The Career Coach
Think you should never stoop to self-promotion? Think again, says author Ronna Lichtenberg, who sees pitching yourself as the key to success
(MONEY Magazine) – Forget learning seven new habits, adopting five rules or following 12 steps. In her new book, Pitch Like a Girl: How a Woman Can Be Herself and Still Succeed, author Ronna Lichtenberg explains how to reach your career goals by selling yourself at work without selling out. While the book is aimed at women, the advice applies to both sexes, says Lichtenberg, former head of marketing for Prudential Securities and now president of Clear Peak Communications, a management consulting firm. Whether you're seeking to land a new job, a raise, a big account or are just eager for your ideas to be heard, Lichtenberg thinks it's all about pitching.
Q. The key message in your book is that you have to learn how to pitch, or how to promote yourself at work, to be successful. Why is that so important?
A. You can't get anything done without the support of other people. And that's all pitching really is: using your influence, skills and powers of persuasion to gain support for your goals. People don't stay in the same company for 30 years anymore, so there are always new people to prove yourself to. You can't rest on your laurels.
Q. Why do people have so much trouble promoting themselves?
A. Rejection is painful. No one likes to ask for something and be told no. So we stop ourselves from even asking. And the whole idea that you have to sell yourself to get ahead seems unfair. We think if we work hard and are good at what we do, that should be enough to get ahead. A lot of people also feel that anything related to self-promotion is bad. But there is a middle ground between hiding under your desk and turning into some version of Donald Trump, putting your name in gigantic letters on every building you own.
Q. It seems like both men and women have trouble with the concept of pitching. Why aim your book just at women?
A. There are certainly people of both sexes who have difficulty pitching. But it's often a greater challenge for women, in large part because women are still typically raised to be modest and nurturing and to put the needs of other people before their own. But even though the book is directed at women, the lessons certainly apply to men too.
Q. Okay, so what is the key to effective pitching at work?
A. A great pitch, at its core, shouldn't be about you, it should be about what you can do to help the people you're pitching to, because that's what they really care about. So you frame the pitch in terms of their needs, not yours. The classic mistake people make is talking about why they deserve something—to land a certain account or get a raise or a great assignment, whatever—instead of talking about what they can do to make the prospect's job easier.
Q. That's the windup. What about the delivery? What do you need to do to get the pitch across successfully?
A. The key there is to figure out the way your prospects like to conduct business and to adapt your presentation to their style. Your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for them to hear your message. The more work someone has to do to understand why what you're offering is valuable to them, the less likely it is you'll be successful.
Q. How do you adapt your style to theirs if you've never worked with them before?
A. Pay attention to the initial cues you get. If you get an e-mail with no greeting or punctuation, you're dealing with someone who wants to get straight to work. You don't reply with a note that includes six paragraphs about your vacation or inquiries about their wives and kids. People who have a pad and pencil in hand and look at their watch when you arrive at a meeting want to get right down to business. On the other hand, if they greet you by making a personal comment or sharing a personal story, their style is more relationship-oriented. They want to establish a connection with you before getting down to business, so you need to respond in kind. This may seem like common sense, but the fact is most people don't do it.
Q. Why not?
A. People are resistant to the idea that they have to adapt their style to someone else's. But I'm not talking about fundamentally changing who you are. The shift I'm talking about is superficial, more like learning to respect local customs when you're in a foreign country.
Q. In your book you refer to the basic style differences you describe as pink and blue. Isn't that just code for the differences between men and women?
A. Not quite. More often than not, a woman will have a pink style and a man will have a blue style, but not always. Some of those style differences are rooted in biology—quite literally, the different ways that men's and women's brains are wired lead to differences in the way they operate at work. For instance, research on gender differences in the brain shows that women process information on both sides of the brain, which makes it easier for them to assess emotion and to multitask. Men's brains are likely to function in one hemisphere, so they're better able to focus deeply on one task. One way is not better than the other, but they do have implications for how you should frame a pitch to get your message across effectively.
Q. Can you give some specific examples of how your delivery should change, depending on the style of the prospect?
A. Sure. If you're doing a formal presentation or you're in a traditional corporate setting, the predominant style is likely to be blue, so you should get right down to business. No small talk, no personal anecdotes. In the presentation itself, you should get to the point quickly and focus on a single topic at a time. Use data more than words to support your case, and stay away from personal stories to illustrate your points.
Q. What if the prospect is pink?
A. You're going to want to open with a comment that isn't directly related to business; in this case, a little small talk first is good. You want to establish a personal connection. In the actual presentation, use stories about people to make points. Give pinks time to talk—getting to the point quickly isn't an issue. And it's a good idea to give nonverbal "affirmations"—lots of nodding and uh-huhs—so it's clear that you understand what she is saying.
Q. One of the most important pitches we make at work is asking for more money. How can we do that more effectively?
A. You've got to do the right kind of homework. When you're asking for a raise, for instance, you not only have to find out what people are getting paid in your industry and your company, you also have to assess market conditions and how your company is doing, so you name a price they can really afford to pay. Again, it's about thinking about your pitch from the recipient's point of view. And you've got to pick the right moment: The best time to ask for money is just after you delivered some project or results successfully.
Q. What's the biggest mistake people make when they're pitching?
A. Not doing it consciously, with intent. Because all of us pitch every day for something. We pitch at work to get a good assignment, or to get subordinates to do a particular job, or to our bosses and clients to get noticed. We pitch in our personal lives to get our husbands and wives and kids and mothers to do what we want them to do too. We just don't label it as pitching. But the more conscious we can make the act, the better our chances of reaching the goal.