PCMA Convening Leaders Preview: Oren Klaff

The master pitchman and Masters Series speaker at Convening Leaders on the power of the human attention span, the difference between pitching and selling- and why meetings are a 'horrible' environment for both.

Oren Klaff takes care to clarify that he isn’t an author and speaker. He’s an investment banker who has just written a book called Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal, and sometimes he’s asked to speak about that at a meeting or conference, including PCMA 2013 Convening Leaders, where he’ll be delivering a Masters Series program. At the Los Angeles-based company that he founded, Intersection Capital, he works with companies with anywhere from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, helping them “either raise additional money for growth,” Klaff told Convene, “or sell off some of their equity.”

“I get new experiences every day that continue to power the core of the content [of my presentations],” he said. “You get these guys who say, ‘Hey, I used to be the sales trainer at IBM,’ or ‘I used to sell cars.’ Right? [They say,] ‘I wrote a book and now I speak full time on it. My next book [is] How to Sell Flowers the Car-Selling Way. [Or] How to Sell Real Estate the Car-Selling Way.'”

Not so for Klaff, who says that staying on the front line is critical. It’s what led him to write the book in the first place. “[I] have many current experiences that are relevant to today’s market,” he said. “Then I put that in the framework [of Pitch Anything]. People react to it because it is contemporary and it is relevant. It is yesterday, not 10 years ago.”

How did you come to specialize in pitch mastery?

In the summer of 2005, I got a call from a friend. He said, “Hey, my business is screaming. We have bought and sold companies. I want you to come in and run the fundraising side, the capital-raising side.” I agreed to do that.

What I would do is, I would raise money during the day, and then I would spend all night researching a range of topics like psychology, hypnosis, voice modulation, selling, marketing, pitching, cognitive psychology, biology of the human experience, attention, and attention disorders, anything that would give me one more atom of control over this process. When I got far enough into this, I started getting some inkling that there are biological connections to the way people respond in a pitch. One of the first insights that I had from talking to some cognitive guys at UCLA is that the human attention span is at maximum 20 minutes. In many cases, it is two minutes. That is a finite thing. Beyond that point, people not only do not learn more, if you continue to flood them with information they start forgetting the stuff you already told them.

Then I hired a cognitive psychologist out of UCLA with a Harvard background. I did not say, “Hey, teach me what you know.” I said, “Let me describe to you the experiences I am having. Some days I win and some days I lose. It seems to be the same pitch I am giving, the same psychographic in the audience. What is the difference?” Over dozens and dozens of hours of reflecting, he came to the conclusion that I was unaware of just about everything. He said, “Look, I think what is happening here is when you guys are pitching, you are not recognizing these limits of human attention.”

Is pitching something that is only relevant when it comes to a sales deal? Or is it something that that we all do, no matter what our job is?

We all do it, no matter what our jobs are. I differentiate pitching and selling like this: When you sell, the barriers of selling are much lower. You have a customer. You call the customer. He takes your call: “Hey, do you need another ream of paper?” “No, we are pretty good this month.” “We got a sale on the 20-pound. I’ll tell you what, if you get two reams, I’ll drop it 10 percent and then I’ll throw in a little bit of pink hue, which is a good separator, and we’ll throw in transportation.” “Okay, send it by. Call me next month when you have the blue that we love in.” That is selling.

The kind of environment that I am in, you walk into a room. There are five guys staring back at you. They are looking at their watches and they go, “I forgot. We didn’t have a chance to look over the paperwork. Can you just start at the beginning?” You start with no power, no status, no control, and you have about 10 minutes to get people really focused and wanting what you have.

What’s the most common mistake that people make when they’re pitching?

The common mistake is pitching for too low of a status. If you have low status, people will not listen to you, and if they do listen to you, they will not take you seriously. Most people walk into a room. There is hello, maybe some Tony Robbins-style rapport: “Oh, your kid went to school at Florida State? My cousin went to Florida State. He was on the baseball team.” “Oh, we should get those guys together!” “Where do you golf?”

That is all f—ing bulls–t. It does nothing to advance your status. It is completely sideways. Nobody is going to listen to your pitch and go, “Man, that was so interesting. I just do not think those numbers work for us. Oh, wait. His cousin went to Florida State. Let’s f—ing do this deal.” The issue is not to spend your time at the beginning of the meeting trying to find some points of geography or some points of rapport or common sports. The point is to raise your status.

You have to reach a point where you put pressure on the other parties. When we finish our 20-minute pitch, we put pressure on the other parties and say, “You can see what we have. You can do what we have. We are interviewing investors. We are going to raise the money for this deal.”

Are meetings and conventions generally a good environment for pitching?

They are horrible. You are sitting there at a convention. The guy you really want to talk to, you see  him and five minutes with him means the world. You walk up: “Hey, I’m Oren. John, I have wanted to talk to you. It’s great that you’re here at the convention. I saw you last year on stage. I really want to get a couple of minutes and tell you about our project, to see if we can get your endorsement.” “Oh yes, it sounds interesting.” You talk with him for 30 seconds. A guy walks up: “John, hey! A round of golf this afternoon! Are you in?” And he hijacks you. We all experience this. It is very hard to pitch somebody on a convention-room floor.

Is there something that meeting planners can do to create an environment that’s more conducive to pitching?

Yes, for sure. The best customers at a convention, the ones that pay the most and want to be there the most, are the most underserved. They are the weakest and the lowest-status deals. I think that is a real social problem at these conventions. The guys who can get the most out of the convention are the least likely to be able to get anything out of it.

I am the founder and CEO of an investment bank. If I want to call up the CEO of XYZ Corporation, I can make that happen in two hops. If I am a paper salesman there, and this might not be a perfect example, and I am at a convention meeting the CEO of XYZ Corporation and having five minutes with him, it is hugely more valuable for that guy than it is for me. The real issue is how you make these meetings valuable for the people who are your best customers. Imagine that paper salesman gets a huge connection or at least gets some face time. He is going to leave and go, “Yes, that convention was awesome.”

What do you look to get out of a meeting when you’re just participating as an attendee?

It’s a difficult answer. I built all of this to avoid having to do that. It is, for me, the most painful situation. I need a blueprint. I need these waypoints to follow. That is why I developed them.

I am at hundreds of conferences a year. How many times are you going to sit at a table with a bunch of people and just serendipitously you are going to find the perfect trade partner on a really big deal sitting there? To the degree that it does happen, it is so unpredictable. I cannot handle personally the unpredictable nature of those kinds of relationships.

PCMA 2013 Convening Leaders

Oren Klaff will deliver a Masters Series presentation on “How to Pitch Anything, and Win” at PCMA 2013 Convening Leaders, which will be held in Orlando on Jan. 13-16.

More Resources

To learn more about Oren Klaff and Pitch Anything, visit pitchanything.com

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.