Making your pitch: the counter-intuitive evidence behind what works

Anthony Haynes writes: Outside my work for FJ Wilson Talent Services (FJWTS), I occasionally work with researchers from Cambridge Judge Business School. Some of the research that I encounter there has direct application to the world of work.

portraitAn example is the research of Dr Melanie Milovac, now Assistant Professor at INSEAD. Melanie’s research involves rigorous controlled experiments in psychology.

A particular focus of her studies is the question of what makes a good pitch — something many of our candidates and clients have a vested interest in!

Melanie has focused particularly on the pitches made by entrepreneurs in search of funding — though we suggest that her findings may have relevance to many other forms of pitches.

She notes that people making pitches are typically advised to be strike a positive tone throughout, based on the belief that “creative ideas that are pitched in a positive affective tone will lead to favorable evaluations and high idea support compared to those pitched with a negative affective tone”.

But Melanie found a lack of evidence to support this view — so she designed various experiments of her own to test the hypothesis.

Her results are consistently counter-intuitive. She found that people who introduce into their pitch a negative tone are more likely to win support from people judging the pitch.

We may speculate over why this may be the case. Perhaps one explanation is that listeners associate a degree of negativity with risk awareness.  For example: “Yes, we’ve got a great product, we’re ahead of the game, and the market potential is huge — but first there are some obstacles we will need to overcome“: the account of the obstacles might then suggest to those assessing the pitch that the pitcher has thought carefully about the project, has a realistic view of the world, and is aware that life isn’t plain sailing.

Whatever the precise explanation, the main finding is clear: “Overall, entrepreneurs that signal competency, dedication, and scrutinized thinking by displaying negative affect are more likely to turn their creative idea into a major innovation“.

I’ve explored this idea with people working in a variety of contexts, including people pitching for resources within a corporation and those applying for external funding. I haven’t conducted any of the kind of rigorous research that Melanie Milovac has done, but I can report my impressionistic findings:

  1. people always find the idea — inclusion of negative can improve the efficacy of the pitch — initially counter-intuitive
  2. but it usually also intrigues them
  3. and when I urge them to try including such material, they typically generate interesting content
  4. and, having done so, they tend to find they like it — and so retain it in their pitches.

A journal paper by Melanie Milovac is forthcoming: in the meantime, she has made a conference paper available online here: .


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