Listening to good entrepreneurs make their pitch is great fun. How well, or poorly, they align their passion and persuasiveness to the product details reveals a lot. Are they pushing an idea or telling a story? Is it all about their own charisma or is the innovative idea the real hero? Are we having a conversation or am I being sold? How will they get me to "get it"?
All these entrepreneurial issues resurfaced during the recentFortune technology conference in Aspen. There was no shortage of either articulate entrepreneurs or provocative ideas. So as Osman Rashid, who co-founded Chegg.com, described his new digital textbook startup Kno during a coffee break, I peppered him with questions. His idea was undeniably clever, but aspects of his business model weren't clear to me. He had his elevator pitch answers down pat, but I wanted to learn more.
Unprompted by me, Osman whipped out his smartphone and handed it over. I was watching a decent video clip illustrating his product's features and functionality. I could tap to hear testimonials. I could tap to play with a simulation of the software. In a matter of moments, the device had transformed Osman from an entrepreneur I was having a conversation with to a guide and narrator of an interactive experience. My focus and attention alternated between what he said and what appeared onscreen. Sometimes he'd take, touch, and hand back the device; other times, I'd point to something onscreen and ask another question.
The object — and our interaction with it — became an intimate part of our conversation. We couldn't have discussed either Kno or his answers to my questions the same way without it. An idle part of me wondered how cool it would be if our conversation (and my questions) could be recorded and time-stamped along with what was appearing onscreen. Osman refused to allow his smartphone to decay into a sales tool or product pitch — although those elements were baked into the material — and instead used the device as a medium to both reinforce his conversation points and invite new questions and comments from me.
I can say without hesitation that this felt technically and interpersonally different from "laptop-on-the-table" presentations I'd experienced 1,000 times. We were standing up, drinking coffee, chatting, and taking turns holding, viewing, and manipulating this device. The kinesthetics, eye contact, questions, and interruptions revolved as much around the device as us. We would have been worse off without it.
Not ten days later, I was at a Venture Cafe gathering by my MIT office. It's a place where entrepreneurs and VCs alike come to socialize and impress each other. I struck up a casual conversation with an aspiring biotech entrepreneur. Not two minutes into our talk, he took out his iPhone to animate a technical point about his company's planned product. He handed it over to me. I thought it fascinating and asked if he might forward that animation to my email. He could and did.
Again, the nature of the questions and our conversation made his iPhone a focal point of our interaction. I wouldn't have learned nearly as much about his company, or him, if we had just been talking. The "hand-it-over" nature of the iPhone made it feel more like a value-added conversation rather than a scaled-down presentation.
I looked around. No one else was interacting this way.
Elevator pitches are important. The ability to boil down the essence of your innovation into a tasty forty-second sound-bite remains essential. Only now, the pervasiveness, ubiquity, and visuality of mobile devices quantitatively and qualitatively changes the ecology of interpersonal interaction. It's no longer about what you say and how you say it; it's increasingly about what you hand over.
What do you hand over that transforms the conversation? What do you hand over that visually and interactively adds value to your spoken words? What do you hand over that complements and supplements your pitch? What do you hand over that invites and inspires the curiosity you want? What do you hand over that makes you more persuasive? These are the questions that will increasingly shape tomorrow's rhetoric of innovation. The design challenge here is fantastic: how do we use mobile devices not to better connect us to digital networks but to better connect us with customers, clients, and prospects.
Of course, the technical beauty of these media is that — unlike the words one speaks — the imagery one sees onscreen can be emailed, Facebooked, forwarded, or LinkedIn as desired. "Hand-it-over" innovation pitches can be seamlessly slipped wherever your prospects desire. Indeed, an excellent measure of "hand-it-over" effectiveness is whether the person who you "hand-it-over" to actually asks you to send what they've been seeing and interacting with.
My professional bet is that "hand-it-over" innovation pitches will double smartphone and mobile device sales worldwide. Entrepreneurs, salespeople and innovators alike will socialize with at least two devices in the backpacks and breast pockets — one for their personal/professional use and the other to "hand over" for interpersonal play.
"Hand-it-over" conversations seem destined to create new genres of salesmanship and interaction. It will become an innovation best practice. In fact, people will be surprised, and disappointed, if you don't have anything to hand over.