It’s that time of year again; the time when high school seniors across the country wait by the mailbox for letters from colleges. Did their first choice accept them? Or will they be spending the next four years at the “I don’t really want to go there, but I know I can get in” college? It’s an annual, nerve-wracking process and also a rite of passage. For many of these young adults, it is their first serious lesson that competition often resolves itself in only one of two ways: acceptance or rejection.
Recently USA Today reported on the incredible accomplishment of New York high school student Kwasi Enin, who was accepted into all eight of the eight Ivy League colleges. His extraordinary success got me thinking about the similarities between “pitching” oneself to a choice college and being part of an agency’s new business pitch team. Inspired by Enin’s amazing success, and as the mom of a 17-year-old about to embark on it himself, here are a few new business tips I learned from the college application process.
1) Your Score Matters. Whatever your feelings about the SATs or ACTs, colleges use these scores to identify their “first choice” students. Enin scored an incredible 2250 out of 2400 on the SATs, putting him in the 98th percentile across the country. At my agency, we flipped this process and developed an SAT-like score card of our own to evaluate our “first choice” new business prospects. We created questions in five key categories to evaluate whether the prospect is good for us, good for our business and whether we have a good shot at winning.
For example, “Is this a category close to our stable of industry experience?” We also probe topics like trust, because the client/agency relationship works best as a two-way street. “Are we confident in the client’s ability to define and measure a successful program?” and “If we win this business, will we have the time and resources to effectively service it?” We also evaluate the financial opportunity. “Do we believe the budget negotiating process will be fair and equitable?” When all questions are asked and tallied, a high score means go for it, a low score means it’s better to walk away, and an even lower score signals run, don’t walk, away. By ranking all new business opportunities through this system, we have decreased our number of long-shot pitches and increased our percentage of wins.
2) Selling A Dream. Back to the incredible Enin. What also attracted all eight Ivy Leagues is that he excelled in extracurricular activities, demonstrated leadership experience and had a big dream. This young man not only plays three instruments, but also throws shot put and discus and stars in the school plays. So beyond great credentials, what else can we offer a new business prospect?
Steve Jobs was a master at selling beyond the credentials; he sold dreams, not products. When Jobs introduced the iPod back in 2001 he said, “In our own small way we’re going to make the world a better place.” Where most people saw the iPod as a music player, Jobs saw it as a tool to enrich people’s lives. When we have been able to engage a new business prospect in dreaming for a better, bigger, brighter future, we almost always win. Beyond “I have the experience in your category,” is “I have a passion for solutions here.”
A 2003 study conducted by the department of neuroradiology at the University of Tübingen in Germany reinforced the idea that smiles are contagious. I would argue that the same can be said for passion; it is a powerful tool in a new business pitch.
3) Telling A Story. Most students dread writing “the application essay” as much as taking the SATs. Essays will be better by following a few simple steps: tell it from your heart, have someone else proofread it (very few of us are typo-free) and get a few friends to comment on how you come across. Have you told your own personal story? Was it engaging? Admissions officers have a lot of essays to read and they don’t have time to figure out what a student is trying to say.
It’s no surprise that Enin’s essay has been leaked to the NY Post. In it he writes about his love of music: “Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity. I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music.” His story is compelling, but it is also real.
In a new business pitch, an engaging story is crucial. Knowing our presentation inside and out is just the first step. If our presentation is an assortment of slides touting our strategies, initiatives and ROI, we are more likely to alienate than to inspire. The goal is to tell a story and share a dream.
So what is Ivy Leaguer Enin’s advice for future college applicants? “Follow your passions in high school and not just follow suit for what you think can get you into these schools.” I am going to keep that in mind on my next new business pitch. What works for you and your team? Please share any ideas on fresh new approaches to pitching new business. And if you have any good tips on the best SAT essays ever, share them as well.