Ask the 'Skeptic's Question' to Check & Fix Your Opening Pitch
Find a better answer to the question & your results could improve overnight
In last week’s newsletter, I laid out a basic formula for scripts that sell that begins with dramatizing “a painful problem.” The idea is to build quick rapport with prospects by resonating with their daily concerns. As many of the Masters of Marketing have explained, people don’t really buy things. They buy solutions to their problems.
Crafting a great problem opening can be challenging, though. Those Masters set a high bar! Recall, for example, that Alvin Eicoff said you want potential customers to feel such a “strong personal identification with the problem presented” they’re left “reflexively nodding” their heads in agreement. One of the first producers I worked with put it a simpler way. He said you want prospects to think, “Hey, that’s me!”
It sounds good, but it isn’t quite so easy to put ourselves in the shoes of our desired customers. Do we really understand their problems? We’re typically affluent (by national standards), live in or near big cities, travel often and so on. Our daily lives are quite different than their daily lives. If you’ve been in business as long as I have, I’m sure you’ve witnessed the absurdity of a very rich CEO telling a room what he “knows” about the average Middle American. But let’s not pretend we don’t face similar limitations.
There’s also a cognitive bias known as motivated reasoning at play here. When we have an emotional attachment to a project, we can easily delude ourselves into believing we’re hitting Eicoff’s bar when we’re far from it. You can tell this has happened when you come across what I call a ‘contrived problem’ opening. In meetings, we used to crack jokes about them all the time. A competitor’s DRTV ad would begin. The announcer would say something like, “Are you tired of [contrived problem]?” Someone would yell “No!” — and the whole room would burst out laughing.
Of course, motivated reasoning and contrived problems are much easier (and much funnier) to spot when it isn’t your investment of time and money up on the screen. But short of bugging competitors’ conference rooms or inviting them to openly mock us, how can we catch these errors in advance? My advice is to take an outside perspective by asking the ‘skeptic’s question’ — Is that a real problem?
You’d be surprised how effective this question can be. You just have to ask it often, ask it seriously and, preferably, ask it out loud. I also advise asking it early, long before sunk costs can fuel cognitive biases. At Paragon, we made this question part of our product-screening process. As a result, the phrase “I don’t think this solves a real problem” has become a common objection that often saves us from bad decisions. The best part: It happens at a time when discovering this particular weakness is 100% cost-free.
Now imagine the opposite end of your approval process. Your ad is in rollout. Is it too late for the ‘skeptic’s question’ to be of any use? Not necessarily. An ad in rollout is past the phase where motivated reasoning is much of a factor. Budgets have been committed, so there is mostly upside in discovering ways to make your ad spend more efficient. This suggests some campaigns could see an overnight improvement in results if they replaced a contrived problem with a real one.
To see how this analysis might work in practice, let’s take a look at the openings of four rollout commercials from the most recent DRMetrix report. I’ll quote the problem opening, give my answer to the ‘skeptic’s question,’ and then see if I can think of any better ideas.