about an investment shed made in a more efficient cookstove—and she convinced Faith to purchase one of her own. Because of that, Faith saved a lot of money that shed previously spent on fuel. Because of that, Faith was able to afford to send her youngest child to school—and she began to speak to other mothers about how the new cookstove had helped her to fund her childrens education. Until finally, Faith helped many of the mothers in her community save up to invest in stoves that helped them put more of their income towards taking care of their families.

It is important to note that you can use a Pixar pitch to tell a story about a broad situation or phenomenon (like Ebola or a tsunami), or you can use it to tell a story about an individual or family who is experiencing an issue that you seek to address. Consider whether you need to contextualize your organization, product, or service in a broader circumstance, or whether you seek to elicit empathy from your audience by telling a story that they can identify with personally or emotionally. For instance:

Once upon a time, a devastating earthquake hit the nation of Haiti. Every day, families struggled to stay safe without adequate shelter and resources—they lived in crisis mode. One day, an organization began to speak with those families, and to build houses that were safe and appropriate for their circumstances and needs. Because of that, those families were able to stay safe, to rely on homes and land that belonged to them, and to put their resources towards food, energy, healthcare, education, and other needs. Because of that, those families were able to stop living in crisis mode, and start to work towards creating futures for themselves. Until finally, those families were able to start creating businesses in their homes, to support their childrens educations, and to build their communities—to move towards thriving.

When you make fundraising pitches or ask for donations, you could begin by telling a story about one past customer for whom you created significant impact, or the story of a community or situation that you seek to or have already been able to impact.


You are pitching every day, in moments that demand merely a few seconds to take bold actions. Consider where in your daily work schedule you could practice each of these types of pitches, whether in-person or in an email. Practicing pitching in small-scale, low-stakes situations like email helps you get in the habit of considering what is important to your audience, and shaping your words to command their attention and action. Pitching practice may feel awkward at first (perhaps especially if you focus on writing mysterious email subject lines), but practice creates habits, and those habits are another tool that can help you create the impact you care about. 

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